Every day after lunch, Madam Qu Yexiu used to potter around her house in north-west China doing housework and looking after her two-year-old grandson.
Now, every day after lunch, Madam Qu and her grandson visit the newly opened early childhood development centre in their village of Huangchuan in the mountains of Shaanxi province, where he can play with other toddlers.
“Things are better now that we have this village centre,”said Madam Qu, 56. She looks after her two grandchildren while their parents work and live in nearby Anhui province. Her other grandchild attends a pre-school.
Early childhood development centres like the one in Huangchuan may be the answer to one of China’s biggest challenges – reducing the number of children who drop out of school in rural areas. Children in rural areas, where around half of the population lives, have far lower cognitive and social skills compared with their urban counterparts, setting them on a path of dropping out of school before they can even say their own name.
Poor education was not such a problem for previous generations who spent their lives on the farm or in factories, but it could now have far-reaching consequences.
The government wants to push the country up the value chain, so the world’s second-largest economy needs a higher-skilled labour force if it wants to transition into a higher-value economy.
“This is the biggest problem that China faces that no one knows about. This is an invisible problem,” said Professor Scott Rozelle, co-director of the Rural Education Action Programme (Reap), a research and policy organisation based in Stanford University, which partners with Chinese universities. “China has the lowest levels of human capital (out of all the middle-income countries in the world today). China is lower than South Africa, lower than Turkey. We think that’s related to (the fact that) when they were babies, they didn’t develop well,” Prof Rozelle said.
China’s National Health and Family Planning Commission is working with economists like Prof Rozelle to provide early childhood development opportunities to babies and toddlers in rural areas.
Seventy-six per cent of China’s labour force did not attend high school, based on figures from the country’s last census in 2010, according to an academic paper co-authored by the Asian Development Bank and published last year in the China Quarterly, an academic journal.
The gap between rural and urban China is also big. Only 8 per cent of rural Chinese in the labour force in 2010 had attended any high school, compared with 37 per cent of urban Chinese, according to the China Quarterly article. The disposable income of a person living in rural China was 6,562 yuan (S$1,357) in the first half of this year, compared with 18,322 yuan for someone in an urban area, according to the statistics bureau.
Data from China’s Ministry of Education shows 94.1 per cent of students graduated from middle school and 92.5 per cent of students graduated from high school in 2015. The ministry declined to comment immediately when asked about the differences between its statistics and those based on the 2010 census data.
One factor slowing down a toddler’s development is the absence of their parents, education experts say. Millions of rural Chinese parents migrate to cities to live full-time because they can earn much more there.
That is where early development centres could help. Under the programme, there are 50 pilot centres in rural areas where children from six months to three years old can experience books, play and interact with other children.
Reap thinks 300,000 centres are needed across China and the most appropriate entity to head this would be the government.
Mr Cai Jianhua, a government official at China’s National Health and Family Planning Commission, wants the government to allocate 0.1 per cent of its gross domestic product – 70 billion yuan – to roll out these centres.
He said the government has not made a funding commitment, but has stepped up investment in its youngest citizens in recent years with, among other things, free health checks and immunisation for babies.
“The reality is we need smart people if we’re going to be competitive in the 21st century,” said Mr Cai.
There are many reasons for low numbers of students attending high school in China, according to the same academic paper published in the China Quarterly.
These include restrictions on population flows because of the residency permit system, children who leave school early to work and support their families, and poor investment in rural healthcare, according to the paper.
Closing the education gap between urban and rural China will help close the inequality gap, say economists who study education.
If the gap is not reduced, it will be more difficult for President Xi Jinping to achieve his goal of eradicating poverty and turning China into a “moderately prosperous society” by 2020.