As one of the cooperation partners with the Stanford Rural Education Action Program (REAP,) the National Health and Family Planning Commission of China has provided substantial support for REAP’s research into the slow cognitive development of rural Chinese children, caused by poorly-educated and equipped parents and a lack of early childhood education.
In early July, NewsChina interviewed Cai Jianhua, the head of training center for the National Health and Family Planning Commission in his Beijing office. During the interview, Cai noted that most of the 50 million children in China live in rural areas and they will account for the majority of China’s future labor force. Even though China has undergone substantial urbanization, country folk still have more children at a younger age than city dwellers. “If the issue of rural children’s early childhood education isn’t solved, it will be a hurdle to the overall development of the country,” added Cai to the reporter.
NewsChina: Do you feel shocked by the recent research findings by REAP? What are the causes?
Cai Jianhua: The results were truly shocking. It was not only a reflection of rural infants and children’s poor cognitive development, but as shown through the Bayley Scales of Infant Development (BSID) test, these rural children had problems across the board, such as in sports, language and even social emotions.
There are various reasons behind this, of course, but generally speaking, infants born in urban areas enjoy a better environment and opportunities compared to those from rural areas.
In addition, quite a significant number of rural children are left behind by their parents who migrate from their home villages to work in the big cities. Due to a lack of toys and children’s books, their cognitive development is then impeded. Some children lack sufficient nutrition, especially during the complementary feeding period after weaning. This also results in a high anemia rate.
NC: How will demography affect China’s future?
CJH: Both the quality and quantity of the population are key elements. However, comparatively speaking, population quality matters more for the future. We should be aware of this considering the fact that even iPhone production lines have moved back to the US.
As China’s labor costs are increasing significantly, scientific innovation and poverty alleviation will require the talent and ability of Chinese people. Thus we have to enhance our population quality.
The common recognition internationally is that the improvement in population quality depends on the starting point of infants. A lot of research data also indicates that between one and three years old is a key period for fostering sound development. The infants of today will be a major part of the labor force in two decades, and so we need to make changes today.
NC: What’s the impact of rural children’s underdevelopment upon overall national strength?
CJH: Today in urban areas, most of the laborers on the production line are from the countryside and this phenomenon will remain constant for a considerable time. Therefore, improving the quality of rural children will have a significant impact on our country’s comprehensive national strength. Although we have focused our energy on poverty alleviation and reduction, the key issue is to help the rural population to enhance their skills.
NC: According to Luo Renfu, program manager of REAP, and an associate professor at the Modern Agriculture Institute of Peking University, the country’s financial investment in education amounted to 3,886 billion yuan (US$583 billion) in 2016, accounting for 4.2 percent of the country’s overall GDP. However, this amount does not include a single penny for infant nutrition and scientific nurturing. What’s your view on this?
CJH: In my opinion, this part should be included in the funding for government public affairs.
Over the past few years, free vaccinations and physical examinations for infants and children have been listed as part of the basic public welfare system. In some poor regions, governments have also started to conduct supplementary nutrition programs. However, the attention and investment in general in infant nutrition is far from enough.
In recent years, the National Health and Family Planning Commission of China and the China Development Research Foundation have both tried actively to promote an improvement of the situation.
NC: What amount of funding do you think is appropriate for early childhood development right now?
CJH: We have over 50 million infants aged between one and three years old. With the implementation of the recent policy allowing all couples to have two children, the number of infants will surely rise. Over two-thirds of these kids are from the countryside. Early childhood nutrition and education needs to be on the agenda. Like the free vaccination program, the government can provide opportunities rather than make it compulsory. By our calculations, if a single nurturing center costs about 60,000 yuan to set up (US$8,847), and we put one in every village, community, or apartment complex across the country, it will need a total of over 60 billion yuan (US$8.9 billion) in investment.
That’s just 0.1 percent of China’s 2016 GDP of 70 trillion yuan. That’s not a lot. If we can set these up and find the funding to run them and train personnel, we can really tackle rural infants’ cognitive underdevelopment.
NC: REAP has already started setting up intervention projects such as fostering centers, with positive effects so far. Can we take these practices nationwide?
CJH: We’ve already seen positive feedback from some interventions. If we don’t intervene in a timely manner, many rural infants will lose any opportunity for change. That means the government needs to step in as soon as possible. That’s helpful not just to individual children or families but the future of the whole country. Another problem is that children from poor urban families or migrant families in the cities often don’t have access to proper early childhood education. So we can supplement investment with basic public services. People need the right to participate in these programs.
NC: REAP spent a year compiling material for Chinese infants based on foreign examples. How do you evaluate these materials?
CJH: This is a major contribution REAP has made to China, and one based on studying the needs of Chinese kids extensively. Although there are some existing works and projects targeting infants, they aren’t the best choice for domestic targets.
NC: How professional is early childhood education in China?
CJH: According to the updated 2015 version of China’s Profession Categorization Book issued by the Ministry of Human Resources and Social Security, “guidance for early childhood development” is listed as a new profession.
To regulate this newly emerged profession, we have invited experts in this field to set up standards. The professionalization of this industry requires the setting up of entry barriers to secure the high quality of the provision of early childhood education services.
With 50 million children under three, China now needs a total of over 8 million professionals in this field. But there are bright career prospects, with more and more parents realizing the importance of early childhood education.