Supporting Article

Educational Inequality for Migrant Children Perpetuates Poverty

One City, Two Systems

Educational policy-making for migrant children has been inconsistent in many cities. Since the ’90s, the official guideline from the central government has been that “urban schools in the host city should take the primary responsibility of receiving migrant children, and urban migrant schools can function as an assisting role.” However, in reality, the promise of “free compulsory education” has not been kept.

Most migrating families are uncertain about which schools their children can attend in the cities. Many had rosy expectations about their children’s chances of getting into formal schools before bringing them to the cities. However, their social networks and information channels are so limited that it is impossible for them to do any research or locate schools. Mr. Sun’s entire family, including his three children and older parents, all moved to Shanghai after he settled down and took a job as a street vender. He recalled the difficulties of finding a school for his three children.

Before I came, I always assumed that Shanghai’s education is certainly better than our village’s. So I went straight to some public schools to inquire about admission. The teachers said that they’ve got too many students, no room for more. Actually these are just excuses. They just don’t want our children. Then I found out that (the situation here) is not like in our hometown, where schools always accept your children. But where can my children go? They cannot be kept out of school! Later I learned that there are some special schools for migrants’ children. So I sent them there, but only a year later the school was banned and demolished, which now I think is a good thing for the government to do. Those schools are simply making money not teaching . I don’t think any student coming out of them will ever make it to college.

In the early ’90s, informal migrant schools emerged in many cities as self-organized social support groups among migrants. Later on, with family migration increasing in scale, most public schools continued to keep migrant children out of their facilities. Gradually, the “hut schools” grew in size and in number, then into a “market.” Around the late ’90s, many schools were founded as for-profit private businesses. Most founders proclaimed good will for providing “education for migrant children,” but under pressure for survival, very few schools offered quality education. When interviewed, many founders admitted that they have to run the schools at the lowest cost to make a profit. This leads to major problems similar to those that have plagued most migrant schools up to today. These include things such as under-qualified teachers and a high turnover rate, poor teaching facilities, willful management, instability of students and so on.

Mrs. Xia, an experienced middle-aged teacher at a Beijing migrant school, revealed that the “turnover rate among lower-grade students (first to fourth grades) is about twenty percent, which is not considered high here.” Mr. Liu (age 23) shared his observations regarding teachers’ tendencies to leave within a short period of time (usually one semester or a year). Having taught at a migrant school in Beijing for a year, he describes how teachers’ mobility affects the students there:

Most teachers leave because of dissatisfaction about wages. They work for several years, but the wage stays the same. They talk to the principal to ask for a higher wage, but he will not agree, so many teachers get upset. Some would rather find other kinds of jobs. This surely affects the students. Usually it takes one to two months for a class to get to know a new teacher and adapt to his ways of teaching. But once they’ve adapted, this teacher decides to leave and another new teacher takes over; it’s like forcing the children to accept another person, his personality, his ways. And this teacher could possibly be someone who has never taught beforeand he or she could be totally incompetent in teaching . Even worse, the previously accumulated contacts with parents are lost. So parents also complain about the frequent change of teachers.

For a long time, the government has deferred providing quality education as a public good for migrant families; neither has it played an active role in granting private education providers legitimacy. Currently, the majority of migrant schools still operate without official licenses. Only a few schools with good connections can obtain official permits.[1] To these schools, the education bureau often sends officials only to “inspect” or “supervise.” No direct investment or substantive assistance takes place. The unlicensed schools often face haphazard decisions of banning and demolition.

For the very small proportion of migrant children who can successfully transfer into public schools, the path is not easy either. Discrimination is sometimes blatant. Some public schools enforce very strict class segregation for migrant children. Mr. Li tells such a story. Before coming to Shanghai, he was a rural teacher, but back then he thought the city might offer better chances for him and his son. After several transfers, his son went into a public primary school, then into a public secondary school. However, he now says regretfully:

I should have sent him back for secondary education right after he graduated from primary school here. I never expected that teachers at this school would treat migrants’ children so differently.

This public school sets up a separate class for all migrants’ children and allows teachers to freely arrange their courses without any curriculum design. They do so because they think sooner or later these students will have to return to rural areas, and their grades are not included in the evaluation system. In some places, it is even strictly prohibited that a student from this class talk to other city students.

“Ceiling Effect”: Why Can’t We Take Exams Here?

There is a “ceiling effect” for rural migrants who wish to “upgrade” their children’s social status through education. Their rural hukou status does not ensure their rights to take the exams (for high school and college) at their place of residence. Mr. Wang, the principal of a 500-student migrant school in Shanghai, says:

These children can attend Shanghai’s junior middle school (chuzhong), but not high school. If they stay, they can only go into the few private vocational schools. We have a lot of outstanding students here; some are just as excellent as local Shanghai students, but they are treated unequally. Here, sixty percent of those who finish primary school have to leave for their rural hometowns if they wish to continue studying. Back home they can be treated equally, move on to high schools, then colleges perhaps. But in Shanghai, you can only go into some vocational schools.

There are only two ways to detour around the institutional barriers of exams. One is to get a special type of Residence Permit called the “Talent-Type” (Rencai Lei).[2] Another is by marrying someone with local hukou, but in order to have your child go to local high schools and attend the college entrance exam, you have to wait for several years for your hukou status to be changed. Of all the 100 migrant families I randomly sampled and interviewed, only two were able to achieve this. Mrs. Du was able to “purchase” a Shanghai Talent-Type Residence Permit in 2002. The price was 20,000 yuan (about one year’s income for an average migrant household) and six months of personal networking. She now proudly foresees a bright future for her family because the way to take the college entrance exam is paved for her daughter, a hard-working student.

Migrant Youth: Identity Crisis

There is a reverse-selection process going on in migrant schools, that is, only the students who stand out and are expected to have better chances of entering college transfer back to rural schools. Usually teachers will recommend to the parents of these well-performing students that they transfer them back as early as possible so that there can be more buffer time for them to adapt to different curriculum design before exams.

With many migrant families sending their children back and putting them under the custody of teachers while they are away, there are now more and more rural boarding schools (both primary and middle schools) in rural China to accommodate this need. Mr. Han is very worried about his daughter going back to their rural village for further schooling. His main concern is that, since the child was brought up in the city, she will have a lot to overcome on her own if she goes back to a completely different setting that is rural.

My friend’s son went back to a rural middle school and was teased as “Shanghainese,” while he was seen as “rural” before here in Shanghai. We live in Shanghai, but are not accepted by the city. When we go back, we are not accepted by rural folks there either.

Language or dialect differences also cause difficulty for children in adapting to the local culture. An identity crisis, no sense of belonging, is a common social-psychological phenomenon for migrant children. This lies at the root of many problems migrant youth face, either for those left-behind or for those who stay in the cities.

Peng, an experienced rural teacher who later taught at a migrant school in Beijing, comments: “The education some students obtained here is no better than that of their parents’ generation in rural areas. For some, it could be even worse.” This reminds me of another parent’s comment: “For some children, it’s almost like going through a second Cultural Revolution.”

Parents’ expectations decide their own aspirations for educational outcomes and career choices. When teaching at a Beijing migrant school, Mr. Zhu encountered an embarrassing and frustrating moment in class. After he scolded a student for not studying hard enough, this disrespectful student talked back to him: “You always ask us to study hard, but what’s the use of that? Only to become someone like you?” This experience made him reflect deeply on their aspirations.

Many students’ way of thinking has been influenced by their parents who do not value education and often tell that to their children. Lots of times, students ask, “What’s good about getting a college degree? We see so many college graduates now, but it’s obvious that they are starving! A college student only gets around 1000 yuan a month, but I could make several thousand without ever going to college.” They often see that those who are less-educated can become the bosses of small businesses, and they could hire many college graduates to work for them.

Low expectations for educational outcomes result directly from distortions in the segmented, urban labor market, the dominance of materialistic culture and popular consumerism. Faced with exclusive institutions, only a few rural migrants dare to imagine their second generation becoming equal citizens who can enjoy the same welfare and benefits as urban professionals. As today’s labor market is still segregated along hukou lines, these migrant youth have to repeat their parents’ trajectory by entering the informal sector of the labor force.

Second-generation migrants are faced with new challenges. Unlike their parents, they have grown up in the cities, so their reference group is their urban counterparts. Returning to their rural hometown after “retirement” appeals the least to them. However, like their parents, they are no better accepted by urban society when hukou-based discrimination still persists in various forms in the job market. If the government does not make institutional adjustments for the welfare of this group, their chances of upward mobility are blocked by a set of “interlocking effects” such as labor market segmentation, institutional exclusion in the urban school system and limited social network resources. Behind these are deeply rooted discrimination and structural exclusion along the hukou line.


  1. ^ Beijing Xingzhi School, one of the earliest founded migrant schools in the ’90s, got its permit only in 2003. Even this official school, with an official permit, experienced a wave of banning in 2006.
  2. ^ In Shanghai, rural migrants are no longer required to obtain a “temporary residence permit” (zanzhuzheng), but it is suggested that they have a “Residence Permit” (juzhuzheng). Legal texts say that migrants’ children can enter into urban public schools with this permit, but the reality is, they classify it into two categories, “Labor-Type” and “Talent-Type,” and the latter usually is issued to people with high qualifications who migrant from other cities; thus, its application has the college degree as the minimum requirement. “Labor-Type” category is specifically for rural migrants.
Share to Social Media
Mary Li Ma

Mary Li Ma

Mary Li Ma (MA Li) holds a PhD in sociology from Cornell University. Currently a research fellow at the Henry Institute of Christianity and Public Life at Calvin University, Dr. Ma and her husband LI Jin have coauthored articles, book chapters, and are the authors of Surviving the State, Remaking the Church: …View Full Bio