With the encouragement of my teacher and classmates, I learnt how to speak, how to express myself and how to communicate with others in class,” says 13-year-old Xing.
These are positive words, but they reveal little of the struggle it’s been to get to this point for Xing. He hasn’t seen his parents for two years because they’re away working in Zhejiang province while he stays with his grandparents in Guangnan County.
It’s a common, albeit lonely, scenario: more than 80% of students in secondary schools in this county board from Sunday evening to Friday afternoon during the semester. Many don’t even go home on weekends since both parents are migrant workers. China is home to 268 million rural migrant workers leaving behind more than 60 million children – or one in four.
More than 33 million of these children are in China’s rural boarding schools. On average, the girls and boys are between 6-10cm shorter and weigh 3-9kg lighter than children in the cities, a result of malnourishment and illness.
Home from home
Life is tough at these boarding schools. The dorms are rundown and the children sleep with up to 12 in a small room, often with only a dim light hanging from the ceiling, while a plastic pot filled with hot water warms hands and feet during cold winter months. For many of these children this is the norm – they’ve been doing it since primary school.
Teachers, too, have a lot to deal with, taking turns to look after the students and make sure they’re safe, fed, warm and relatively happy.
Ms Ren, 28, a young teacher from Ake Middle School in Bamei Township, is one of them. At Ms Ren’s school, about 70% of children are “left-behind”. Separation from their parents leaves many feeling timid and afraid, with little in the way of guidance or support from adults.
To tackle this, child rights organisation Plan International China runs a programme funded by Credit Suisse in this school, with the support of Plan International UK, along with 26 others in the county, supporting children with vocational, financial and life skills lessons, along with a range of participatory and interactive activities to get everyone more engaged. These include everything from group discussions, brainstorming, and presentations to roleplay, drama performances and debates.
The idea is to help prepare children for life after school and the world of work by developing a range of key skills like problem solving and decision making.
In one of the classes, Ms Ren invites students to talk about peer pressure. She draws a line in the middle of the class and asks children to stand in different parts of the room to show whether they agree, disagree or aren’t sure about random statements she makes. Based on the choices of children make, she then asks them about the reasons for their choices and how those decisions are influenced by their peers.
Over three years from ages 13-15, these kinds of activities help build the confidence of children like Xing, who has been tasked with responsibilities like sticking flipcharts up and delivering papers to classmates. With a little encouragement, he has started to become more positive. His teacher, Ms Ren, couldn’t believe the difference, not just in Xing, but in all the students.
“Those children used to be very timid and dared not to speak in front of the whole class,” she said.
Hearing the children talk about their experiences gave Ms Ren a unique insight into their thoughts.
“I would have never known the subtle feelings of my students without such self-exploration and reflection done by children themselves.”
The idea behind these lessons is to encourage stimulation and inspire motivation in both teachers and students. As a result, children in Ms Ren’s class have gradually become more proactive in sharing their feelings and ideas.
Thirteen-year-old Yanyan started at the school three months ago.
“I felt lonely at the very beginning. In this class, our teacher put us in different groups, and let us discuss, communicate and do presentations together. This helps me and my classmates learn more about each other, and helps me feel included in the whole group. I have already made new friends here.”