Many children face arduous and sometimes dangerous trek to the classroom, reports He Na in Cangzhou, Hebei province.
Every time Wang Yuxing telephones his 9-year-old son Wang Hongyu, the boy cries and begs Wang to take him home. At that point, Wang and his wife gulp back the tears and tell him: "We promise to bring you back after you finish primary school".
The little boy has been living with his grandma an hour's drive away from the family home since the start of the year.
"He's never been separated from us before and so he misses us and we miss him. However, we had to take that decision for his own safety," said 34-year-old Wang, from Wangzhuangtou village, Cangzhou city in Hebei province.
Rather than letting him travel to the primary school in Lu'anzhuang village, 6 km each way four times a day along a dirt road, bordered by a 3-meter-deep ditch on one side and date forests on the other, Wang prefers to have his son living with his grandma.
Her village has a primary school just a five-minute walk from the house. The village has more than 1,000 residents, most of whom make a living by cultivating dates.
Although neither boy nor his parents are used to being separated, Wang insisted on the move after Hongyu fell off a bike and tumbled into the roadside ditch, rupturing his spleen in December.
"The doctor said his life would have been in danger if we hadn't got him to the hospital so quickly," said Wang, who blames his son's accident on the closure of the primary school in his village.
According to the Ministry of Education, the number of rural schools fell to 210,894 in 2010 from 440,284 in 2000, a decline of 52.1 percent. Rural primary schools account for 81.3 percent of those that closed across the country between 1997 and 2010.
"China has carried out large-scale closures of rural schools since 2001 in response to a sharp decline in the numbers of school-age students in those areas," said Xiong Bingqi, vice-president of 21st Century Education Research Institute in Beijing. "Although the closures were supposed to be enforced in accordance with local conditions, the fact is that many local government officials turned a deaf ear to the farmers' demands and used the one-size-fits-all approach to solving the problem.
"To reduce expenditure on education, many village schools were forced to close even though many still provided a valuable service. Students were compelled to travel long distances to other schools. School buses and boarding facilities are not available, which has led to an increase in accidents involving (illegal) school buses, and a rise in the number of children dropping out," he said.
A difficult road
A number of accidents involving school buses have occurred in recent years. One of the most high-profile crashes happened in November when 19 children and two adults lost their lives in Zhengning county, Gansu province. The bus, designed to carry nine passengers, had been illegally refitted, the seats had been ripped out and the passengers were forced to stand during the journey. The bus was carrying 64 people when it collided with a coal truck.
"Whenever I think of the deep ditch my son fell into, the narrow dirt road that can only be used by one vehicle at a time and becomes so muddy when it rains that you can't even use a bike, plus the vagrants hanging around the fringes of the date forest hassling kids for money, I can't help asking myself why the road to school has to be so difficult," said Wang.
Cangzhou is famous for its dates and June is the month that date flowers blossom. A delicious odor greets those walking along the road, but the parents and children are so wound up that they don't even appreciate the smell anymore.
"The walls of my son's school have banners proclaiming, 'Doing everything for the children'. But is it just a slogan? The students were sent home when our village school closed in 2001, but no one bothered to inform us or discuss the matter, even the head of the village committee wasn't told about the decision beforehand. The local government did the same when deciding on the location of the new school," said a villager called Wang Shuwei.
The authorities said that the situation was being addressed: "The Ministry of Education will establish efforts to combat the phenomenon of blind closures and integration of rural schools. Guaranteed access to school is a very important precondition of enforced school closures. Schools should not be closed without consultation with parents and other interested parties," said Gao Hong, director of Department of Basic Education I of the Ministry of Education.
Traveling times double
Although Wang Shuwei's 9-year-old son has a sprained ankle, he still has to cycle to school because his parents simply don't have time to take him. "You know, sometimes I really hate myself because I don't have the money to send him to a school in the city. I know there are also poor people living in the cities, but at least their kids don't have to trudge through the mud to school everyday," said the frustrated father.
Transport is the villagers' biggest headache. Wang Hongyu is lucky, at least his grandma's village has a school, but most of the children have to travel 24 km a day to attend school, four 6-km journeys each way.
When the road is in poor condition, the traveling time doubles. "When it rains, the road becomes a muddy pool. Small kids often lose their shoes because the mud grips at their shoes and they can only free their feet. Bikes are useless on rainy days, so some parents carry their children to school on their backs. Older students have to make the decision to either walk for an hour or more, or simply be marked as absent," said Wang Yuxing.
A heavy burden
A number of serious accidents involving school-buses last year prompted local governments to crack down and private minibuses, hired by parents to transport the children, were banned.
Transporting the kids back and forth has become a heavy burden for each family, because the school in Lu'anzhuang doesn't allow students to have lunch in the classroom or remain on campus during break time. For Wang Tingmin, almost the entire day is spent riding his small motorbike, carrying his young grandsons between school and home.
"What else we can do after traveling eight times a day (four trips for each child), more than five hours on the road. Our time is being wasted and no one goes out to work, so where is the money going to come from?" asked the 62-year-old.
The situation has become so bad that a popular joke has developed among the villagers: Whenever anyone is asked the whereabouts of a certain person, they reply, "He's on the way".
"The extra expenditure on travel, food and board has become a new burden on farmers, especially those in poverty-stricken mountain areas, since the number of rural schools declined," said Xiong Bingqi.
Few rural parents have time to collect their children from school, and most of the kids travel by themselves. It's common to see children no taller than the bikes they ride giving lifts to kids smaller than themselves.
Cao Shuo is 8 and lives in Caozhuangtou village, 5 km from his school. Every day he gets out of bed at 6 am and rides his bike, with his little sister Cao Xiaoxuan on the back, to school and then home four times a day. "Without school buses, canteens and boarding facilities, the least the government could do is build a road for us. It's 2012 and our kids still walk the same dirt road that I did in the 1970s," said Wang Shuchang, head of Wangzhuangtou village.
"Our village is located in the center of five others. If our village school reopened, not only our children, but also those from other villages would have a much shorter journey. Our village has about 100 children younger than 10 years old, and if we added in those from nearby villages, the number of students would be guaranteed," he said.
"The situation in Wangzhuangtou is the same as that facing many of the estimated 150 million rural schoolchildren. In some mountainous areas in Yunnan and Gansu provinces, pupils have even greater difficulty getting to school," said Professor Yuan Guilin, an expert on rural education at Beijing Normal University.
"The boundary of responsibility, as to who is in charge of the route to school is vague and as long as no big accidents occur, no one takes any notice. A well-defined supervisory mechanism should be introduced to oversee school closures in rural areas. And that mechanism must be enforced by the upper levels of government to ensure that it's adhered to," said Yuan.
Xiong Bingqi agreed, and suggested carrying out a review and inspection of the closures and reintegration of rural schools as soon as possible. In places where students face difficulty getting to school, the government should look at the local conditions and work out ways to solve the problem. Some schools that were forced to close against the will of the local people should be reopened, he said.
"The accidents that caused the deaths of children have saddened every Chinese person. It is the government's responsibility to guarantee the safety of our students on the way to school. Their safety should be placed above everything. If we have even one penny in our pockets, it should be spent on education," he said, adding that more buses would result in fewer boarding schools, which would alleviate concerns that a lack of parental contact is leaving the children more susceptible to psychological problems.
Yuan Guilin suggested that the authorities should enlist the aid of society in general to solve the problem. "Government at different levels should guarantee bank loans to companies that want to purchase qualified school buses to lease to transport companies. Those companies could then provide registered services to students. The students would have to pay a monthly fee, but it would only be a fraction of the full cost, and the lion's share could be paid by the government as a travel subsidy," he suggested.
Yuan also proposed using the model established by Shicheng village in Hainan province where the village committee combined a school, a library, an agricultural technology training center and a rural activity center in the same building. What functions as a school by day becomes a local activity center in the evening.
Wu Zhihui, director of the Institute of Rural Education at Northeast Normal University in Changchun, the capital of Jilin province, also called for county-level governments and related education departments to establish a hearing and public review system so that students, parents, village committees and teachers can discuss ways of providing a better service.
"Those schools that haven't closed or merged should continue to improve the quality of teaching and also carry out research, experimenting with smaller class sizes, which is the generally adopted model in developed economies. It would be an ideal program for China's primary and middle schools in the future," he said.
The Ministry of Education has already acknowledged the problems caused by the enforced closure of rural schools and said that a modified policy will be announced soon. "I hope it will improve the situation and make the students' road to education much smoother," said Yuan.
Han Junhong contributed to this story.
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