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Children of Migrant Workers Forced Out of Early Childhood Education in China as Low Cost Services are Closed

Poor parents in China are facing touch choices as local kindergartens offering ECE at a low cost are forced to close. He Na in Beijing reported on this for the China Daily.

It is 11 o'clock in the morning in Xinli village, Daxing district, Beijing. Zhou Xiaohong sits on the roadside, hands propping up her chin.

She's a little sleepy, but she tries to follow every move of her 3-year-old son, Tong Tong. He is entertaining himself beside her, using chunks of wood as building blocks.

Tong Tong has a 3-centimeter scar on his right cheek. The scar is the result of an accident on May 9, three days after the Xinshijie kindergarten, which Tong Tong had attended for almost a year, closed.

Xinshijie was one of about 200 illegal kindergartens - those without business permits and sanitation licenses - that the Daxing district education bureau closed in the first week of May.

Most of their pupils were children of migrant workers, who appreciated the lower fees and the flexibility of attendance hours.

After the kindergarten was shut down, Tong Tong was locked at home alone while his parents went to work. He broke a glass and fell on the shards.

Two days later Zhou quit her job cooking at a nearby construction site to take care of Tong Tong at home.

"I really hate myself whenever I see the scar," said Zhou, 32, who comes from a village in Nanyang, Henan province. "But what can we do? There was no one to take care of the boy after the kindergarten was closed. We really need to work to cover the high cost of living in the capital."

Zhou's home is just 20 meters from the kindergarten. The family calls it home, but it's only a room of less than 10 square meters. The bed occupies almost half of the space, and a propane tank, a chopping board, knife and some plates and bowls are on the other side.

Zhou's husband, Tu Jianguo, has no stable job, but often works odd jobs at construction sites, carrying bricks and building walls. At most, he earns about 1,500 yuan ($232) a month.

"My wife earned about 1,000 yuan a month before, and now it is really hard to live on just my wage," Tu said as he stacked pieces of wood he had picked up at construction sites to use as firewood when winter comes. "If the kindergarten is still closed in September, we will have to send Tong Tong back to my parents in Henan village."

'Too high to afford'

Across the road, two kids are piling sand into little hills near a small grain store as a woman sits beside the door, watching. Lin Nan, from Anhui province, is 27 and the mother of two boys. One will turn 5 in two months, and the other is 2.

"To run the store while taking care of two naughty boys is really challenging," she said. "Since the kindergarten closed, my life is a total mess. Sometimes I don't even have time to eat.

"The closest public kindergarten is an hour away by bus. Many kids from Beijing households are waiting to be recruited, let alone our migrant workers' kids," Lin said. "For licensed private kindergartens, the monthly fee is at least 1,500 yuan, more than my husband's salary. It's too high to afford.

"The nursery fee here is 200 yuan a month," she said, pointing at the Zhuxinsuan house 50 meters away. "There's no comparison of environment and other conditions with good kindergartens, but it's convenient and we can afford it.

"I do hope the kindergarten re-opens soon," Lin said, "or else, after the rent is due in September, we have to go back to Anhui."

Statistics from the Daxing education bureau show that the nursery education of at least 5,000 children was suspended by the sudden closing of kindergartens.

'It's coming apart'

Zhuxinsuan kindergarten, one of the largest private kindergartens in this area, had been open for 6 years.

Now the red metal gate is closed, and a few scattered toys are visible through the gap. Tables and chairs are stacked in one classroom where numbers remain written on a blackboard. Metal beds occupy other rooms where more than 170 children used to nap.

"My wife and I put all our blood into this, and it's coming apart," said Han Yuzhu, president of the kindergarten that he and his wife own. "If the government doesn't want us to exist, why did they often meet with us and ask us to buy equipment like monitor cameras and helmets?

"The official from the education bureau said we have a safety hazard," he said, "but why didn't they close us before? They blamed the crackdown on the Jiugong fire."

A fire on April 25 in an illegal building in the town of Jiugong, Daxing district, killed 18 people and injured 24. Police said unsafe conditions in the building and the neighborhood made escaping difficult and delayed rescue work.

"The education bureau once praised us for our contributions to migrant children," Han said. "However, their attitude completely changed after the big fire. The garment shop catches fire? Close it. Why should kindergartens be involved?

"We do not want to be an illegal kindergarten, but the local education bureau did not issue a business license at all during the past six years. They have strict requirements on the dimensions of classrooms, sleeping rooms and the playground and on investment funds that are not at all practical for small-scale kindergartens," Han said.

He said the current location is the biggest he could find in the district, but it still falls short of the requirements.

Han and his wife, Zhang Li, are from Zhangjiakou, Hebei province. They said they have invested more than 100,000 yuan in the kindergarten.

"The rent and salary of eight teachers total about 20,000 yuan a month," Zhang said. "If the bureau keeps making spot-checks, we have no choice but to sell the goods and go back to Hebei.

"Over 90 percent of the kids here are without Beijing household registration," she said. "Many parents also hope we reopen soon. Every day, we have phone calls and parents knocking on the door. I do wish the government could visit those parents to hear their voices and then make a wise decision."

Wang Shengxiang has given up. He said the education bureau told him the closing of his school, Xinxing bilingual kindergarten in Liucun village, was non-negotiable.

"The slide was sold at 200 yuan and I bought it for 4,000 yuan. The beds sold at 50 yuan each, and plastic toys were sold to a salvage station by weight. I feel like I've been in a dream these days."

Priority to locals

Illegal kindergartens in Beijing are not restricted to Daxing and to Fengtai, which conducted its own crackdown. The capital has more than 1,000 of them, according to data from the Beijing Municipal People's Congress Preschool Education Research and Study Group. The schools are becoming increasingly prevalent in the rural-urban fringe.

National census figures released in May put the capital's population at 19.6 million, including 7 million from other provinces and towns. The test of preprimary education is daunting.

"Beijing's current preschool education resources cannot even meet the demand of the increasing numbers of kids with Beijing household registrations," Vice-Mayor Hong Feng said in late May. "We plan to add 75,000 enrollments for kids within three years. If the goals can be achieved, basically we could cover the nursery service of 90 percent of the kids in the permanent population of the city.

"To the rest of the kids . . . we will provide various kinds of other preschool education services, which are still under discussion.

"In the future three years, the government will permit 147 residential areas to build new kindergartens. But as to small-scale private kindergartens," Hong said, "since the detailed regulations have not launched yet, up to now no one has successfully applied."

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