Supporting education in remote areas of Western Sichuan, China

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There were perhaps too many children to a class, but these were clearly participatory.

It’s usually pretty hard for a World Bank sector director to make a spontaneous site visit.  But this one was fortuitous.  The informal school visit was hastily arranged when I realized my vacation tour would run through remote townships where World Bank projects have been supporting government in improving education through the Basic Education in Western Areas Project (BEWAP)…townships that had not, to my knowledge, been visited by previous missions.  I wasn’t sure exactly when I would arrive at each town on this trip so the visits could not be pre-arranged in advance.  Luckily, the whole province is almost totally ‘wired,’ so, the day before, I was able to call our Beijing office, which made arrangements for the Ministry of Education to contact the headmaster of the Tagong Township School with no difficulty.  In fact, the quality of the telecom coverage was better than that in many parts of Washington DC – like my office where my cell phone often doesn’t work unless the weather is clear and I press my face up against the window. 


Tagong is a small but very picturesque ethnic town in the Ganzi Tibetan Autonomous Prefecture in the high grasslands plateau of western Sichuan.  Nestled in a deep valley gouged by a fast flowing river, the town’s alpine setting might not have been out of place in Switzerland -- if it weren’t for the huge Buddhist monastery, about a dozen stupas and seas of prayer flags dotting the hillside.  While it was well connected electronically, it was still pretty remote -- access from the north via Danba and Bamei was over a 3,900 meter pass; from the south the road from Kangding was over an even higher 4,300 meter pass.
BEWAP, a project jointly financed by the UK’s DFID, is meant to improve access to and completion of quality basic education in 112 counties in Sichuan and 4 other provinces or autonomous regions, including to remote townships like Tagong.  Effective since 2004, it supports, among other things, school construction and rehabilitation, the provision of basic supplies, including library books, and teaching training in some of the poorest townships in China.  It is expected to increase school attendance by poor rural children, improve literacy and numeracy, reduce the number of dangerous buildings and increase access to bilingual and mother tongue instruction (important in areas where there are large numbers of ethnic groups).  The Tagong Township Primary School has clearly benefitted from it.

The headmaster was able to point proudly to physical changes such as rehabilitated classrooms, dormitories (80% of the 250 students were from nomadic families) and administrative facilities such as a library and common room used where faculty could work.  Somewhat embarrassingly, a plaque commemorated the Bank’s contribution with the number of the project’s appraisal document CH-25172 – a code which must baffle almost anyone who sees it.  
But even more impressive were less tangible contributions.  One was the support to the provision of education in the mother tongue – which many educators now believe to be the best way that children learn (see this newsletter from UNESCO, pdf) . My fellow visitors and I were admitted into a first grade class where some 60 children were having a class in Tibetan language.  Despite the fact that there were probably too many kids crammed into one classroom, the instruction was clearly participatory.  So much so, that we, as visitors, were enjoined to sing a song to the class… a rather sorry rendition of “Row, row, row your boat”.  The kids responded with a Tibetan folk song.  They were much better.
Another contribution of the project was the availability of school materials.  The library was well-stocked – and, judged from the check-out list, well-used.  I’ve visited many other countries where new books are under lock and key lest they be soiled.  These books were new but dog-eared.

Teachers were keeping busy on a Friday afternoon.

Finally, even though the project probably did not have as much to do with it, I was impressed by the school’s functionality.  It was around 4 pm on a Friday afternoon, and it may have been understandable if the level of activity had dropped off.  Yet, classes were going on and the faculty common area was full of the teaching staff correcting exams and papers.  Having seen many schools in remote areas in other countries that did no teaching even in the middle of the day, I was astounded.  Clearly, the school was well-managed and staffed locally with dedicated and motivated teachers and administrators.   

But their behavior must also reflect pressure from the local population who demanded quality  education for their children.  I came to this conclusion since, over the 3 Sundays I was in Sichuan, I observed many children going to voluntary extra classes, showing an almost insatiable demand from parents for their kids to learn.  In many countries around the world, this demand often translates to greater participation and research shows that the involvement of parents and communities in managing schools often sustains excellence in education.   This seems to be a lesson that even the remote ethnic towns of western Sichuan have taken to heart.


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