A Billion Toddlers: China And Early Childhood Education Investment

A recent study found that 40 million rural Chinese children's cognitive ability was significantly lower than the national average. A program called “Nurturing the Future" focuses on toddlers too often left at home by parents who go to work

Looking for a better education
Looking for a better education
Sheng Menglu, Ge Mingning and Yu Xiang*

WANGYUAN â€" It’s Wednesday morning and two-and-a-half-year-old Mengjie is accompanied to nursery school by her grandmother. Along with a dozen other young children, the toddler is welcomed at the daycare center in Wangyuan village, in one of China’s poorest areas in inland Shaanxi province.

Decorated with cartoons on the walls and equipped with soft cushions, as well as various toys and slides, the bright and colorful nursery is filled with laughter. Li Bo, a family planning official from the nearby town, is here this day to teach the parents and grandparents the latest ideas about how to lead a child to play.

“Look at this, Bao-Bao, the little bear wants to be friends with you!”, Li guides Mengjie to play with the teddy bear, explaining to her grandma that this helps teach the child to shake or nod her head.

Launched last June, "Nurturing the Future" is an experimental project in early childhood development intervention, jointly run by China’s National Health and Family Planning Commission and the REAP, the Rural Education Action Plan. It is co-organized by Shaanxi Normal University, the Chinese Academy of Sciences, as well as Stanford University in California.

Six participating nursery schools have been set up in this dirt poor region in central China, where half of the labor force are migrant workers and per capita annual income is 6,223 RMB ($960).

While in China’s booming coastal areas various private pre-school agencies offer all sorts of courses for urban children, there are more than 40 million rural toddlers who very often do not receive quality care, either because they are left with their grandparents while their parents work in the cities, or the parents simply have no knowledge of how to help their child develop.

Early years count

Luo Renfu, who oversees the tutorial material of the Nurturing the Future project draws a curve in the air, as he explains how gaps begin early. “Despite geographical differences, all young children’s development level is the same until they are six months old," says Luo. "Rural children’s cognitive development deviates gradually from the average national level by primary school age. By the time they enter their teens, nearly one third of rural children will be drop-outs."

The result of this curve came from a series of REAP studies using the Bayley Scales of Infant and Toddler Development, considered the best quantifying tools in testing infant development. In order to clarify the key factors which affect rural and urban children’s development, the studies backtracked and compared their secondary as well as primary education and nutritional conditions. Eventually they came to the conclusion that critical action would have to start at a preschool age in order to have the most impact on children’s later performance. 

It is the first time studies about the relationship between parenting behavior and toddlers’ development have been conducted in China’s impoverished rural counties. Yue Ai, a senior researcher and lecturer from Shaanxi Normal University, pointed out that REAP studies in various places have more or less come to the same conclusion.

A doomed future?

What worries the researchers is that these rural children fall behind so early, and have trouble ever catching up. Zhang Linxiu, researcher at the Chinese Academy of Science, says China's changing economy requires people who are well-equipped and flexible to enter the workforce. “The problem is that the future job market will no longer be the same as the current one. People who would have farmed in the past have trouble competing in the cities.”

Luo Renfu says the urgency can be blamed on China's extraordinarily rapid development. What took the West more than 100 years to evolve into, as a society, took China only a couple of decades. At best, the former rural generation is able to either work as farmers or on assembly lines. But counting on cheap rural labor to boost China’s economic development isn’t going to be sustainable.

To upgrade Chinese industries China needs highly skilled labor and more creative talent. Scott Rozelle, a Senior Fellow of Stanford University and the co-director of the REAP program, notes that in the 1960s and 1970s, “the world’s factories" were South Korea, Taiwan, Hong Kong, Singapore and Mexico.

"But by the 1980s and 1990s, as wages soared, the unskilled garment workers became highly skilled workers for computers, the service industry or other sectors. In Japan, South Korea, Taiwan and Singapore, almost all workers have at least a senior high school degree," Rozelle adds. "This high-quality workforce guarantees these countries their industrial upgrade capability. Meanwhile, in Mexico, only 40% of the rural population received senior high school education and the majority of its labor force drops out of school at the junior high school stage.”

A survey conducted by Rozelle in Shaanxi province’s automobile service shops showed that 90% of the vocational school graduates didn’t have access to the Internet. “So we have to ask what this low-skilled labor force will be doing in 20 years time," he said.

Lowest intervention cost

As multiple international studies demonstrate, intervening in children’s development during the first 1,000 days after their birth will produce the best effect at the lowest cost.

Luo Renfu pointed out that brain cells develop fastest between birth and age three. Before the age of two, neuron synapses are establishing connections at a rate of 700 per second. A baby without stimulation won’t develop this function. Meanwhile learning after three years old is still based on this early training. The more training the child has the quicker the brain transmits information. Thus, along with adequate nutrition, positive stimulation from the outside world is the most essential factor.

Unfortunately most rural families lack this knowledge. According to the REAP studies, out of the 1,442 toddlers sampled, aged 18 to 30 months, only 12.6% of parents or grandparents read a book to them the day before the study was carried out.

And out of the 100 villages in five poor provinces where REAP conducted its study, only 39% have kindergartens â€" and none possess any nursery facilities suitable for the toddlers to play. Meanwhile 98% of families do not provide their babies with a safe, healthy and independent space conducive for their development.

Inter-generational parenting is another problem. Some 20% of infants under 12 months old are already taken care of by their grandparents whereas the number soars to around 60% between 24 to 30 months old.

Too many grandparents regard child care as being just about feeding and clothing and protecting kids from danger. One common question is: “Why should I talk to the baby if he can’t speak yet anyway?”

Government's role

The six nursery schools launched in Shaanxi province by the Nurturing the Future essentially converted the villages’ idle primary school classrooms or Communist Party activity centers into early childhood development centers.

In its design, the REAP project aims to combine various models of intervention to be effective. For instance, door-to-door household visits and intervention is necessary in impoverished and remote mountainous or desert regions, whereas in villages or townships, where population is more concentrated, nurseries can be set up.

But once the programs are extended to a larger scale they obviously require massive amounts of manpower and material resources. Relying on NGOs will be unrealistic.

According to REAP’s data, advanced countries invest much more on early stage human capital development â€" 1.4% of Norway's GDP, for example. This figure is a mere 0.2% in China, far lower than the average of advanced countries, and even trails some South American countries such as Argentina and Brazil, which spend 0.5 % of their GDP for this objective. And though China’s education budget accounted in 2013 for 4.3% of its national GDP, there is no specific expenditure destined for infant development.

“Even if we use just a small fraction of the energy we use to control China’s population in raising the demographic quality, China will see a brighter future”, concludes Shi Yaojiang.

*Xu Heqian and Wang Su also contributed to this report.

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In Argentina, A Visit To World's Highest Solar Energy Park

With loans and solar panels from China, the massive solar park has been opened a year and is already powering the surrounding areas. Now the Chinese supplier is pushing for an expansion.

960,000 solar panels have been installed at the Cauchari park

Silvia Naishtat

CAUCHARI — Driving across the border with Chile into the northwest Argentine department of Susques, you may spot what looks like a black mass in the distance. Arriving at a 4,000-meter altitude in the municipality of Cauchari, what comes into view instead is an assembly of 960,000 solar panels. It is the world's highest photovoltaic (PV) park, which is also the second biggest solar energy facility in Latin America, after Mexico's Aguascalientes plant.

Spread over 800 hectares in an arid landscape, the Cauchari park has been operating for a year, and has so far turned sunshine into 315 megawatts of electricity, enough to power the local provincial capital of Jujuy through the national grid.

It has also generated some $50 million for the province, which Governor Gerardo Morales has allocated to building 239 schools.

Abundant sunshine, low temperatures

The physicist Martín Albornoz says Cauchari, which means "link to the sun," is exposed to the best solar radiation anywhere. The area has 260 days of sunshine, with no smog and relatively low temperatures, which helps keep the panels in optimal conditions.

Its construction began with a loan of more than $331 million from China's Eximbank, which allowed the purchase of panels made in Shanghai. They arrived in Buenos Aires in 2,500 containers and were later trucked a considerable distance to the site in Cauchari . This was a titanic project that required 1,200 builders and 10-ton cranes, but will save some 780,000 tons of CO2 emissions a year.

It is now run by 60 technicians. Its panels, with a 25-year guarantee, follow the sun's path and are cleaned twice a year. The plant is expected to have a service life of 40 years. Its choice of location was based on power lines traced in the 1990s to export power to Chile, now fed by the park.

Chinese engineers working in an office at the Cauchari park


Chinese want to expand

The plant belongs to the public-sector firm Jemse (Jujuy Energía y Minería), created in 2011 by the province's then governor Eduardo Fellner. Jemse's president, Felipe Albornoz, says that once Chinese credits are repaid in 20 years, Cauchari will earn the province $600 million.

The Argentine Energy ministry must now decide on the park's proposed expansion. The Chinese would pay in $200 million, which will help install 400,000 additional panels and generate enough power for the entire province of Jujuy.

The park's CEO, Guillermo Hoerth, observes that state policies are key to turning Jujuy into a green province. "We must change the production model. The world is rapidly cutting fossil fuel emissions. This is a great opportunity," Hoerth says.

The province's energy chief, Mario Pizarro, says in turn that Susques and three other provincial districts are already self-sufficient with clean energy, and three other districts would soon follow.

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