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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7 Ways The Pandemic May Change The Airline Industry For Good

Will flying be greener? More comfortable? Less frequent? As the world eyes a post-COVID reality, we look at ways the airline industry has been changing through a pandemic that has devastated air travel.

Ready for (a different kind of) takeoff?

Carl-Johan Karlsson

It's hard to overstate the damage the pandemic has had on the airline industry, with global revenues dropping by 40% in 2020 and dozens of airlines around the world filing for bankruptcy. One moment last year when the gravity became particularly apparent was when Asian carriers (in countries with low COVID-19 rates) began offering "flights to nowhere" — starting and ending at the same airport as a way to earn some cash from would-be travelers who missed the in-flight experience.

More than a year later today, experts believe that air traffic won't return to normal levels until 2024.

But beyond the financial woes, the unprecedented slowdown in air travel may bring some silver linings as key aspects of the industry are bound to change once back in full spin, with some longer-term effects on aviation already emerging. Here are some major transformations to expect in the coming years:

Cleaner aviation fuel

The U.S. administration of President Joe Biden and the airline industry recently agreed to the ambitious goal of replacing all jet fuel with sustainable alternatives by 2050. Already in a decade, the U.S. aims to produce three billion gallons of sustainable fuel — about one-tenth of current total use — from waste, plants and other organic matter.

While greening the world's road transport has long been at the top of the climate agenda, aviation is not even included under the Paris Agreement. But with air travel responsible for roughly 12% of all CO2 emissions from transport, and stricter international regulation on the horizon, the industry is increasingly seeking sustainable alternatives to petroleum-based fuel.

Fees imposed on the airline industry should be funneled into a climate fund.

In Germany, state broadcaster Deutsche Welle reports that the world's first factory producing CO2-neutral kerosene recently started operations in the town of Wertle, in Lower Saxony. The plant, for which Lufthansa is set to become the pilot customer, will produce CO2-neutral kerosene through a circular production cycle incorporating sustainable and green energy sources and raw materials. Energy is supplied through wind turbines from the surrounding area, while the fuel's main ingredients are water and waste-generated CO2 coming from a nearby biogas plant.

Farther north, Norwegian Air Shuttle has recently submitted a recommendation to the government that fees imposed on the airline industry should be funneled into a climate fund aimed at developing cleaner aviation fuel, according to Norwegian news site E24. The airline also suggested that the government significantly reduce the tax burden on the industry over a longer period to allow airlines to recover from the pandemic.

Black-and-white photo of an ariplane shot from below flying across the sky and leaving condensation trails

High-flying ambitions for the sector

Joel & Jasmin Førestbird

Hydrogen and electrification

Some airline manufacturers are betting on hydrogen, with research suggesting that the abundant resource has the potential to match the flight distances and payload of a current fossil-fuel aircraft. If derived from renewable resources like sun and wind power, hydrogen — with an energy-density almost three times that of gasoline or diesel — could work as a fully sustainable aviation fuel that emits only water.

One example comes out of California, where fuel-cell specialist HyPoint has entered a partnership with Pennsylvania-based Piasecki Aircraft Corporation to manufacture 650-kilowatt hydrogen fuel cell systems for aircrafts. According to HyPoint, the system — scheduled for commercial availability product by 2025 — will have four times the energy density of existing lithium-ion batteries and double the specific power of existing hydrogen fuel-cell systems.

Meanwhile, Rolls-Royce is looking to smash the speed record of electrical flights with a newly designed 23-foot-long model. Christened the Spirit of Innovation, the small plane took off for the first time earlier this month and successfully managed a 15-minute long test flight. However, the company has announced plans to fly the machine faster than 300 mph (480 km/h) before the year is out, and also to sell similar propulsion systems to companies developing electrical air taxis or small commuter planes.

New aircraft designs

Airlines are also upgrading aircraft design to become more eco-friendly. Air France just received its first upgrade of a single-aisle, medium-haul aircraft in 33 years. Fleet director Nicolas Bertrand told French daily Les Echos that the new A220 — that will replace the old A320 model — will reduce operating costs by 10%, fuel consumption and CO2 emissions by 20% and noise footprint by 34%.

International first class will be very nearly a thing of the past.

The pandemic has also ushered in a new era of consumer demand where privacy and personal space is put above luxury. The retirement of older aircraft caused by COVID-19 means that international first class — already in steady decline over the last decades — will be very nearly a thing of the past. Instead, airplane manufacturers around the world (including Delta, China Eastern, JetBlue, British Airways and Shanghai Airlines) are betting on a new generation of super-business minisuites where passengers have a privacy door. The idea, which was introduced by Qatar Airways in 2017, is to offer more personal space than in regular business class but without the lavishness of first class.

Aerial view of Rome's Fiumicino airport

Aerial view of Rome's Fiumicino airport

Hygiene rankings  

Rome's Fiumicino Airport has become the first in the world to earn "the COVID-19 5-Star Airport Rating" from Skytrax, an international airline and airport review and ranking site, Italian daily La Repubblica reports. Skytrax, which publishes a yearly annual ranking of the world's best airports and issues the World Airport Awards, this year created a second list to specifically call out airports with the best health and hygiene standards.

Smoother check-in

​The pandemic has also accelerated the shift towards contactless traveling, with more airports harnessing the power of biometrics — such as facial recognition or fever screening — to reduce touchpoints and human contact. Similar technology can also be used to more efficiently scan physical objects, such as explosive detection. Ultimately, passengers will be able to "check-in" and go through a security screening anywhere at the airports, removing queues and bottlenecks.

Data privacy issues

​However, as pointed out in Canadian publication The Lawyer's Daily, increased use of AI and biometrics also means increased privacy concerns. For example, health and hygiene measures like digital vaccine passports also mean that airports can collect data on who has been vaccinated and the type of vaccine used.

Photo of planes at Auckland airport, New Zealand

Auckland Airport, New Zealand

Douglas Bagg

The billion-dollar question: Will we fly less?

At the end of the day, even with all these (mostly positive) changes that we've seen take shape over the past 18 months, the industry faces major uncertainty about whether air travel will ever return to the pre-COVID levels. Not only are people wary about being in crowded and closed airplanes, but the worth of long-distance business travel in particular is being questioned as many have seen that meetings can function remotely, via Zoom and other online apps.

Trying to forecast the future, experts point to the years following the 9/11 terrorist attacks as at least a partial blueprint for what a recovery might look like in the years ahead. Twenty years ago, as passenger enthusiasm for flying waned amid security fears following the attacks, airlines were forced to cancel flights and put planes into storage.

40% of Swedes intend to travel less

According to McKinsey, leisure trips and visits to family and friends rebounded faster than business flights, which took four years to return to pre-crisis levels in the UK. This time too, business travel is expected to lag, with the consulting firm estimating only 80% recovery of pre-pandemic levels by 2024.

But the COVID-19 crisis also came at a time when passengers were already rethinking their travel habits due to climate concerns, while worldwide lockdowns have ushered in a new era of remote working. In Sweden, a survey by the country's largest research company shows that 40% of the population intend to travel less even after the pandemic ends. Similarly in the UK, nearly 60% of adults said during the spring they intended to fly less after being vaccinated against COVID-19 — with climate change cited as a top reason for people wanting to reduce their number of flights, according to research by the University of Bristol.

At the same time, major companies are increasingly forced to face the music of the environmental movement, with several corporations rolling out climate targets over the last few years. Today, five of the 10 biggest buyers of corporate air travel in the US are technology companies: Amazon, IBM, Google, Apple and Microsoft, according to Taipei Times, all of which have set individual targets for environmental stewardship. As such, the era of flying across the Atlantic for a two-hour executive meeting is likely in its dying days.

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