Tuesday, May 20, 2014

Improving learning for China's poorest children



By focusing on social and emotional learning, a new model of education is changing the way teachers teach - and students learn - in China. The Ministry of Education, with support from UNICEF, is piloting the learning model in 250 schools in five of the poorest and remotest parts of the country. During his five-day mission to the country, UNICEF Executive Director Anthony Lake visited one of these schools: Mixin Primary School, in a remote part of Yunnan Province.

At the conclusion of a five day visit to China, UNICEF Executive Director Anthony Lake commended the Government of China for its commitment to address socio-economic disparities facing the country. He also discussed with the Government, the continued need to prioritize efforts to reduce inequity, especially for children in the remotest corners of the country.

Mr Lake’s visit to China, timed with this year’s celebration of the 25th Anniversary on the Rights of the Child, was an opportunity to reaffirm UNICEF’s long standing partnership with the Government and people of China. The visit included meetings with senior Government officials, as well as to schools in Yunnan Province to understand the dramatic progress the country has made for its 279 million children, which make up 15 percent of the world’s child population.

In the last two decades China has witnessed massive reduction in poverty, a 75 percent reduction in under-five child mortality and primary school enrolment rates of almost 100 per cent. The country has achieved the Millennium Development Goals related to under-five mortality, primary school education, poverty and nutrition and is on track to meet efforts to reduce maternal mortality.

The visit also demonstrated how especially in a country as large and populous as China, national averages can often mask regional disparities. So while significant gains have been made to reduce poverty on a national basis, the challenges of reaching the poorest and most vulnerable children with quality and equitable social services remains a top priority.

According to the 2010 consensus, the number of children living in rural poverty-stricken areas was estimated to be 70 million, accounting for about 25 per cent of the child population nationwide. Children in these areas lagged behind other children in terms of health, enrolment in or completion of education, and access to household water and sanitation.

“The Government of China knows - we all know - that to an impoverished mother, struggling to provide for her family, or a girl who has to do housework rather than homework, or a boy who repeatedly falls sick because of poor sanitation systems, achieving national statistical progress is not meaningful to them”, Mr. Lake said in remarks made at a welcome reception. “And the Government of China here knows the importance of addressing such disparities by making services available to the most excluded, especially children.”

At a remote primary school in Jianchuan county in Yunnan Province, Mr. Lake had the opportunity to see the impact of the Government working with UNICEF’s support, to reach children in remote, poor and ethnic minority areas. He visited a primary school that served 12 surrounding villages, by providing both education as well as boarding facilities for the students, who otherwise would not be able to walk the long distances back and forth to reach school every day.

The school is one of 250 child friendly pilot schools in 5 demonstration counties, in which the Ministry of Education working with UNICEF to test a new model. It includes social emotional learning through participatory teaching, making the school environmental friendly with sanitation and water facilities, as well as strengthening school management.

In a classroom, he saw how a simple board game was used by a teacher to help children learn math. “Without that catalytic board game, the children would not have been as interactive. That is the key to quality learning and to early childhood development generally,” Mr. Lake observed. “It is not just learning by rote but playing together, studying together, and responding to the teacher.”

Already the Government has adopted National Child Friendly School Standards. Social emotional learning, as a key component of this model, and with its focus on play and interactive teaching, is now also expected to be scaled up to other schools in China by 2015. To support the roll out to schools in other poor and remote areas, UNICEF is working with the Ministry of Education to develop teaching and learning materials so teachers are better equipped with the right skills and the quality of learning for students improves.

“During my meetings with Government, every Ministry I met with was extraordinarily interested in working with us to do pilot projects so together we can test what works and what doesn’t work and then the Government can take these initiatives to scale.” said Mr. Lake. “This process can improve the lives of millions and millions of children.”

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