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China: Basic Education in Western Areas Project

September 24, 2010



From 2004 to 2009, the World Bank and the U.K.’s Department for International Development (DFID) supported the government’s efforts to improve primary and junior secondary school enrollment of poor boys, girls and ethnic minorities in five of the poorest provinces of China. By 2009, enrollment was universal, completion and pass rates in Chinese Language and Mathematics among these groups improved, and pupils were supported by a larger proportion of qualified teachers.


Economic growth has enabled the government to increase investments in education to achieve developmental objectives. Public spending on education rose from 2.9 percent of gross domestic product (GDP) in 2001 to over 3.5 percent in 2009. China compares favorably with international education indicators for middle-income countries, but reaching the last five percent of the school-age population has been the most difficult and costly. The high average enrollment ratios masked inequality in access and quality, particularly among girls and ethnic minorities in rural areas; this problem was particularly marked in the western region.

The challenge was to attack the root causes of these inequalities and to allow all of the population to take advantage of the economic and social opportunities increasingly present in modern China. A major cause of disparity is the decentralized system of financing, which places a large burden on the county governments with low levels of fiscal revenues; the resultant funding gap was supplemented by “extra budgetary” resources, and poor parents’ inability to pay directly affected their children’s’ enrollment and completion of schooling. Even in 2008, there were still 40 million people (4.5 percent of the total population) living below the equivalent of US$0.38 per day, and 18 percent of them were children under 12 years of age.


The Basic Education in Western Areas Project was designed to improve educational opportunities for poor children and ethnic minorities so that they would be better prepared to take advantage of economic and social opportunities. The project was implemented in five provinces in western China (Gansu, Guangxi, Ningxia, Sichuan, and Yunnan) and provided investments to complement and improve the effectiveness of good government policies and programs. In particular, the project focused on:

  • improving school facilities through construction and providing teaching equipment and library books (84 percent of project costs);
  • strengthening management and administration (5 percent); and
  • implementing strategies to improve the quality of teaching and learning (11 percent).

DFID and the World Bank worked with the government to prepare the project. The earlier DFID-financed Gansu Basic Education Project provided important insights for project design, including the need to emphasize a strong participatory process and the importance of school-based management schemes. The project design combined grant funds with an International Bank for Reconstruction and Development (IBRD) loan to soften lending terms with the overarching objective of poverty reduction.


The project constructed or upgraded 1,525 schools, supplied almost seven million textbooks, and trained almost 11,000 principals and more than 154,000 teachers. Today, there is universal enrollment of poor boys, girls and ethnic minorities in the primary and junior secondary schools in the five project provinces. Sichuan, which started from the lowest base among the five provinces in 2001 (particularly in the enrollment rates of ethnic minorities—84 percent in primary education and 52 percent in junior secondary education), has made the most progress.

By 2009, Yunnan, Guangxi and Ningxia achieved parity in primary education enrollment among boys, girls and ethnic minorities, while Sichuan and Gansu were also on the verge of closing the gaps among these three groups.

At the start, the gender and ethnicity gaps were much bigger in junior secondary education than those in primary education. In 2001, all provinces’ coverage was at 80 percent or below but by 2009, the provinces reached 95 percent plus in enrollment rates. The enrollment gaps between boys, girls and ethnic minorities in junior secondary education were also closed.

This progress was achieved in spite of:

  • the terrible Wenchuan earthquake of 2008, with its epicenter in a project province, which claimed the lives of more than 69,000 people and damaged a number of newly-built or renovated schools. (It should be noted that, after the earthquake, a project team conducted a supervision mission and found that no schools that had been constructed with World Bank funds had collapsed although they were all damaged.)
  • the global financial crisis in 2008 and 2009, which led to widespread unemployment. Continuous public financial assistance to poor students has kept them in school and enabled them to complete their studies.

Bank Contribution

The total project cost was estimated at appraisal to be US$147.34 million, financed by the IBRD loan of US$100 million and the government of China. The project financed:

  • the improvement of school facilities (school construction and upgrading, furniture, teaching equipment and library books);
  • the strengthening of management and administration; and
  • the improvement of quality in teaching and learning.

DFID provided a grant of US$34.5 million which, blended with the IBRD loan, significantly reduced the effective interest rate to China. DFID also provided parallel financing of £1.75 million to support an impact evaluation, two national-level studies and a number of provincial-level studies, as well as technical assistance during implementation.


DFID provided a grant of US$34.5 million which, blended with the IBRD loan, significantly reduced the effective interest rate to China. DFID also provided parallel financing of UK£1.75 million to support an impact evaluation, two national-level studies and a number of provincial-level studies, as well as technical assistance during implementation.

Moving Forward

The policy environment was and remains favorable, including the rural compulsory education finance reform that began in 2006, the emphasis on teacher training, and the Ministry of Education (MoE) National Plan for Medium- and Long-Term Education Development and Reform (2011-2020).

Today, the MoE is tackling three main issues:

  • “Left-behind Children.” About 200 million people have migrated from rural to urban areas in the last three decades; this trend will continue. In 2005, about 55 million children were “left behind” in rural areas, most to be raised by their grandparents. Vulnerable to accidents and to developing emotional, behavioral and learning problems, their care requires additional responsibilities from teachers and the provision of boarding facilities. The MoE plans to pilot, in a major labor-exporting province, multi-sectoral interventions from the Ministries of Education, Health, and Civil Affairs, the Women’s Federation and the Public Security Bureau to create a protective network; an impact evaluation will assess the effectiveness of the strategies.
  • Consolidation of schools, and building stronger schools. The decline of the compulsory school-age population (students’ enrollment fell from 190 million in 2001 to 159 million in 2008), the trends of rural-to-urban migration, the “left-behind children”, the new curriculum with English and computer skills in primary grades, and the Wenchuan earthquake, gave impetus to consolidate schools and to build stronger schools. Boarding will be offered. The provision of teachers, support systems, learning materials and equipment to small, remote, multi-grade schools is not possible, and concentrating children in central boarding schools is more efficient, if adequate resources can ensure proper care and support.
  • The continued need to strengthen education of ethnic minorities. In spite of the gains through the project, minority girls are still more likely to drop out than other sub-groups and need continuous support and monitoring. There are vast and remote areas outside the project counties and their schools that need support.


The main beneficiaries were 2.4 million students, of whom 19 percent belonged to ethnic minorities. These students live in mountainous or arid areas in the vast territory of the five western provinces, and are the hardest-to-reach portion of the school-age population. Girls and ethnic minorities were particularly disadvantaged, and they were the main beneficiaries of the project