In the past 40 years, Shenzhen has grown its population more than 40-fold, from 310,000 in 1979 to 13.02 million, according to official data. The number of primary schools, however, has not even doubled, from 226 to just 342.
Secondary schools have had more attention and resources, having grown by a factor of 15. Most were added after 2001.
This week, the Shenzhen Education Bureau openly acknowledged that it is now the city’s top priority to build and expand its public school system.
As China’s largest city of immigrants, the average age of Shenzhen’s residents is around 30. It continues to see exponential growth, adding more than half a million people last year alone. As the country’s one-child policy is being eased out, and reforms are being implemented for the highly competitive national university entry exam, Shenzhen’s school-age population is expected to rise sharply. The pressure to get seats in the city’s public school system will likely soon become a source of deep civic discontent if not addressed.
The trend is reflected already in student enrolment. Last year, 70,000 students entered high school, but more than 100,000 were close behind them, entering middle school, while 200,000 started primary school, and more than 500,000 were in kindergartens. Only 47% of middle school leavers were able to enter high school in the city last year, and that dropped to 45% this year. The city’s WeChat community is awash in disputes about school seat allotment.
In comparison, Guangzhou fares better. Between 2015 and 2017, Guangzhou’s high school enrolment rate grew steadily, from 55.46% to 62.31%. This is largely due to government investment in the sector. A bunch of new schools have been built. By next year, publicly-funded high school seats are expected to account for 85% of total high school seats in the city. This is a sharp rise, up from 56% currently.
In June last year, The Shenzhen Education Bureau released a plan for solving the shortage of primary and secondary school seats. Its three-year plan envisages adding 11 new secondary schools with 29,550 new seats while upgrading seven existing schools with an addition of 4,550 seats.
According to the city’s education bureau, the slow progress has been due to lack of land. It is not easy for the government to achieve, as plots must be large enough for a campus with at least 60 classrooms and boarding facilities. Land preparation often takes years. The city’s rapid urbanization makes it even more difficult, as expansion projects are sometimes deterred by nearby projects which could potentially affect the school’s land usage.
The city government acknowledges that various regulations have also caused slow progress of early-stage preparation work, or site planning has not always fully followed the correct procedures, causing construction delays.
Last year, the Bureau of Planning and Natural Resources got deeply involved. It has now revaluated all the land plans for high school construction. It found that within the city perimeter, 120 plots had been assigned for high schools, while only 56 had been completed. The remaining ones were facing uncertainties such as unclear planning, unknown timing for area rejuvenation, and unsolved relocation issues. At the moment, there are only two plots that are suitable for construction, said a spokesperson of the Education Bureau.
The serious shortage of secondary schools has aroused the attention of the city’s leaders. The Education Bureau has drafted a proposal for secondary schools, which will be concluded by the end of the year. It will take into consideration current demand for the school seats and its future development trend. At the planning level, it aims to increase both the quantity and quality of secondary schools, developing a logical space layout while providing constructive advice for each government district and municipal functional department to push forward the implementation of school building.
At the same time, the Bureau of Planning and Resources has also urged the district governments not to change land usage rights without authorization. The Education Bureau appears to have been given a firmer grip on the issue. It will also push for speeding up the process of project filing and site selection; accelerate the land preparation progress for construction and the transfer of the land using rights. For land projects that have already been approved, they will be handed over immediately to the bureau’s construction department.
Shenzhen is determined, it would seem, to get this right. It must, for the Miracle City’s future as a Smart City depends on it.