Shenzi Nibumu is two years older than her classmates in the southwest Chinese province of Sichuan.
Her family was too poor to send her to school at the age most children start and her elder sister dropped out of school to become a migrant worker in Guangdong province to support the family.
Shenzi Nibumu is now 17 years old and in ninth grade – the third year of middle school. She said she did not want to follow her sister’s path by dropping out to get a job, and instead wanted to continue with her studies and go to university.
“I wish to go to medical school and become a doctor in Liangshan,” she said. “My father used to be very sick. And I was very touched by the doctors who travelled to Hubei to treat Covid-19 patients earlier this year.”
Shenzi Nibumu can now focus on her study without worrying about how much it costs thanks to a policy in Liangshan Yi autonomous prefecture to provide free education and subsidised accommodation to students.
Most pupils in China have access to compulsory and free education in primary and middle schools but Liangshan – the prefecture tucked away in the mountains and one of the poorest areas in China – is offering 1.2 million pupils free education for 15 years from kindergarten through high school or the equivalent of vocational school.
“Education is key to preventing poverty passing from generation to generation. Liangshan has solved the issue of dropping out of school because of poverty,” said Lin Shucheng, the prefecture’s Communist Party secretary.
Across China, the number of students dropping out before completing middle school has been cut from 600,000 last year to this year’s total to September of 2,419. Of the 200,000 students from families registered as impoverished, almost all returned to school after being persuaded, according to Zheng Fuzhi, vice-minister of education.
A pilot programme offers Mandarin classes to about 300,000 kindergarten children in Liangshan. The Ministry of Education said earlier this year that children admitted to primary school last year performed better than students of previous years who had not learned Mandarin before starting school.
Lin said parents cared a lot about education and would not want their children to drop out from school to go to work.
“They have shown a strong will to change the fate of their children and give them a brighter future out of the mountains through education. There is a trend of parents moving their children to counties for better education,” Lin said.
In autumn, Shenzi started to attend the newly built Wenchang Middle School in the Yuexi county centre after her family was moved from Matou Mountain. She used to walk almost three hours to go to primary school, then in middle school she spent an hour on the bus every day.
At her new school, she has a bunk bed in a dormitory with seven other girls – at no cost to her family.
The new school, costing 130 million yuan (US$19 million), was built to the standard of a modern facility. It has a large playground equipped with area for athletics, track and field, a football field, basketball courts, a science laboratory and classrooms for art and dancing.
Graduates could all continue at high school, at the vocational school equivalent to high school or join a programme of five years of vocational school with a college degree, said Shen Deping, principal of the Wenchang Middle School.
“They can all continue with their education after graduation if they want,” she said.
One-third of more than 3,000 students at the school are from families under the poverty line, just like Shenzi Nibumu.
Shen said teachers had been asked to visit their homes and pay close attention to the students.
“They give students knowledge and also guide them to think about what they want to do when they grow up. [The teachers] encourage them to have dreams about their future,” Shen said.