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Du Xiaming said he is waiting to send his son Du Kai to school. In rural regions of China, 46 per cent of children show cognitive delays due to a lack of mental stimulus.The Globe and Mail

This is part of a Globe and Mail series in which Beijing correspondent Nathan VanderKlippe looks at China’s present and future challenges before his return to Canada.

On a sunny morning in this rural village in China’s Henan province, Du Kai runs out for an errand with his three-year-old son on the front of a scooter. Winter wheat is spread on the village streets beside him. Mr. Du wears the blue uniform of the cement plant where he works. Life for his son is simple. Mr. Du has taught him to recognize the village animals, like the cows and goats grazing nearby. But there are no books for the three-year-old.

When it comes to education, “we are waiting to send him to school,” Mr. Du says.

“We see that seven and eight-year-old kids already have piles of homework to do every day. So we don’t let him read books at home.”

Education has been a Chinese priority for many centuries, rooted in an imperial civil service examination system with a history extending back 1,300 years. Today, the Chinese government invests more in education, as a percentage of gross domestic product, than the province of Ontario. The annual writing of the gaokao university entrance test is so important that for days ahead of the exam, police shut down roads, close bars and entertainment venues and halt construction work. Residents are even told to turn down television at night.

Yet across China, particularly in its vast rural reaches, children grow up in homes where they receive little mental stimulus. This remnant of peasant culture has a profound impact on the makeup of China today and the ability of its work force in the future to thrive in a knowledge-based economy.

The numbers are stark: in surveys covering a dozen of China’s more rural provinces, 46 per cent of children show cognitive delays. One study of 7,000 junior-high-school children in Gansu and Shaanxi, both poorer provinces, showed that 49 per cent have poor cognitive skills. “They would be in special ed in California,” says Scott Rozelle, a Stanford scholar who has studied childhood development in China for many years.

“You find the same thing in elementary school. You find the same thing in preschools. It’s the biggest problem China has that no one knows about.”

These shortfalls in the education system remain as kids grow older. Surveys show that some 95 per cent of mothers of babies in China expect them to attend university. And yet barely 50 per cent of Chinese students attend any form of postsecondary education.

The research showed that in Chinese rural areas, 23 per cent of families reported reading to their children under five in the previous three days. Just 25 per cent had told a story to their child and 45 per cent had sang to a son.

In the most rural areas, parents themselves may have little education. Ching Tien recalls several years ago speaking to some 30 high-school girls in rural Gansu where the charity she founded, Educating Girls of Rural China, sponsors young women’s studies. Ms. Tien asked how many of the girls’ mothers had finished high school. “One or two hands went up,” she recalled.

If parents themselves don’t have much education, “how can they really even think about reading to their children?” she said.

Across China, fewer than 3 per cent of people are illiterate. But it’s often a question of parental priorities. In rural areas, “they’re raising their babies like farmers: ‘I want my baby safe. I want my baby not to die. I want my baby strong,’ ” Prof. Rozelle said.

“That’s kind of at the root of all the problems.”

Gaps between parenting techniques and national needs – both academic and economic – are common to countries that have developed at rapid speeds. But where other countries have encouraged parents to play games with their children and read them stories, China has been reluctant to do so. The Chinese Ministry of Education does not allow IQ testing in schools, creating obstacles to ascertaining attainment gaps. And education authorities have concentrated on math scores over early childhood preparedness, Prof. Rozelle said.

His research has shown how effective even simple measures can be at making change. In one study, he gave parents a simple toolkit, with pegs that infants could place into holes and cards that toddlers could put into order. Testing showed dramatic improvements in child development. Even four years later, those children – now elementary students – had better executive function as well as social and emotional skills than those whose parents did not receive the toolkits.

Intervention by the age of three is critical, research has shown.

But “China is behind in all of this,” Prof. Rozelle said.

Du Xiaming is a retired elementary school teacher living in Handian Village.Nathan VanderKlippe/The Globe and Mail

A failure to change stands to create long-term social consequences, he said. China still has 600 million people with a monthly income of under $190, Premier Li Keqiang said last year. Prof. Rozelle often asks Chinese interlocutors: In 15 years, do they want China to look more like Japan or the Philippines? To achieve the former, major improvements to early-childhood education are needed, he believes.

But change has been hard. Handian Village is in Henan province, where more than 12 per cent of the population has left to take coastal jobs as factory workers and delivery drivers. In rural areas, the young and the old remain – often with the old raising the young.

Childcare is a struggle for the elderly even if here, like everywhere in China, education is deified.

Just six kilometres from Mr. Du’s house, local officials have preserved the childhood home of Cui Qi – or Daniel Tsui – who grew up here before going on to win the 1998 Nobel Prize for Physics.

Children in Handian Village learn about Mr. Cui, and education has gotten better in recent years. Teachers have improved, as have their standards of instruction. Public school is free and students have access to preschool at a modest cost.

But preschool begins at three – after the best window for early intervention – and the obstacles to early-childhood learning are high, says Du Xiaming, a retired teacher who spent 40 years teaching local elementary students.

“Most kids here get nearly zero education before they get to kindergarten. When they first go to school, they know nothing,” he said.

Before beginning formal studies, children, “just spend their days running outside their homes, playing around or doing nothing,” Mr. Du said. As a teacher, it was clear which students had received academic attention from parents. “Those who have read books at home are usually more receptive and can comprehend new things faster,” he said.

For parents in his area, there isn’t a lack of opportunity to read to children. Farmers “can be very free with time, because we don’t have fixed work schedules,” Mr. Du said.

The crux of the issue is the parents themselves. “A parent who hasn’t learned enough knowledge won’t be able to teach their kids anything,” he said.

More: A parting view from Beijing

Nathan VanderKlippe has been The Globe’s Beijing-based correspondent since 2013 and has seen the ambitions and discontents of Xi Jinping’s China take shape. He outlines some key areas to watch around China’s political and economic ambitions as it also represses ethnic minorities and holds two Canadians captive.

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