As China’s juvenile crime rate continues to rise and panic over the prevalence of school bullying and violence sets in authorities in China are turning to new and more effective ways to deal with the problem of correcting serious misbehavior by juveniles—especially those between the ages of 13 and 16.
Lately, there has been renewed attention on the possibility of revitalizing an institution from the past: the “work-study school (gongdu xuexiao).” In Hubei, for example, provincial authorities recently issued a joint opinion authorizing use of work-study schools for students who engage in repeated acts of bullying or violence and fail to respond to other disciplinary measures. Following recent measures adopted by several other provinces including Shandong and Jiangsu, work-study schools are poised to once again play a role in preventing and correcting juvenile crime.
Unless the implementation of work-study schools is accompanied by national legislative reform and a commitment to providing the necessary associated resources, it is unlikely that these schools will be able to play a significant role in addressing the root causes of school-based violence or other types juvenile delinquency.
Originally established in the Soviet Union as a means of dealing with the problem of orphans after the Second World War, work-study schools first arrived in China in 1955 and became one of several means for handling the problem of juvenile delinquency.
As the name implies, “work-study schools” once included workshops so that students could engage in productive labor to complement their studies. Into the 1980s and early 1990s, police continued to place juveniles in work-study schools, particularly juveniles who had committed minor infractions of the law or those who committted more serious offenses but who could not be held legally responsible due to their age.
With the passage of the Law on Prevention of Juvenile Delinquency in 1999, work-study schools became officially voluntary. Parents or guardians of school-aged children who engaged in one of nine categories of “serious misbehavior,” ranging from disruption of public order to repeated theft to drug usage, could apply to education authorities to transfer their children to a work-study school for a combined course of education, treatment, and correction.
These reforms have generally brought significant changes and improved conditions at the schools. Though still commonly known as “work-study schools,” the institutions no longer require students to participate in productive labor. Instead, the focus is on providing students with an environment in which they can complete middle-school curriculum as part of the national nine-year compulsory education system and receive treatment targeted at correcting their behavioral issues. Though this environment remains highly regimented, with continuous monitoring and an emphasis on instilling discipline, physical punishment is a much rarer occurrence.
But the voluntary nature of the schools has also contributed to their general decline. Stories of the prison-like conditions and corporal punishment of former work-study schools have meant that parents are often reluctant to send their children to these schools, fearing both the stigma attached and the potential for bad habits and behaviors to be reinforced through proximity to other troubled teenagers. Even with a name-change to “special education schools” (zhuanmen jiaoyu xuexiao), the negative reputation of the “work-study school” still lingers.
As a result, across the country once-full “work-study schools” have seen their student numbers decline despite an increase in delinquency rates. In some schools, teachers have come to outnumber students. Many institutions have been forced to close. This may be one reason why supporters of these institutions are seeking to present them as a valuable asset to society that can help respond to the problem of school violence. Experts on juvenile delinquency like Yao Jianlong see work-study schools as an important form of community-based corrections that can be used as an intermediate measure between doing nothing and mobilizing the machinery of the criminal justice system. For the schools to have that impact, however, there needs to be a mechanism through which students most in need of the schools’ educational offerings would be sent there.
This would, at the very least, necessitate amendments to the Law on Prevention of Juvenile Delinquency and would most likely require complementing legislative changes to ensure that any administrative or judicial decision compelling a child to attend a “special education school” is accompanied by a right to appeal and other procedures aimed at protecting the rights of the child and their parents. Unless such actions are taken, it seems doubtful that even widespread public concern about school violence will see a resurgence of China’s work-study schools.