Schools in the Sky


When walking through the streets of Beijing, Shanghai, or Guangzhou, don't be surprised if a ball suddenly falls from the sky. It's probably been kicked out of the yard of one of the illegal schools. Giving it back won't be simple: The schoolyard is high up, meters above the ground. 

The children playing on the rooftop between classes came with their parents to the urban regions of China as part of what may be the largest migration in history. Over the last three decades at least 150 million Chinese moved from the countryside to the city, 20 million children among them.

If you want to meet some of them, enter the run-down school building. From the narrow corridors you can get a glimpse into the 20 square meter classrooms where thirty children’s books are placed on the desks. Then follow the noise coming from the roof. Due to the lack of a school yard pupils gather here during the breaks looked after by their teacher, who reminds them every now and then: "Don't go to the edge!" 

Rooftop schools, as locals call them, are the result of the Chinese household registration system, or Hukou. Under the system migrant workers coming from villages aren't entitled to social services in the city, so their kids can't go to public schools. Therefore many of the migrant students spend school time in unregulated schools financed by their parents and run in empty marketplaces, inside and on the top of crumbling houses as well as in community centers built from shipping containers.

The number of clandestine school buildings may expand in the future. By 2025 an estimated 240 million new migrants are expected to arrive to China's cities.

Blog courtesy of Böbe Barsi

Illustration: Paola Saliby