(Guardian Unlimited, by Jonathan Watts, 12.13.06)China will waive tuition fees for 150 million rural children next year in an attempt to close the education gulf that has opened up between rich and poor students since the start of the country’s market reforms.

The 15bn yuan (£1bn) scheme was hailed by the state media as a major element in the government’s construction of a “new socialist countryside”, but it will have to be followed by more funds if China is to shed its reputation as one of the lowest education spenders in Asia.

Under the plan, pupils will save £9-12 per year, which is a significant sum of money for rural families living on an average annual income of £195. “It may not be a big sum of money for an urban family, but it can be something important for a rural one, especially one in poverty-stricken areas,” Liu Shangxi, an official with the ministry of finance, was reported as saying in the state-run China Daily.Free schooling for all was once one of the proudest boasts of the communist state, but in the past 25 years, the state has put a priority on economic rather than social development.

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