LHASA - The government will extend a free education program in Southwest China's Tibet autonomous region starting from September to include all preschool children, an unprecedented measure among the country's provincial-level regions.
Children in Tibet will be able to enjoy 15 years of free education from kindergarten to senior high school. Children in most parts of the country receive just nine years of free schooling.
A spokesman with Tibet's education department said Thursday that the welfare program has covered rural kindergartens since last year and will be extended to include urban public preschools this year, benefiting an additional 38,000 children.
The extended program is estimated to cost 69 million yuan (10.9 million U.S. dollars), which will be covered by the regional government, the spokesman said.
Children in Tibet's kindergartens are taught in both the Mandarin and Tibetan languages, the spokesman said.
"The government is actively pushing for bilingual preschool education. Tibetan children in kindergartens will learn their own language while being trained to communicate in Mandarin," the spokesman said.
Experts say preschool has been a weak link in the educational system in Tibet. Last year, only 35 percent of preschool-age children in Tibet - 41,700 kids - were enrolled in kindergartens.
The government has pledged to raise the ratio to 60 percent by 2015. For this year alone, 217 kindergartens will be built or renovated to accommodate increased enrollment, the spokesman said.
Tsepal, a local resident whose daughter is enrolled at the Lhasa Experimental Kindergarten, said she pays just 1,200 yuan for meals and transportation fees each semester, down from about 2,800 yuan last year.
"It is great. We have been able to save a lot of money," Tsepal said.
For centuries, secular schools for the masses had struggled to take hold in Tibet, where monasteries have played a key role in the region's predominantly Buddhist society.
While the elite class was able to educate their children in privileged schools, the vast majority of Tibetan parents had no option but to send their children to monasteries to become monks or have them learn how to raise cattle.
Secular schools began to flourish in Tibetan areas under the Communist Party of China (CPC)'s leadership. In 1985, the government of Tibet introduced free full-time boarding schools for students starting at the kindergarten level and going all the way to senior high school.
In the regional capital of Lhasa, the municipal government has significantly boosted its education budget over the past five years - from 550 million yuan in 2007 to 1.29 billion yuan in 2011, according to Dorje Dondrup, head of the city's education department.
He said Lhasa's senior high enrollment has reached more than 81 percent, up from 48 percent five years ago.
"Now my children study everything at the village primary school - math, Tibetan, Mandarin, English," said Tserin Dorje, a farmer who lives in suburban Lhasa.
"They teach me English words sometimes. I am so proud of them. I hope they can have a better future with this education," he said.
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