Thursday, May 6, 2010

Once biggest school shrinks with declining birth rate

Lao Song Elementary School, once the world’s largest elementary school with enrollment of 11,000 students now has a student population of just 778. Located adjacent to Monga Historic District in Taipei City, it has long been the breeding ground for Taiwan’s elites. What is happening at Lao Song is not unique in Taiwan; it has been brought on by the island’s low birth rate.

According to the Directorate-General of Budget, Accounting and Statistics, by the end of 2009, primary and elementary school children under the age of 12 accounted for 12 percent of the total population or 2.8 million. Five years ago, the same age group totaled 3.41 million and accounted for 15 percent of Taiwan’s population. In just half a decade, that segment has shrunk by 600,000. As a result of the island’s low birth rate, kindergartens and nurseries have also decreased by about 20 percent from five years ago.

Part of this might be attributed to the "Calendar Effect" as more mothers choose to give birth during more favorable zodiac signs, but it cannot account for the overall decrease. Since the year of the tiger is a less desirable year, according to Chinese custom, the number of babies born during the first two months of this year was 9 percent less than for the same period in 2009 according to the United Daily News. However, the low birth rate can also be attributed to other factors.

Government officials said that due to the weak economy, the marriage rate in 2009 hit a record low of 5.07 percent. If the situation does not improve by the end of 2011, Taiwan’s birth rate will be lower than the death rate by 2017, causing negative population growth. Demography scholars already estimate that last year’s fertility rate in Taiwan of the world's lowest, now they expect 2010 to be even lower. According to Yang Wen-shan, a researcher of sociology at Academia Sinica, Taiwan and Portugal are the only two countries in the world where birth rates continue to decline while many other countries reversed the declining trend in 2006.

In speaking to the Taipei-based China Times, Hsu Wen-gui, a teacher who has taught at the Lao Song Elementary School for 35 years, still remembers the glory days. He said it used to take a whole hour just for all the students to group together in the morning. If you looked out then, the children were like swarms of ants forming their lines.

However, if this downward trend continues, Taiwan will vanish naturally without an outside attack, according to Sun Te-hsiung, a member of the Population Policy Committee at the Ministry of the Interior and also a former chairman of Taiwan’s Demography Association. He has put forth a slogan - "Children are our national assets and bearing children is a citizen's duty" – to combat the problem.

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The Press Division of the Taipei Economic and Cultural Office (TECO) in San Francisco represents the Government Information Office (GIO), Executive Yuan, Republic of China (Taiwan). GIO maintains nine Press Divisions in the United States, including the San Francisco office. The Press Divisions are in charge of promoting Taiwan's public relations and cultural exchanges. This blog is updated by the Press Division, TECO in San Francisco.