The crash in Jiangsu province comes amid a national discussion over the poor condition of Chinese school buses

At least 15 children have been killed in eastern China when their school bus slipped off an icy country road into an irrigation ditch.

At least eight other children were injured, one of them seriously, a spokesman for the Jiangsu provincial government said on Tuesday.

The accident happened on Monday evening as the bus was travelling along a rural highway outside the city of Xuzhou in the province's north.

Chinese news reports said the bus careened off the road after swerving to avoid a rickshaw.

The official Xinhua News Agency said 29 students were on board at the time of the crash, and that the bus was designed for 52 people and was not overloaded.

Witnesses cited by China News Service said the bus fell into a two-metre wide irrigation ditch.

Workers from a nearby food processing plant rushed to help, jumping into the icy water to save the children.

The head of the emergency team at Feng Xian People's hospital, where the injured were taken, said many passengers on appeared to have drowned.

The crash comes amid a national discussion over the poor condition of Chinese school buses and chronic underfunding of public schools, particularly in rural areas which have lagged far behind cities over the past three decades of rapid economic development.

Last month, 19 students and two adults were killed when a nine-seat private school van packed with 62 children crashed head-on with a truck in northwest Gansu province.

That was followed by a pledge from Wen Jiabao, the prime minister, that new rules to ensure school safety would be drafted within a month.

Wen said central and local governments would bear the cost of bringing often-shoddy school buses up to standard.

New regulations proposed on Sunday by China's cabinet provide guidelines such as forbidding private vehicles from overtaking buses when students are getting on or off, but did not address to what extent the government would fund school transport.

Many school buses are operated by car rental companies and even co-financed by parents.

Source: Agencies