The pupils' republic

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 11 April, 2004, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 11 April, 2004, 12:00am

When Elizabethan actor and entre-preneur Ned Alleyn founded Dulwich College in London in 1619, with letters patent from King James I, it is unlikely he foresaw that nearly 400 years later it would be setting up in China. The prestigious private school, along with even more illustrious educational establishments such as Eton and Harrow, has for centuries been the breeding ground of Britain's elite, boasting among its former students writers Raymond Chandler and P.G. Wodehouse, as well as former Bank of England governor Sir Eddie George.

For centuries the schools have been the epitome

of Britain's class structure, where well-to-do parents sent their children as boarders to prepare them for Oxford or Cambridge universities and, they hoped, distinguished careers as doctors, diplomats or even prime ministers. Fastidiously traditional, such schools are synonymous with images of uniformed students playing rugby and cricket, and getting up to jolly japes that could lead to a caning in the headmaster's office. This romantic image has been enshrined in countless books and films, from the sentimental scholars' tales Goodbye Mr Chips and To Serve Them All My Days, to the lampooning of the St Trinian's comedies with their terrorising, hockey stick-wielding schoolgirls.

The idea of such a quintessentially British education would appear anathema to communist China. But such is the mainland's booming education market that Dulwich is setting up four international franchises in the country in the next few years: the first opens in Shanghai on August 26; a second will open in Suzhou, Jiangsu province, in 2005; a third is coming to Beijing within the next two years and a fourth will open at a venue yet to be decided, probably in southern China.

In the 17th century, Alleyn laid down rules on a uniform for the school's students - an upper coat of 'good cloth of sad colour' and black caps - and three days a week the scholars were to have 'beere without stint'. While beer will undoubtedly be off the menu at Dulwich College International School (DCIS) in Shanghai, students will have to wear a formal uniform of shirt, tie and jacket with grey trousers. It will be the first time blazers, cricket bats and the old school tie have been seen on the Bund since the second world war - remember the British schoolboy in J.G. Ballard's Empire Of The Sun?

'People have uniforms in most schools here; we're taking the next step by bringing in a jacket. The parents support it,' says Fritz Libby, one of the school's financial founders.

'The numbers [of interested parents] are looking extremely good. There is clearly a very good awareness of British education,' says Graham Able, headmaster of Dulwich College in London.

But while the traditional image of English education is believed to be what is attracting parents to the college's Shanghai equivalent, the school - which is being built on a former swamp on the city's outskirts - will differ vastly from its historic ancestor. A cricket pitch will take pride of place on the sports field, but the modern architecture and superb computer and recreation facilities reveal as much about the changes in British education as they do about recent progress in Chinese society. It is as unlikely students will play conkers in the playground as they will speak the queen's English with a plum in their mouth.

Class content, too, will have its differences. International schools face difficulties when it comes to designing a curriculum that doesn't offend political sensitivities on the mainland, and Dulwich will be no exception. The government vets textbooks, potential teachers and the overall curriculum. Sensitive issues such as the Taiwan policy or the Falun Gong must be given a wide berth. Students will learn the English national curriculum, but sixth-formers will take the international baccalaureate instead of A-levels to determine their eligibility for university. The school will have pupils of many nationalities and, at least initially, will cater only to the children of expatriates and those of Hong Kong and Taiwanese migrants. By law, Chinese children are not allowed to attend foreign-run schools until they finish compulsory education at about 16. Dulwich is hoping to recruit sixth-formers and is establishing joint-venture partnerships with Chinese high schools to that end.

For a child to be eligible one parent must have a United States green card or overseas passport. Those Chinese students who are eligible will be taught separately from foreign students in either Cantonese or Putonghua. As China continues to open up, many people believe the ban on Westerners and Chinese studying together will be lifted. 'We believe it may be changing. The indications are that they will be allowed,' says Able.

Investors share Able's confidence and have poured millions of dollars into the Shanghai project. Wealthy parents too hope education will be liberalised. China has 230 million students enrolled in schools from kindergarten to the end of middle school. State-run high schools, however, have room for just 10 per cent of middle-school graduates, making studying abroad an even more attractive option. Each year about 60,000 mainland students apply to study abroad.

International education is in demand from many Chinese parents. 'We get a lot of calls from parents - every day. All we can tell them is that because of the rules we can't accept Chinese students,' says a spokeswoman for the Yew Chung Yao Zhong international school in Beijing, which has more than 400 students. BISS international school in Beijing, which has students from 42 countries, also says it gets huge numbers of inquiries from Chinese parents.

A British (or American, Canadian or French) education doesn't come cheap. Tuition fees at Beijing's established leading private international schools are about US$18,000 a year and the fees at Dulwich will be similar for Western students. Eligible Chinese students will pay about $5,000 a year, nearly five times the average annual income. Compared to Hong Kong and other Asian cities, this is expensive, and it accounts for cities such as Beijing and Shanghai featuring regularly near the top of the world's most expensive cities lists. Yet Chinese families consider education the most important investment they can make and go to great lengths to send their offspring overseas to study.

In 2002, Chinese consumers spent more than

$40 billion on education and some experts predict

that figure could rise to about $90 billion next year. The one-child policy means parents can allocate

large chunks of their incomes to education, with grandparents, aunts and uncles also sharing the burden. United Nations' data shows the average Chinese family puts aside 10 per cent of its savings

for this purpose. Shanghai is leading the way. A

recent survey showed urban residents spent 14 per cent more on their children's education last year

than the previous 12 months at an average of $112 a person, mostly on extra-curricular activities such as piano, violin and painting lessons. In return, pupils are under phenomenal pressure to do well. To enter a top university a student must come from a prestigious high school and have completed an arduous series of exams. The best universities accept only about four per cent of graduating high-school students, and less than half pass college-entrance examinations. International schools are seen as another way to give children the best possible start in life.

'My son is 14 and he is in middle school right now,' says Yao Liping, 42, a hotel manager. 'I think international schools educate young people using foreign principles or patterns. They teach students common sense and about the real world, and they also equip them to deal with problems they might meet in later life. The schools attach importance to the creative ability of students. The principle task of Chinese schools is a series of examinations.

'If I had the money I would like to send my son to international school. He could also enjoy a good language environment, making it easier to improve his language skills. And the facilities and equipment at foreign schools are much better than at normal Chinese schools.'

Cong Jun, 36, who works for a joint-venture company, has a daughter in second grade at a Chinese primary school. He likes the global perspective international schools can impart to their students. 'I think her courses are much more difficult than mine when I was her age,' he says. 'Chinese education is composed of one exam after another, so schools don't attach importance to the personality and hobbies of students, which is what international schools are good at fostering. Because there are students from many countries in the international schools, children will naturally pick up the idea that every nation is equal. And they will understand that ideas about friendship and culture go beyond national borders.'

Despite this, Cong won't be sending his daughter to an international school. Not only is she not eligible under the passport rule, he thinks the international option is too expensive. There is another reason

too. 'I am convinced Chinese kids should get their education in Chinese schools if they want to merge into the society easily when they grow up. And as Chinese, they can't avoid the exams. Chinese schools meet the need.'

Cash-laden expats, however, have no such qualms. Six-year-old Rory Hutton will join Dulwich College when it opens. His mother Lisa, whose husband works for PricewaterhouseCooper, has lived in Shanghai for 10 years and in Hong Kong before that. 'The main [drawcard] is its reputation in Britain,' she says. 'It isn't quite the top reason but it does help. We like the fact it provides a British-style education with an international flavour. The school also has a Putonghua programme and because we reckon we'll be here for quite a few years that's very important.'

Dulwich is in the vanguard of schools keen to take advantage of more liberal attitudes to education in China, spurred on by success in other parts of Asia. It has run a school on the island of Phuket in Thailand for the past eight years, while Harrow and Shrewsbury schools have branches in Bangkok.

'What parents are looking for is a style of teaching that differs from the traditional style in the Orient,' says Able. 'It's more open ended, getting people to think and problem solve. It's a slightly different teaching style which complements and develops the formal didactic style they are used to from their early education. The combination makes them very attractive to top universities.'

But China's situation is different from that of Thailand. After the revolution in 1949 the Communists banned foreign missionary schools, and Chinese students have been banned from studying with Westerners ever since. China's first private schools opened in the late 1980s, but burgeoning economic growth and the emergence of a middle class has seen their numbers rise dramatically.

'The market is so strong ... growth in Beijing has been 10 per cent to 20 per cent in any year you want to look at,' says John McBryde, director of the Western Academy of Beijing, which turns 10 this year, making it one of the longest-established international schools in China. 'Last year we grew 20 per cent, the year of Sars. If you're going to come to Beijing with a new school, you've got to come here now ... everyone recognises that while Chinese kids can't get into international schools now, they will [in the future].'

Fritz Libby is more cautious about speculation that Beijing will change the rules on Westerners and foreigners studying together. Nonetheless, he says Dulwich is in a good position if regulations are relaxed. 'A lot [of people] say the time when Chinese students can enrol at an international school is just around the corner, but I've not seen it,' he says. 'No one knows. But if it does happen our early entry with Dulwich means we are in a good position. Shanghai is behind on the English schools [front]. The American schools have been here a long time and most are already well set up. But no one was really investing in schools that you would find back [in Britain]. No one really developed schools along the lines of the big schools you see in Hong Kong such as Island School or King George V.'

Colin Niven, headmaster of Dulwich Shanghai who taught British Prime Minister Tony Blair during his time at Fettes College in Scotland, is enthusiastic about the new frontier. 'This whole education boom in China is very exciting. It's one of those things that everyone benefits from,' he says. Niven, himself an Old Alleynian as past pupils are called, has worked in education all his life, including a stint as head of Island School in Hong Kong, and has an infectious passion for the project - and for the cricket pitch.

'The school is genuinely idealistic and it is sincerely not a money-grabbing operation,' he says. 'Every penny of the profits that Dulwich earns goes directly back into scholarships for those who can't afford to go to Dulwich. I was one of those of students myself. There really is a lot of idealism.'

Niven has been impressed by the commitment of local Asian investors in contributing to educational development in China. The Shanghai campus is expected to cost about $10 million. The money is being invested by Global Education Information Consulting, a Shanghai-based, foreign-owned investment company, and Saha Union, a Thai firm run by Anand Panyarachun, former prime minister of Thailand and, Niven says, the only prime minister Dulwich has produced. Libby, a founder of Shanghai-based Global Education Information Consulting, says the school is run as a not-for-profit organisation. 'Our investors get a return through royalties - they raise the money for the school and get the money back,' says Libby.

The results of four pioneering Chinese scholarship students who went to school at Dulwich in London and are due to graduate this year indicate what can

be achieved. 'One has been accepted by Stanford, another by Harvard. Another has been accepted by Cambridge and Harvard and will almost certainly choose Harvard. The other has been accepted by Cambridge and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and will probably choose MIT,' says

Able, clearly proud of their achievements.

Dulwich's next step will be to set up a similar operation in Suzhou. 'We like the model of setting up an international school and a joint-venture senior high school. We've signed a deal with the 900-year-old Suzhou Middle School - China's second-oldest high school - and we hope to have the International Baccalaureate in Suzhou by 2005 or 2006.'

Gilbard Honey-Jones is headmaster of the British School of Beijing, which opened on March 29 in the embassy district of downtown Beijing. 'We didn't intend to open until August, but since I arrived in February I've already seen 120 families,' says Honey-Jones, whose school is aimed primarily at expatriate children and will ultimately have a capacity of 200. 'We've been meeting families, especially those with younger kids, and we've opened a nursery, unplanned, as a community service.

'The school has a uniform and all staff are British-qualified and experienced. We intend to get it right if Beijing will let us. We're putting together a board of governors at ground level to show us and tell us what the community needs.'

Educators are keen to have some kind of legislative framework in place to keep sharks out of the market. 'I see the development of international education in China as a very positive step forward, but we all know there are and there will be unscrupulous operators,' says Honey-Jones. 'The Chinese government needs to put in place procedures to make sure everything functions, a monitoring body to ensure you can keep delivering what you promise.'

Reputation is everything when it comes to education. Wyatt Cameron, marketing director of DCIS in Shanghai, says the school's reputation has been a big draw. 'You've got the brand name and you've got the history of the school going back 392 years. They have trust in the brand,' says Cameron. 'Asian families focus on the core curriculum,

western families want a comprehensive activities programme, that's the general stereotype. But

Asians also like the co-curricular things; they

want a strong musical instruments programme,

for example. And American parents want a lot of sports programmes.'

The changing nature of expatriate life in China has altered the education landscape, he says. 'It used to be that coming to Shanghai was a two-year hardship posting, but that's no longer the case. There is a lot more focus on long-term education,' he says.

Although education in China is booming there's still a long way to go, says McBryde. 'Globally there needs to be more schools. The great thing in Shanghai and Beijing is that there is an excellent choice of schools. They've got the best teachers you'll find anywhere. And these are kids for whom it's cool to

be at school.'