International schools follow foreign businesses to China

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 11 September, 2004, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 11 September, 2004, 12:00am

The international education scene in the mainland is changing rapidly. The picture is altering almost daily as the economy booms, the WTO factor weighs in, and more companies from outside China set up businesses there.

Not only does this mean that increasing numbers of non-local families are now arriving but demand is rising locally for education that can give greater numbers of students the option of overseas as well as mainland higher education and the all-round development skills needed for the global job market.

The result is on the one hand a flood of overseas schools setting up in different parts of the country and on the other a growing number of mainland schools developing 'international' sections.

The international schools in this guide are selected from the sector that specifically caters for children who are holders of Hong Kong or foreign passports. A handful were established in the 1980s but most in the past few years. Founding histories vary, with some schools arising from diplomatic beginnings, some from economic development zone initiatives. Some are run by groups operating international schools elsewhere, some are parent-inspired. They may be for-profit or non-profit.

Several have connections with Hong Kong. These include Concordia International in Shanghai, a sister school to Hong Kong International School; and the Utahloy schools, Yew Chung schools, and International School of Sino-Canada, which come under Hong Kong education foundations or groups.

Although the expatriate population in many areas is rising fast, competition is appearing for these students as restrictions on local schools' recruitment of non-locals start to be lifted. International schools are still subject to a policy which precludes them from recruiting mainland students. Those from Hong Kong, Taiwan and Macau are eligible to attend.

Similar exclusion policies in other countries have been easing in recent years. Thailand, for example, opened up its international schools to local students in the early 1990s. If and when this is going to happen in the mainland is currently the subject of hot debate. Some see it as being just around the corner, others are more sceptical.

What is under way already, according to those working north and south, is an expansion of mainland interest in international education, including the international schools, and more discussion with Beijing education officials, helping to increase understanding on both sides.

There is also mainland interest as to how international schools are inspected and accredited. A recent development has seen the National Centre for Curriculum and Textbook Development (NCCT) working together with accrediting bodies in the United States and Europe and visiting international schools. The Western Academy of Beijing and the International School of Beijing have already undergone NCCT accreditation. Yew Chung International School has been selected as the first school in Shanghai to go through the process.

What this move means in the longer term remains to be seen. Control or quality assurance for the thousands of new expatriate families that will be coming into the country or a passing phase have all been suggested as possible outcomes by those in mainland international school circles.

Expansion of foreign passport holder schools has been particularly noticeable in Beijing and Shanghai in the past two years. One trend is the arrival of a number of British-style schools. They include Shanghai and Tianjin Rego International schools, British School of Shanghai, British School of Beijing and Dulwich International School Shanghai. These offer an alternative to the North American curriculum and International Baccalaureate (IB) programmes of older international schools. An Australian-curriculum school has also opened in Beijing this term.

Schools have not only been growing in number but spreading to major provincial cities. International Schools of China is one group which specialises in this. The Christian association has established schools in Qingdao, Shenyang, Chengdu, Tianjin and Wuhan. It seeks city governments looking to stimulate foreign investment and willing to assist in developing an international school. Next year, after two decades in the mainland, they finally plan to gain a presence in the capital with a school in Beijing.

The largest business communities are from Taiwan, Japan, South Korea, Singapore and Hong Kong, which have created strong demand for international school places. Overseas Chinese families may also look to educate their children in these schools. To cope with increasing demand, many schools have recently or are planning to move to bigger campuses or expand their facilities. Almost half of those listed are in this situation. This can be a headache. Sites available in convenient locations often shrink as development races ahead in a city. Developers may seek arrangements that prove unsuitable for a school's founding philosophy.

Another major issue is how to effectively use English as a medium of instruction when faced with large numbers of students who do not speak English as a native language. This is handled in a variety of ways. Some schools offer in-class support, others have English language centres or immersion programmes. Limits on the numbers of English as a second language students per class can be set. An English-only policy within a school is sometimes used, while language tests on admission, particularly for older children, may be employed.

Schools adapt their curricula to their mainland setting, offering Chinese language and culture to varying degrees. A few emphasise bilingualism in English and Putonghua, such as the Yew Chung schools, the New School of Collaborative Learning in Beijing and some Singapore-oriented schools.

Fees are expensive, particularly in major cities such as Beijing and Shanghai where they can reach US$20,000 annually and more. They drop substantially outside. High charges are associated with staff costs, with the need to recruit qualified overseas teachers on expatriate terms.

Staff recruitment, however, has been boosted by recent world events with the mainland becoming an increasingly attractive choice for teachers on the international school circuit. An exodus from the Middle East, the relatively secure situation in the mainland, together with increasingly high standards of living in many cities are some of the reasons given.

The debenture, the bane of many parents' existence in Hong Kong, is not a popular feature in the mainland, although many schools do have annual capital levies or a building fee on top of tuition fees. Fees in the following listings include these if charged annually, but do not include those under US$1,000 or the one-off payments sometimes required when a student first starts at a school.

The rising number of foreign passport holder schools is echoed by developments within the local sector. Dual diploma high schools, with students gaining Chinese and overseas qualifications, have emerged, with provinces in Canada being particularly active in these types of arrangements. Other schools are running international sections, with rising interest in IB programmes. These schools cater for local students but also attract interest from Korean, Japanese and overseas Chinese families keen for their children to gain community connections and go to Chinese universities with a view to future business in the mainland. Fees may also be considerably lower.

A further blending of the international scene has been the arrival of schools run by mainland nationals offering international curricula and targeting returning Chinese scholar families as well as the expatriate community, such as the Beijing Zhongguancun International School.

The recent accreditation granted the Yew Chung group, which runs Yew Chung schools for foreign passport holder schools and separate Yew Wah schools for mainland students, to offer a foreign curriculum to mainland students is yet another addition. The school is introducing a British-based curriculum at its Yantai Yew Wah International Educational School in Shandong province. It has chosen IGCSEs (International General Certificate of Secondary Education) and A-Levels.

Given such a dynamic situation in terms of schools, campuses, facilities and policy changes, predictions for what is to come in the next 12 months are a tough call. Perhaps, though, the one thing safe to say is that this time next year the international education landscape in the mainland will look completely different.

Several major cities also have national system schools from non-English speaking countries. They include Japanese, Korean, French and German schools and may be long established.