Beijing schools get thumbs up
Beijing has a burgeoning international school sector offering many different types of school, but under central government rules, none of them is allowed to accept local students. By contrast, public and private schools serving mainland children can admit some international students provided they meet certain criteria - and more than 75 in the city now do so.
The growth of the alternative track has fuelled a trend among the capital's expatriates to send their children to study alongside local students, in a bid to give them a head start in Putonghua.
British architect Rory McGowan and his Russian wife have enrolled their two children in Fangcaodi Primary School, a Beijing state school teaching the Chinese National Curriculum that has been admitting foreign students for more than 40 years.
All children at Fangcaodi are taught in Putonghua and the couple took the decision to give Fionn, 12, and Kiril, eight, total immersion in the language after the children had attended a bilingual school teaching in English and Chinese.
American expatriate Helen Rutstein sent her two teenage daughters to an international school - the Western Academy of Beijing - because the girls had attended a string of international schools in other countries.
'But if my kids had been younger when we moved to Beijing, I would have put them in bilingual schools,' she said. 'Perfect Chinese is hands-down the best thing you can do for a child.
'Education and health care are the first two things expatriates will consider when offered a new posting. Beijing has the luxury of having over a dozen international schools, as it is one of the few cities [on the mainland] with a large expat community.'
Although some international schools have been operating in Beijing for several decades, the Beijing Education Commission (BEC) only started to monitor these schools in 1995. There are now 19 international schools are listed on commission's website, including kindergarten, primary and middle schools. International School of Collaborative Learning, Yew Chung International School of Beijing, Beijing BISS International School, International Montessori School of Beijing and Western Academy of Beijing were among the first to get official recognition, in 1996.
One of the oldest, International School of Beijing (ISB), was officially recognised in 1997. ISB grew from a small foreign school set up under the auspices of the United States Liaison Office in Beijing in the early 1970s. It was formally founded in 1980, when the US embassy merged the school with others run by the British, Australian, New Zealand and Canadian embassies.
Recognised as one of the most academically rigorous international schools in Beijing, it hosts 1,880 students in a sprawling 13-hectare campus in the northeastern Shunyi district. In addition to the 160 students who graduate each year, about 200 leave the school as their families' time in Beijing winds up, resulting in a high student turnover. On average, nearly 350 new students join the ISB community each year.
As one of the officially-sanctioned 'schools for foreign personnel', ISB is not allowed to take in mainland students. However, its Chinese language programme attracts 1,400 students, many of whom are from Chinese families that have returned from abroad.
Mark Hillman, ISB's communications director, said: 'It is a general trend throughout China, and especially in Beijing, that there are more students whose parents are returnee Chinese than there used to be.'
Fifty-six per cent of the school's students are from the US and Canada, while students from Hong Kong, Macau and Taiwan account for 9 per cent.
In 2003, the BEC started accrediting other schools that were considered suitable for foreign students. According to an official document, such schools had to have been 'established for more than 10 years', the teachers were required to have 'training to teach Chinese as a foreign language' and 'an English-speaking principal or equivalent' had to be in place to manage issues relating to foreign students.
In addition, foreign students had to be taught in the same class as local students and could not account for more than 10 per cent of the total student body.
The number of accredited schools has now risen to more than 75 - although nine schools were disqualified in the last annual review.
The privately-run Huijia International School, which was founded in 1993, has also gained accreditation to accept international students. About 20 per cent of its primary and secondary students are holders of foreign passports. Executive principal Zhao Wenxiu said Huijia's goal was to provide an education on a par with leading British independent school Eton College and Beijing's elite No4 Middle School.
Huijia is among nine schools in Beijing that offer the International Baccalaureate (IB) programme, and the only private school serving local students to do so.
'Although in terms of quality, international schools in Beijing can't be compared to [elite American private schools such as] Phillips Exeter [Academy], as they lack history and a long-proven university admission record, I am totally satisfied with the schools here,' said Rutstein, who has sent her children to seven international schools across the globe.