Shanghai international schools are priced beyond the reach of many expats
Options are limited for foreign families in Shanghai who have to pay school fees out of their own pockets, posing difficult choices
When American expat Heather Rose-Chase and her family first moved to Shanghai four years ago, they quickly realised that they could not afford to send their two sons to international school.
Chase's husband was an expat on a "half package", a remuneration deal that eliminates or reduces certain benefits typically associated with foreign workers.
His employer does not pay for his children's education, and at first the family turned to homeschooling because they couldn't find an affordable option.
"When we walked in we thought - no problem, we'll be local [hires]," Rose-Chase said. "As soon as we started researching the cost of the schools, we quickly realised that we couldn't afford it. We just didn't know."
For expats who have to pay school fees out of their own pockets, and cannot afford international schools, there are only a few options. They can home-school or enrol their kids into local private or public schools, depending on their children's proficiency in Putonghua.
Yet for many like Rose-Chase - whose sons could only speak limited Chinese - finding an affordable school that could accommodate foreigners posed a challenge.
According to a May survey by consultancy firm Employment Conditions Abroad, the average package for expats who are managers at multinational companies, and with at least eight years of experience, is about US$276,384.
This includes an average US$82,537 in cash compensation, US$96,012 in tax allowances and US$97,834 in other benefits like education, accommodation and transport.
Yet about 10 per cent of firms surveyed did not provide education payments, while about 14 per cent will only pay between 50 and 90 per cent of tuition fees.
For companies that include the cost of education in their cash compensation, about 29 per cent provided an allowance that "may or may not meet 100 per cent of tuition fees" or an average of primary and secondary international school fees.
This discrepancy arises because companies may not regularly update compensation amounts to reflect increases in education fees, said Lee Quane, the consultancy's regional director for Asia.
Expats based elsewhere than Shanghai or Beijing may have packages that are much less, he added.
One Indian expat moved from Hong Kong to Shanghai three years ago with her husband and two children. His compensation includes 60 per cent of their children's international school fees, but they still spend over half of his salary covering the remainder of the tuition, she said.
"We work twice as hard here," she said, adding that Shanghai schools were more expensive than those in Hong Kong. "There is no such thing as an affordable international school."
She has one child in high school and another starting secondary school, and pays about 250,000 yuan (HK$304,000) per child annually.
Despite the cost, she never considered enrolling her children into local schools because she thinks the system is too regimented and overly focused on academics.
"If they were younger I would have considered local education because it's easier for them to adjust," she said. "There's no way we could have sent them to a local bilingual school - the pressure is enormous."
According to Eddy Lee, director at foreign student consultancy China Education Centre, expat children with limited Putonghua skills could either go to international schools or local schools with international divisions.
Children who want to enrol in local classes where the medium of instruction is Putonghua must meet a minimum proficiency level of 3 or 4 from the Hanyu Shuiping Kaoshi, a standardised test for Chinese.
Authorities must also approve schools before they can issue documents for foreign pupils or students to gain the proper visas.
American expat Lora McCall considered enrolling her youngest child in a local kindergarten when they moved to Shanghai 18 months ago.
But McCall found it difficult because they had no connection to the school.
"We live in an area with very good public schools and it's even hard for local people to get into those schools," McCall said. The family has three children, and they are home-schooled by choice.
After home-schooling her sons for a while, Rose-Chase decided traditional schooling was a better option. She set about trying to find an affordable local school.
Although the family could afford the fees at some places, many of the school's international divisions were too much, costing as much as triple, she said.
Rose-Chase and her husband searched for about six months before finally enrolling their sons into the bilingual track of a local boarding school recommended to them by another expat friend.
They pay about 72,000 yuan a year.
When her sons started in middle school two years back, they were the only Caucasians, she said.
Despite the social and educational barriers, she's glad her children are immersing themselves into a foreign environment and learning about cultural sensitivity.
"For us it was a financial decision. It was the school we could afford," Rose-Chase said. "It is rigorous but they seem to be doing really well."