Chinese families fuel new demand for international schools

Demand for international-style education in China is rising rapidly, and not just among expatriate families. For the many Western expats who come to China to live and work, as well as others from Hong Kong, Macau and Taiwan, selecting a school has always been a priority. But now more Chinese families are also seeking an overseas-style education for their children at home in China, complete with the different teaching styles, curriculum and multidimensional environment that brings.

In June, the China-Britain Business Council (CBBC) held a forum in Shanghai on international schools in China, which revealed how this growing demand is opening doors for British schools.

The growth of private bilingual schools

According to the Independent Schools Consultancy Group (ISC), the number of registered international schools in China in 2015 was 545, compared with just 22 thirteen years ago. With this comes a growing opportunity for investment partnerships, as Ivan Ma of explained at the forum.

Of the three forms of international school in China – the traditional model admitting only foreign passport holders; private bilingual schools that admit both Chinese and foreign pupils; and international departments in local Chinese schools – the private bilingual schools have the greatest potential, due to a recent tightening of the policy on opening international departments in Chinese schools and to the limited number of school-age expatriates in China.

Domestic bilingual schools can also fill a particular gap in the market: Chinese demand for education abroad now extends not only to universities, but also to schools, with demand beginning to outstrip supply. But prevailing Chinese government policy is holding them back – and private bilingual schools can meet this demand until such time as this changes.

The role of UK schools

Bilingual schools in China, especially new ones, face challenges: Mr Ma cites profitability, teacher recruitment and training and especially building brand awareness. In order to tap into the market potential and to tackle the issue of brand awareness, many international schools are building bilingual schools under their brand, such as Nord Anglia Chinese International School (NACIS).

Jian Xu, vice-chairman of the privately run Shanghai World Foreign Language School, which has adopted the International Baccalaureate, spoke about the importance of understanding what ‘international education’ means when designing a curriculum: it is not simply a case of copying a foreign model, but rather means incorporating elements such as independent thinking into a hybrid syllabus.

Patrick Hoey, president of Wycombe Abbey International School, who earlier opened the Dulwich College schools in China, describes the hybrid curriculum as a definite advantage, explaining that the Chinese families who are interested in these schools want an all-round modern education as opposed to a purely foreign one. The retention of some Chinese elements appeals to those with a traditional outlook, while on the other hand the broad syllabus prepares pupils for overseas study and international careers.

Attractions for investors

Chinese pupils follow a compulsory nine-year education programme from age seven to 16. Pupils at international schools during this time must follow a syllabus determined by the Chinese Ministry of Education, in addition to the international curriculum that they are studying. This puts pressure on middle schools (age 13-16) that run international programmes, and makes senior high schools (age 16-18) much more attractive to investors.

Prospective investors must speak to the provincial education bureau and gain permission for investment in an international school. It can be a lengthy process. Adam Rush of the property consultants DTZ Cushman & Wakefield spoke at CBBC’s forum about investor returns, citing feasibility studies into the opening of international schools, and presenting a study of their progress and profitability. His firm is working with Danes Hill School and Loretto School to open campuses overseas.

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