The rise of China's international schools

It’s no secret that China takes its education seriously. As we write millions of students are taking the world’s biggest and possibly most stressful exam, the gaokao, one which determines the course of entire lives. The gaokao exam is a cause of almost constant pressure in China and has been blamed for a myriad of mental health issues amongst teenagers who will often finish their high school curriculums a year early in order to study almost nonstop for their one chance at a top-tier university. It’s no small wonder that some parents, particularly in the expanding middle classes want a different way of learning, one that is more individual, holistic and is quickly becoming something akin to a status symbol.

We are of course talking about the rise of the international school.  Within China, there are primarily two types - ones which cater almost exclusively to foreigners or Chinese citizens with foreign passports usually modelled on British or American syllabuses and found in cities with high proportions of expat workers such as Shanghai and Beijing. The second category, however, is the one to keep an eye on. This marries a bilingual education with a western style curriculum to create a new experience for Chinese students who may not wish to continue in the exam factories of China’s mainstream state education.

China already has more international schools than any other country in the world. A 2017 relaxation on laws restricting access only to foreigners has meant that as long as there is a Chinese partner involved in the school they can flourish across the country. One notable example has been the Elite K-12 Education Group which has taken inspiration from British educational establishments to dominate top-tier cities across the county. Even well known private schools from the UK have been tempted over to open up in China with both Dulwich and Wellington School opening their doors recently.

The growth in international schools is estimated to double in the next 10 years to keep up with the astounding demand generated by the middle classes who see a modern bilingual education as an important stepping stone to further education in western universities and to the creation of the notion of belonging to a class of modern cosmopolitan ‘global citizens.’ All this growth is good news for foreign teachers who are in more demand than ever and can make significantly more in terms of salary and perks than in their home countries. Local teachers are also benefiting from the growth of international schools as they train up in modern teaching practice that veers away from rote learning and allows them to embrace new and creative forms of education.