Perhaps not surprisingly, for expatriate parents who want to educate their children in China while they are posted there, the options are increasing all the time. This is in terms of the number of schools to which foreigners can send their children, as well as the type of education opportunities that are now available. What was once a fairly limited range of options has grown a great deal and continues to do so year upon year.
No matter the option upon which you decide, you will be able to find other parents following the same route and therefore a good deal of support, advice and encouragement is always available – don’t hesitate to take advantage of the expertise and knowledge that your neighbours, friends and colleagues will have already built up. Seek out people who have already agonized over this decision and look at the choices they have made. Such advice may save you from trying to reinvent the wheel.
However, in the meantime, the following will provide you with some useful background on the different types of education provision available for you to consider.
International Schools in Shanghai
Almost all cities in China with a reasonable expatriate population have at least a couple of international schools from which you can choose – in Shanghai there is a multitude and you should have no difficulty at all in finding a place for your children. In fact, if you take the international school route, the biggest dif- ficulty you may face could well be narrowing down your options sufficiently for you to be able to make a final choice.
International schools represent a fairly obvious and straightforward option for most parents, if for no other reason than you will be able to ensure a good degree of continuity in your child’s education by enrolling them in a school that operates the same education system as you have experienced at home. If your child is currently at school in a large European country, the UK, USA or Australia, you will find a good number of schools in Shanghai offering your national curriculum, teaching in your home language and operating the same year and age group structure. The benefit of choosing this path is that your transition into the international school sector should be relatively simple and painless, while re-entering your national system on your return home will also be pretty straightforward.
Most international schools also offer the International Baccalaureate (IB) either alongside or in addition to their national curriculum. The IB caters for pupils of all ages and is offered in English, Spanish and French (read more about the IB).
However, it would be a pretty poor international school whose curriculum and programs of study did not also reflect the culture of their host country; fortunately, this is an area where the majority of international schools in Shanghai excel.
The teaching of Mandarin Chinese is offered by all international schools in Shanghai, although the amount and intensity of the instruction may well vary according to the school and its outlook, which in turn may also be shaped by you and your child’s needs. However, you can rest assured that your children will be learning at least some Mandarin wherever they attend school, so even if you don’t have the time or inclination to take lessons yourself, eventually somebody in the family should be able to communicate on your behalf.
International schools in Shanghai also place a premium on learning about culture and traditions, and this is very often done through celebrating and participating in Chinese festivals, holidays and national days. In this way, children and their families develop a sense of engagement with the wider community and gain a greater understanding of the many important events and occasions that shape the calendar in China.
International schools in Shanghai are genuinely international in that they have pupils from a vast range of nationalities and backgrounds, and this is one of the greatest benefits of attending such a school. It is not uncommon for larger international schools to have students from up to 100 different countries. Likewise, the parents of pupils will be involved in every conceivable profession, business or industry, which only serves to enhance and enrich the experience for the whole family.
Most international schools in Shanghai cover the full age range, which means they offer provision from pre-nursery school right up to year 13 (i.e. from two years old up to the age of 18). They are also mixed sex, i.e. they accept both boys and girls. These two facts are very advantageous for the expatriate family, in that parents are not required to be in several places at once with regards to the school run, parent-teacher meetings, school concerts, etc, while siblings being together in the same school means that you will have established a ready-made, inbuilt support system.
The majority of international schools in Shanghai are non-selective, i.e. they do not accept pupils solely on the grounds of academic ability. They may nevertheless require prospective pupils to sit an entrance examination, the primary purpose of which is, in most cases, to test prior learning and/or language ability. Some schools will also use an entrance examination to enable them to place pupils in the appropriate stream or set (e.g. pupils of roughly the same maths ability, or attainment level in science, might be grouped together). Generally speaking, waiting lists for international schools, even in the biggest cities, are not like those for the most prestigious institutions in Western countries, and therefore if you are able to meet the cost of the fees, you are usually able to secure a place in the institution of your choice without too lengthy a wait. Nevertheless, it is always advisable to begin the school entrance process at the earliest possible opportunity.
The biggest stumbling block to taking this path is that the fees for the majority of international schools are extremely high. If you are in the position that school fees are covered by your relocation package, this is not an issue. However, today this is not always the case.
Nevertheless, in the best schools you should be able to see quite clearly why the costs are so high. You can expect to find extraordinarily well-equipped classrooms and laboratories, extensive grounds, outstanding sports facilities and wonderful performance spaces, such as theaters and concert halls. However, as attractive and impressive as these facilities may well be, they are not in fact the main reason why international schools charge the fees that they do.
Employing first-rate teaching staff and maintaining small class sizes in the school is where you can expect the bulk of your fees to be spent. A good international school will have classes that are much smaller than you might expect to find in a comparable school at home, even in the independent sector. This has a significant impact on the quality of education that a school can provide and is an important reason why international schools charge the fees that they do. Manageable class sizes should be a high priority when you are considering schools – try to find out what the school’s policy is in this regard and what they consider their optimum class size to be.
The quality of the teaching staff at international schools is another reason why you will be charged premium fees but, at the same time, if a school has invested wisely in its staffing it will be worth every penny. In most instances the staff at international schools are of a high caliber, and a successful and imaginative principal will have put together a teaching team that consists of a good mix of youthful, energetic teachers on the way up combined with more experienced teachers looking for enhanced job satisfaction and a new challenge. A good staff will be balanced in this respect, as well as being from a fairly broad range of countries and training institutions.
This is an important factor to consider when you are making enquiries, but most international schools are pretty good at providing information about their staff, so do take the time to look on their website at the staff section as part of your research. Look for a staff that manages to combine both youth and experience, has some stalwarts in its ranks (this usually means the staff is happy and the environment is stable) and comes from a diverse range of backgrounds and education systems (so that you know the school’s approach and outlook isn’t limited or stagnant). A well-managed international school staff should go some way towards satisfying all of these criteria and if it does you can feel fairly confident that your child will be getting an education at least equivalent to that which they would experience at home.
See Choosing the Right School for further detailed guidance on the process of selecting the right international school for your children.
Public Schools in Shanghai
There has been an increase in recent years in the number of foreign families sending their children to public schools in China. This may be for financial reasons, because the international sector can be expensive, or for reasons of cultural immersion. Sometimes foreign employees are called upon to make a contribution to the cost of their children’s education, while the growing number of self-employed foreign entrepreneurs now in China have to assume the full cost of their school fees themselves. As international schools can be expensive, more and more people are exploring what Chinese public schools have to offer.
It is also the case that a small (but growing) number of families view this in a positive light as their way of rejecting the social and cultural divisions of the long-established expatriate lifestyle, and so they make an active choice to opt for a public school to improve their children’s language skills, their social integration and friendship groups, and the degree to which the family as a whole actively engage with wider Chinese society.
At present, expatriate parents most frequently opt to enroll their children in a public school at the kindergarten or nursery stage. The school fees are usually a significant deal cheaper than at an international school, while there are a number of other positive benefits.
In terms of facilities and the physical environment, local kindergartens usually have good-sized classrooms with spaces for activities such as art, music and physical education, as well as playgrounds with climbing equipment, sand pits and other equipment for outdoor play. The class sizes will range between about 20 and 30 pupils, and teachers will usually be supported by classroom assistants.
Parents who have chosen this course of action report outstanding development in their children’s Mandarin learning, as almost all of the teaching and communication takes place in Chinese. (There are some Chinese kindergartens that offer programs where half the classes are taught in English and half in Chinese.) Very young children adapt extremely quickly in this sort of environment, and many are able to switch easily and confidently between their home language and Chinese in a very short space of time and without any great difficulty or fuss. An ability to understand and to speak some Chinese also means that young children can have a wider circle of friends and feel comfortable and confident when interacting with others in the community.
This ability is also extremely useful if some of your childcare is undertaken by an ayi who doesn’t speak English, as you will find that she and your child are nevertheless able to communicate with each other about life’s essentials (food, drinks, toys, nappies, etc.) very quickly and efficiently indeed.
Some expatriate parents are also choosing public schools for their children’s primary or elementary education (although at this point in time, not as many as at nursery level). Children in a primary school environment are naturally immersed in the Chinese language in a way that they wouldn’t be at an international school, and an increasing number of parents of primary school-aged children believe that this is the most expedient and thorough way of their children becoming highly proficient in the language very quickly.
It should be noted that there are some barriers in place which can make this course slightly problematic for the expatriate new to China. Many primary schools will have limited second language (i.e. English) programs, and so all lessons, coursework and homework will be in Chinese. Therefore, while a nursery-age child might adapt very quickly to an all-Chinese environment, an older child of primary years will find it more difficult if they have had no previous exposure to the language. It may also at first be a somewhat alienating experience for children who are this little bit older to be in an environment where they do not have many opportunities to interact at school with other children from the same culture or who speak the same language.
Some expatriate children (and parents) also find it difficult to adjust to the amount of homework that primary school children in China are required to do every night. Four hours’ homework a night for a pupil in primary school is not uncommon and this can be a terrible shock to the system for families used to the much more relaxed Western system.
You should perhaps also bear in mind that unless your own Chinese is of a reasonable standard, or you have a friend or relative on tap who can translate for you, that you may not be able to communicate very effectively with your child’s teacher, or to be able to understand communications that are sent home from school.
The admissions requirements for public kindergartens and primary schools vary, but you will generally be required to complete an admission form, supply a copy of your child’s birth certificate, health records (including vaccination certificates) and passport, as well as copies of their previous school reports. For schools where there is some pressure on numbers, you may also be asked to provide a further level of documentation, such as a letter of recommendation from a previous school, while some schools may also ask your child to sit an entrance examination (which may include an element of Chinese language proficiency).
International Division Schools in Shanghai
An increasing number of secondary schools in Shanghai are opening international divisions which may, in time, become serious rivals to international schools as the expatriate family’s first choice for their teenage children.
The Chinese government has increasingly come to believe in recent years that its universities are not producing enough high-caliber, internationally qualified graduates and so, in the short term at least, the best students are being encouraged to study abroad at the world’s leading tertiary institutions in order to gain greater experience and a broader outlook on life. In time, however, the government naturally wants to reverse this trend and a first step on the way to achieving this is thought to be the importing of more Western education practice and practitioners into Chinese schools. Leading high schools are thus being encouraged to create international divisions with the aim of producing a generation of Chinese students equipped with the critical thinking skills to work independently and the social skills to be part of a team – both seen as essential qualities for those wishing to be a part of the 21st-century global economy.
As part of this process, many International Division (ID) schools have adopted a philosophy and outlook that is much more akin to a Western school, introducing values and ideals such as promoting students’ international awareness and developing their understanding of social skills. At this stage of the development of the international division market, it can’t be said for certain the degree to which these creeds have become embedded into every aspect of school life, but the aspiration is undoubtedly there.
Certainly, a number of International Division schools have facilities and physical environments that are not that far removed from those of some international schools (although they are still some way off matching the facilities on offer at the oldest and wealthiest), while many International Division schools offer both day and boarding options (not possible for international schools), designed to widen their appeal to international families.
International Division schools will usually offer a variety of different programs of study, including IB programs and AP courses, alongside programs for foreign students who wish to enter Chinese universities. Most ID schools, however, irrespective of the programs they offer, are explicit about their primary aim – facilitating worldwide university entrance for their pupils. To this end, a number of ID schools have established partnerships and exchanges with foreign universities and schools (e.g., Peking University High School International Division with The Hotchkiss School in Connecticut, or the Tsinghua International School with Columbia University). Furthermore, in keeping with their adopting a more Western approach, ID schools are also now placing an increased emphasis on co-curricular activities, such as running competitive sporting teams, debating societies and Model United Nations, as well as being very explicit in their aim to develop future political and business leaders.
It would certainly seem to be the case that ID schools are growing in popularity, and a school such as Shanghai High School International Division can boast a student body of well over 2000 pupils from over fifty different countries. This was unimaginable even ten years ago.
Application procedures will vary from institution to institution, but in almost all instances prospective pupils will be required first to complete an application form and to attend an interview. You will also be asked to provide extensive documentation with regards to academic references, past school reports and so on (see Delivering the Goods). Some schools will then require applicants to sit an entrance examination (comprising English, Chinese, math and science at the very least), while others may want them to take part in an admissions camp over two or three days (designed to enable the school to see how well they can use their initiative under pressure and work with others). Irrespective of the finer details, the entrance process to International Division schools is competitive and demanding.
There are now well over 70 schools in China classified as International Division schools. The tuition fees vary, but generally speaking they are in the region of RMB80,000 to RMB100,000 per year for a senior secondary school student, which is roughly half the fee being charged by the majority of international schools.
Home Schooling in Shanghai
A third option available for expatriate families in Shanghai is that of home schooling. As discussed above, the financial constraints on expatriates living in China are now greater than they have ever been, with the result being that even the reduced fees available at International Division schools are beyond the reach of many foreign families.
There is also a desire among some parents to avoid the Third Culture Kid syndrome that has been written about increasingly frequently in recent years. Essentially, a number of psychologists have argued that some expatriate children have a feeling of belonging nowhere – neither in their home country, nor in their host country – and that this feeling is exacerbated by their school experiences. As a consequence their overall academic progress and performance suffers, and in important areas such as native language acquisition they never fully recover to levels appropriate to their age.
Therefore, these concerns, combined with high school fees, mean that the amount of homeschooling taking place in Shanghai is at record levels and set to grow further in the immediate future.
If you are considering this option, but are not sure how to go about it, don’t worry, help is at hand. There are a number of homeschooling support groups available in Shanghai who will be able to offer you useful advice and guidance.
However, it is recommended that if you are contemplating homeschooling your children that you seek to bring as many textbooks, literary texts and learning materials as possible with you when you arrive, as useful, good-quality resources can sometimes be difficult and expensive to source in China, even in Shanghai.