Elite British schools in China face an uncertain future

December 16, 2021 06:00
Photo: Reuters

Westminster School, an elite private institution founded in London in 1560, has scrapped an ambitious plan to build six schools in China, after changes in curriculum ordered by the Ministry of Education in Beijing.

It launched the plan in 2017 and started building the first one in 2019, for 2,000 pupils, in Chengdu, capital of Sichuan province in the southwest.

“The Covid-19 pandemic and recent changes in Chinese education policy have forced the school to cancel the entire project,” the school announced in November. “It is highly unfortunate the landscape for developing such schools now is very different from 2017.”

At least five British private schools operate campuses in the mainland, mostly under a “franchise” model that allows them to charge a fixed amount each year for use of their name, brand or expertise. One of them, Wellington College, opened its first in China a decade ago, in Tianjin, and now has campuses in several mainland cities.

They cater to both children of expatriates and of wealthy Chinese who want their children to have an international education but do not wish to send them overseas, with a high financial and emotional cost.

The freedom of curriculum for the schools is shrinking.

In May, the State Council announced a new law effective September, which bans the teaching of foreign curricula in schools from kindergarten to grade nine (K-9) and prohibits the ownership or control of any private K-9 schools by foreign entities. The law also bans them from organising entrance tests or recruiting in advance.

The new regulations mean that international schools must teach the same lessons as state-run public schools. They also ban foreign textbooks. School board members must be PRC nationals and include people appointed by the local education department.

In its statement, Westminster said that these new regulations would have created “numerous financial and logistical challenges for the Hong Kong-based operator of the proposed new school” and so the school had terminated the educational consultancy and licensing arrangements.

Recently, Harrow International School in Hainan told parents that students must be taught a Chinese curriculum from grades one to nine and junior high school students must pass a state-run test to graduate. Only official versions of history, politics and geography may be taught.

The new rules are making Chinese parents think again about whether they should choose such schools. If the curriculum is the same as in state schools, what is the purpose of parents sending their children to these expensive schools?

On its website, the Harrow school in Hainan says: “Strategically located in Jiangdong District, Harrow Haikou will provide K-12 international and bilingual education for foreign and local day and boarding students, with a maximum capacity of 1,800 students, including 210 boarders. Our Haikou campus covers an area of 96,673 sqm. The school’s design fully embraces Harrow’s requirement to put the students first when considering facilities.

“The site provides a vibrant and creative, natural atmosphere with garden landscapes partitioning high-tech shared spaces. The generous space of the campus allows the students to explore their learning in a safe and clean outdoor environment, both within and beyond the taught curriculum,” it says. The tuition fees for years nine and ten of the preparatory school are 134,800 renminbi each term.

The website shows six other Harrow schools in the mainland – Beijing, Chongqing, Nanning, Shanghai, Shenzhen and Zhuhai, as well as the one in Hong Kong. For international schools in China, the growth market is not expatriate children but local ones.

The new regulations are in line with the crackdown on the private tuition sector earlier this year. Both aim to equalise the education sector and reduce the advantages of rich and middle-class parents to obtain a better schooling for their children. These follow the spirit of “common prosperity”, promoted by President Xi Jinping.

The other alternative for parents is to send their children to a boarding school abroad. This option involves substantially more cost and sometimes one of the parents, usually the mother, going to live near the school.

This option carries risks – the child will grow away from his or her parents, become “too” independent and have easier access to drugs than at home. If the wife lives abroad for a long period, she and her husband can grow apart also. This is why international schools in Chinese cities have been popular for a certain class of people.

These new rules throw into doubt the future of these schools.

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A Hong Kong-based writer, teacher and speaker.