Dragon in the box!

Richard Gaskell, Schools Director at ISC Research looks at why demand for an international education in China shows no sign of cooling – quite the reverse. But it’s complicated.

Rapid growth

The popularity of international schools continues to expand dramatically around the world, though no country quite so rapidly as China. ISC Research data shows that the greatest percentage increase in student enrolment at international schools during the last academic year (2015-2016) was in China where, in just twelve months, the number of students increased by 13%.

The international schools market is highly segmented in China, restricting local and expatriate children to specific school types.


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The types of international school in China

Children of expatriates living in China are able to attend, what China’s Ministry of Education calls Schools for the Children of Foreign Workers (SCFW). These schools are not allowed to enrol local Chinese children except those who have a parent with a foreign passport or those migrating from other Asian countries.

Beijing, Shanghai and Guangdong province are the primary locations for SCFW schools although demand for places within many of these schools is flat or has reduced in the last year or two as a result of the departure from China of a significant number of western expatriate families.

What is driving the growth is the emergence of international Chinese Private Schools, which are allowed to enrol local Chinese children, enabling them to attend a more internationally-oriented school within their home country; a demand that is insatiable amongst China’s wealthier, educated families.

These schools offer learning in the languages of both Chinese and English, they have a distinctly international focus, and many offer internationally recognised qualifications. Some of these are joint ventures between a Chinese owner and a foreign education company or school providing the educational reputation and learning and teaching.

The growth in China during 2015-2016 occurred within this emerging international Chinese Private Schools sector, now making it the major sector of the Chinese international schools market with 63% of all the schools and 53% of the total enrolment.

It’s a sector that looks likely to expand extensively in the next few years because of the huge demand.

Demand from parents

Grace Shi, ISC’s China Consultant, is a Chinese national, living with her husband (a Belgian national) and baby Alex, who is 14 months old, in Shanghai. Because of working for ISC Research, Grace understands the market very well. That doesn’t make it any easier for her to secure Alex a place at an international school.

“Options for Alex’s age are very limited,” Grace says. “SCFW schools take children aged from 18 months, but most of them are having long waiting lists. Some of the private Chinese schools have toddler classes, but they all have long waiting lists too.”


Grace and her husband want Alex to learn both Chinese and English, so a bilingual international school is their first option. But Grace is discovering that she should have planned sooner for such a school. “I signed Alex at one school when he was three months old, for their ‘Mommy and Me’ class,” she says. “I called the school a few weeks ago and was told Alex is still on the waiting list – at number 186 on the waiting list! The Admission department at the school told me that I should have signed Alex up for the school as soon as I knew I was pregnant.”

Most international schools only have one or two classes for toddlers and, as Grace has discovered, they all have long waiting lists. “Demand is so high, there are just not enough spaces and there’s a shortage of teaching staff. And the demand for these schools is increasing.”

Michelle Cheung’s three-year-old daughter Audrey does have a place. She is attending the Shanghai Centre Preschool and is learning in both Chinese and English. Michelle says she chose an international school for her daughter because of the learning approach and the language. “Learning in English is the biggest difference, also, I like how in international schools it’s not about memorisation,” says Michelle. “My child is encouraged to build self-confidence and independence in class. Self-confidence is built by ‘show and tell’ once a week where each child is allowed to bring in an object (can be anything, favourite toy, photo, food, etc.) and they present it to the class and talk about why they like it. Then students are encouraged to ask questions about it.”

Michelle says it wasn’t easy getting Audrey into the school because of the demand. “It was challenging as the space is very limited at her school. Local Chinese are now interested in sending their children abroad for college, so an international school education may better prepare them for it. Also, local Chinese are now beginning to value western education as it promotes students to think outside the box. It also teaches students how to think critically and gives them the basic tools on how to approach each problem from different angles, instead of just relying on memorisation.”

Strict regulations get stricter

In November (2016), the Chinese government made amendments to the regulations on dual curriculum private schools, impacting on all schools in China offering international education to local Chinese children. It is believed the motivation for this new enforcement, which will come into effect from September 2017, was the increasing number of foreign schools that have not been abiding by the Chinese government’s dual curriculum requirements.

Under these new regulations, for-profit private schools are completely prohibited for primary age Chinese children (grades 1 to 9), and not-for-profit private schools have strict regulations on curriculum and language delivery. Chinese children will have to study the Chinese curriculum through grade 9. This will severely restrict the chance for children to study for such international qualifications as the IGCSE which follows a two-year course of study at grades 9 and 10, preparing children well for the learning needs of A levels or IB Diploma.

Nevertheless, non-public schools in China do have the chance to deliver international curricula from grades 10 onwards in combination with some Chinese curriculum requirements. These include the study of Chinese politics, Chinese history and geography, and Chinese language, all of which are required to be taught by Chinese nationals. It does, however, mean that Chinese children can study for such qualifications as A levels, Advanced Placement or IB Diploma.

Demand remains

These new enforcements are unlikely to stop Chinese families wishing their child to study in a Western university and seeking out internationally-oriented private school options in China. The demand is huge, but the challenge for these schools will be to meet the requirements of the Chinese Government and also prepare students in the best possible way for higher education opportunities abroad.

More details about all Chinese regulations for private schools, plus market trends, the opportunities and challenges for schools in China including how this impacts recruitment, curriculum, school development and investment are included in ISC’s China Market Intelligence Report.


Richard Gaskell

Richard Gaskell is Schools Director at ISC Research, the leading provider of data and intelligence on the world’s English-medium K-12 international schools market.



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