In recent years, more Chinese schools have begun to open their doors to foreign students, while schools designated to set up special international sections have invested heavily in new programmes and facilities.
For foreign parents, sending a child to a local Chinese school does have its advantages. For one thing, it is a much cheaper option than an international school and this has obvious attractions for parents who are not on an expatriate package. For other parents, especially overseas Chinese or Westerners who have studied Chinese in college, they want their children to have a Chinese education or at least turn out bilingual.
In Beijing only three schools are authorised to enroll foreign students: Fangcaodi Primary School, 55 Middle School and Xiyi Primary School, near the Summer Palace, which has only around 10 foreign students.
Foreign students can be admitted to other Chinese schools in Beijing, but this' can take 'a lot of effort. Administrators are reluctant to accept foreign students, and usually only if one has connections. Furthermore, the tuition must often be paid in advance for the entire three or six years of schooling, and can run as high as Yn200,000, much more than at Fangcaodi or 55 Middle School. Outside of Beijing and Shanghai, where there are fewer expatriates and hardly any international schools, Chinese schools may be more willing to accept expatriate students.
However, the homework load can be quite heavy in local Chinese schools, where competition is keen to get into the better middle schools and universities. Most Chinese schools teach at a fast pace, which can be 'disconcerting for foreign students struggling with a new language. Ms Corinna Carroll sent her son and daughter to Jingshan Primary, considered one of the best schools in Beijing. She advises parents who choose this route not to worry about keeping up with the local students, who have to work hard to gain entrance into the better high schools and universities.
"We didn't try to reach the Chinese standards," she explains. "The Chinese kids are really under a lot of pressure and there's a lot of competition. We tried not to think about the grades."
Fangcaodi Primary, in the diplomatic area close to the US and British embassies, is the main school in the capital designated to accept foreign students in grades 1-6. The school was remodeled last year, with air conditioners replacing fans in all class-rooms, improved bathrooms and a new computer room equipped with Legend PCs. A new cafeteria and physical education facilities, including a swimming pool, are now under construction.
The school has two divisions the foreign section, which has 200 foreign students, and the Chinese section, made up primarily of native Chinese students. Foreign students may also enroll in the Chinese section. The school has limited sports and recreational facilities, but offers a wide choice of after-school activities, from basketball to volley-ball and electronics.
55 Middle School, which began to accept international students in 1975, is located in the centre of Beijing. The school runs much like Fangcaodi, with international and Chinese sections. It has 300 students in grades 7-12, with class sizes running from 10 to 25. Facilities include a playing field and a gym, and boys and girls teams play against the other international schools.
In 1994, the school joined the International Baccalaureate (IB) Organisation and began to offer the IB diploma with classes in English, Chinese, maths, geography, physics and a few other subjects. The IB diploma is essential for students intending to pursue university studies in Europe and some other countries.
Students who graduate from the full programme at 55 Middle School and pass the Chinese language test can also be admitted to Chinese universities as regular students.
Classes in the international sections of these two schools are taught completely in Chinese – except for English classes – but lessons with a Communist tinge are glossed over in the texts. For example, Fangcaodi skipped a lesson on the establishment of the People's Republic in 1949 and several other pieces about heroes of the Communist party. The only other difference between the two sections is that the foreign students have a lighter academic load and little interaction with their native Chinese classmates.
Still, many parents find the inter-national section of schools such as Fangcaodi and 55 Middle School a happy medium between the Chinese and Western educational systems.
"It's the best of both worlds," says Ms Eileen Wen, whose daughter graduated from Fangcaodi in June, and will move on to 55 Middle School in the autumn. "The curriculum is the same as that taught in other Chinese schools, but without the heavy homework and pressure."
Both schools have Chinese preparatory classes that excel in bringing non-Chinese speakers quickly up to a level where they car be taught in Chinese. While all international schools in China boast Chinese-language programmes, and some even claim to he bilingual, none can match the Chinese schools in turning out truly bilingual students.
Dorothy Walter, a former 55 Middle School student, says she came into the school with a bare minimum of Chinese, but within six months was promoted to the advanced Chinese literature class. She says other students came in with no Chinese at all, but after about six months in the ?hanyuban? or Chinese preparatory class, they were moved into normal classes.
However, there are some drawbacks to sending your child to a Chinese school. Facilities are inferior to most of the international schools. The International School of Beijing (ISB) has just opened a modern, US$70m facility, complete with swimming pools, tennis courts and everything one would find at the better American or European schools.
Another problem is that Chinese educators still put a lot of emphasis on learning by rote. Carroll has high praise for the Chinese education system, but complains about the emphasis on rote learning. The students [at Jingshan ] spend too much time memorizing, which doesn't do them any good," she says. "They memorise the text and then forget it."
Chinese schools also tend to foster a competitive learning spirit, which does not sit well with many Western parents. ?There was a lot of competition in solving math problems,? says Ms Lorana Bakovic, whose son was enrolled in Fangcaodi. "He had to recite the multiplication tables in a set amount of time, which was like a race and too mechanical.?
Bakovic later pulled her son out of Fangcaodi, complaining about the lack of creativity and a failure to deal with her son's learning problems. She adds, however, that despite her reservations about mathss education in Chinese schools, when he began his studies at his new school, his maths skill were "excellent." Fangcaodi makes no effort to divide native English speakers and students who are learning English as a second language, and uses textbooks from Hong Kong that were designed to teach the language to non-native speakers. As a result, readings are too simple and well below the spoken level of native speakers.
Furthermore, the school employs native Chinese speakers to teach English, whose language level is inferior to that of many of the students. Despite this, parents say their children have learned to read proficiently at the school. 55 Middle School, however, employs native speakers to teach English literature classes and so the quality of English training is satisfactory.
Most families attempt to reinforce their children's English reading skills at home by buying them books to read or hiring tutors. Mr. Lincoln Kaye, whose daughter Anna attended Fangcaodi and 55 Middle School, supplemented her education with tutors and correspondence classes at the University of Nebraska. Anna is now at Yale University.
Lack of flexibility
Some parents also complain that Chinese schools are not equipped to provide special attention to students who have learning or behavioural problems. Ms Lesley Walter, an American who sent two of her three daughters to Fangcaodi and 55 Middle School for different parts of their education, concedes that the Chinese system is a bit rigid and that the teachers don't cater to individuals. She says that, while her two children did well in the elementary and secondary school, it doesn't work for all children.
"Sending my second daughter to a Chinese school would have been a disaster," she says, "because she was slow to speak even English as a first language and so I kept her in ISB. I feared the time spent learning Chinese would be too much and might affect her self-confidence."
Walter's daughter, Dorothy, says teachers at 55 Middle School were willing to help her with her Chinese during her first months in the school. ?If you have a problem, the teachers are really helpful and understanding,? she says. Dorothy had a basic background in Chinese before coming to 55 Middle School, but moved up to the advanced class within a year.
Her parents transferred her back to TSB in the eighth grade because they were planning to send her to boarding school in the US and were worried about her English. Dorothy had no difficulty with the transition back to ISB, and was admitted the following year to Exeter, one of the most prestigious boarding schools in the US.
However, some students who have transferred to international schools after attending Fangcaodi or 55 Middle School have reported having problems catching up with their classmates. Despite this, many parents are still bullish on Chinese education.
"We loved it," says Walter. "But one thing parents will have to do if they take the plunge, is step back and let the process unfold for a while before they panic. The math programme is excellent and they convinced us that the Chinese way of teaching is far superior to the American way. Even the slow kids in my youngest daughter's class know more than ISB second graders, a lot more.?
Carroll also praises the level of teaching. "They do a great job, and they're very professional," she says, adding that Mainland schools were even better than those in her native Taiwan.
Another plus is that the tuition is much cheaper. Tuition at ISB, the only school that offers an American-style high school curriculum, runs as high as US$21,000 a year. Other foreign schools charge USS10,000 and more.
Compare this with Fangcaodi, which runs at about [US$1,000 a year, or 55 Middle School, which is US$3,300. Foreign children at the better traditional Chinese schools may pay Yn100,000-200,000 in advance for either primary school or high school.
One of the biggest pluses, however, is that children are in a completely Chinese teaching environment, which is the only way for them to be fluent in speaking, reading and writing. "My youngest daughter is much more knowledgeable about China than her best friends." says the father of a Fangcaodi pupil, "and even speaks Chinese with her non-Chinese classmates and goes to Chinese pop concerts. The kids at the international schools stay here for years, frozen between the Lido Club and Sanlitun Bar Street, and leave quite ignorant about local culture and language."
The student body may also be a bit more interesting than in the mainstream international schools. "Eastern Europeans, Japanese and Africans mix together, and the academic standards are high because the teachers expect so much out of the kids," says Walter.