Finding an appropriate school for your child can be one of the biggest challenges an expatriate parent will face. But in Shanghai, at least, the concerned parent need not worry. The international education industry is booming.
“With so many international schools full and with long waiting lists, it seems that demand is still outpacing supply. At a certain point the international school industry will reach saturation, as was the case in Singapore and Hong Kong, but that time is not here yet,” said Stuart Bryan, head of Dulwich College Shanghai, which has 900 students aged two to 16.
Outside the expat bubble
International schools are not the only option for foreign children in China. Some Chinese schools now accept foreign students. Educating your child with Chinese as the medium of instruction is a valuable option, especially given the growing popularity of the language worldwide.
Maria Trombly, an American journalist who has lived in Shanghai for three years, did just that. Instead of insulating her children in what she called the “expat bubble” of international schools, she enrolled her nine and 11-year-olds at the Shanghai Huangpu Foreign Language Primary School, where they have only one other foreign schoolmate.
“I wanted them to be immersed in Chinese language; the school is extremely cheap compared to international schools, they get great treatment from the teachers and are surrounded by Chinese kids,” she said.
Still, a local education comes with certain challenges. Trombly, for example, had to hire a tutor for her chilren when they first started at school two years ago to help them with their Chinese. She also said her children were not learning analytical skills at school.
These challenges can be too much for other parents. Elvie Haberle, whose son attends the German School Shanghai, did not consider sending him to a local school because her Chinese is not good enough to help him with his lessons.
A child’s age can also determine whether they should be in a local school. At kindergarten age, for example, a Chinese nursery’s atmosphere will give them a foundation for Chinese-language skills. Trombly said that in her experience, enrolling children in a local school after the first grade would be difficult since foreign children tend to be too far behind.
In the eyes of most expatriate parents, Chinese schools will therefore likely remain no more than an alternative to international schools.
“The Chinese system, while excellent, is quite different from a Western one. Thus, we expect that the majority of foreigners will probably continue to select international schools, especially if they expect to return to their home countries within three to five years,” Bryan said.
In any case, enrolling child in an international school does not mean missing out on learning Chinese. At Dulwich College, like many other Shanghai international schools, Mandarin classes are compulsory.
Good Chinese certainly helps children see beyond the “expat bubble”, but extra-curricular activities in the local community are essential.
Dulwich, for example, makes every effort to get its students into China. “This means field-trips to the Bund, adventure trips to Yangshuo, history and geography trips to Beijing,” Bryan said.
Getting in early
Shanghai and Beijing are not the only places seeing an expansion in the international schools industry; foreign schools have been established for years in other cities across China, like Chengdu, Nanjing, Qingdao and Guangzhou.
Although China now has a wide array of schooling options for the expatriate student, competition for a place is fierce. Planning is critical to success.
“In the current Shanghai international school environment, we’d strongly recommend that parents apply to schools before moving to Shanghai,” Bryan said. “The chances of getting into an international school once the family has moved are low.”