Asia drives demand for international schools

By Yojana Sharma

  • Published
graduationImage source, Thinkstock
Image caption,
Going to an international school is seen as a way of improving the chance of a top university place

Another top boarding school in England is setting up a school in China, travelling the path taken by schools such as Harrow, Dulwich College, Malvern and Wellington.

But when Wycombe Abbey, a girls' boarding school in Buckinghamshire, opens its doors in China in September, it will be not be launching a replica.

Wycombe Abbey International in Changzhou near Shanghai will be co-educational, and will teach a hybrid of the Chinese and English curriculums within an English-style boarding school environment.

Alongside international GCSEs and A-levels, pupils will follow a Chinese curriculum in mathematics. And it won't be serving international students or UK families in China. Around 90% of the students will be local Chinese.

Image caption,
No longer replica British schools: The campus in Changzhou where Wycombe Abbey's school will be based

"We're catering to the insatiable demand in China for an English-medium education," said Wycombe Abbey's headmistress Rhiannon Wilkinson, who has also taught in Hong Kong and Brunei.

"But we are also responding to a need for an English-style education system and Chinese methods," she said.

"They don't want to be westernised but they want to apply to western universities."

Image source, Reuters
Image caption,
Primary school in Suzhou in China: International schools promote the idea of a more individual education

International schools were once a virtual foreign enclave within the host country, a preserve of internationally-mobile expatriate families working for multinational companies.

Now more local families are using international schools, where they study A-levels and International Baccalaureates from the UK and Advanced Placement programmes from the US, as a springboard to getting places in UK and US universities.

Some parents also want their children to rub shoulders with an international elite and build contacts for a future career.

More stories from the BBC's Knowledge economy series looking at education from a global perspective and how to get in touch

Another motivation is to escape the relentless drudgery and ferocious competition of a local school system based on rote learning and geared only towards exams.

"Families are worried about the pressure of the system on their children," said Ms Wilkinson.

There are now about 8,000 international schools around the world, teaching 4.26 million students, according to research by the International School Consultancy.

Nowhere has growth been faster than in Asia.

Image source, Getty Images
Image caption,
Shanghai has seen a rapid rise in international schools

From less than a dozen such schools in each country a decade or so ago, Thailand now has over 172 international curriculum schools, half of them following England's national curriculum.

Malaysia has 142, Japan 233, and Singapore - which makes it difficult for foreigners to enrol in local schools - around 63. Myanmar could also become a hotspot - Dulwich College will open there next year.

Hong Kong which had 92 such schools in 2000 now has 171.

Demand, particularly from local wealthy families is such that virtually all the leading international schools in Hong Kong have waiting lists, says ISC director Richard Gaskell, who is based in Bangkok.

Only South Korea has seen a retraction, with some international schools struggling to fill places.

But the big story is China. From a dozen schools 15 years ago, China has some 530 English-medium international schools, catering for 326,000 students.

Image source, Getty Images
Image caption,
Chinese families see international schools as giving their children an advantage

According to ISC Research, between 2010 and 2014 the number of international curriculum schools in Shanghai alone increased almost 40%, currently educating over 71,000 pupils.

From a concentration in Beijing and Shanghai which together account for half the international schools in China, schools are spreading to other cities.

Malvern College is in Qingdao and Chengdu. Dulwich College has expanded from its flagship schools in Shanghai and Beijing, to Suzhou and Zhuhai. Wellington has set up in Tianjin.

"A local authority such as Jiangsu province knows that if they put in a top brand school like Wycombe Abbey, they can attract more people into the area," said William Vanbergen, chief executive of BE Education, an education consultancy which brokered Wycombe Abbey's entry into China.

There are less than a million foreigners in China.

"But the market size for the local, growing, middle-class Chinese is huge," said Mr Vanbergen, based in Shanghai.

"China loves brand names," said Mr Vanbergen. But these schools also boast fantastic sporting and other facilities unheard of in local schools, which are more focused on exams.

He estimates there are "100 UK schools looking to go into China."

Image source, AP
Image caption,
Parents want a hybrid of western and eastern education

Dulwich College International with six schools in China, runs two types of school.

It has four international schools which can only admit foreign nationals. But its two joint-venture high schools operated with a Chinese partner school in Suzhou and Zhuhai predominantly admit locals. Both types of school teach IGCSE and A-levels.

The Chinese authorities keep strict controls on younger children studying an overseas curriculum.

"They do not want children getting a wrong view of history, and they are quite paranoid about the humanities," said ISC's Mr Gaskell, who believes these restrictions will continue.

Image caption,
International schools are recruiting locally as well as from expat families

But the authorities are more relaxed about over-15 year olds following a foreign curriculum. It allows these students to improve their chances of getting into top overseas universities and it helps to attract prestigious schools.

At the same time they are reining in so-called "international streams" in local schools which have burgeoned in recent years with variable quality.

"In China the need to get into top 100 universities is more intense than even 10 years ago and an international school is seen as a secure track for a very good education," said Laurence Cook of Dulwich College International (DCI) in Shanghai.

Image caption,
How the new Wycombe Abbey school will look in China

"The British boarding schools that have set up in China and elsewhere in Asia have an extremely high placement rate and are respected for being very well run."

China's new wealthy are also looking at international schools for a different kind of education.

Campbell Douglas, head of Dulwich in Zhuhai, a boarding school close to Hong Kong and Macau, says parents want something more than preparing for the competitive national college entrance, the "gaokao".

Image source, Getty Images
Image caption,
More than 7,000 students in Shandong this week sat an entrance test to study art at college

"There is a slow awakening in China that the gaokao does not allow for any other development of the child beyond the academic," said Mr Douglas.

But it is often a leap of faith, requiring an early decision to abandon the local system, often with no easy way to return if they change their minds.

And while parents want English immersion, they want to retain their own culture.

Image source, Reuters
Image caption,
Beijing pupils exercise indoors this winter because of the heavy smog

"Chinese parents want the best of both worlds, but fundamentally that their children remain Chinese," said Mr Vanbergen.

It is creating a new hybrid trend, mixing eastern and western.

Dulwich Colleges in China and in Singapore are teaching in English and Mandarin, responding to the demands not just of local families, but from families in other Asian countries such as Taiwan, Singapore and Malaysia.

Wellington College says that its new outpost in Shanghai will teach a dual-language curriculum.

Mr Cook, from Dulwich College International, said parents realise that the future is going to be increasingly global, and if they are going to succeed "their children are going to have to cope with English and they can do that without sending them overseas".