Bilingual Education Tug-of-War

A look at the rise of bilingual schools in Shanghai, and stricter government regulations that might affect international schools in China.

by ronnirowland | Tue, March 21, 2017

Until recently, “international schooling” was largely limited to educating the children of expats. But in the last few years, a new boom in international schools that cater to local Chinese students are starting to even overshadow the year-over-year growth of “traditional” international schools.

There’s a tug-of-war, however, stirring between the national government and local families seeking Western schooling for their child(ren). Here, we explore the recent trends – and efforts to regulate – the explosive popularity of international education among local families in China.

Non-Public Proliferation

A 2014 study by UniGroup Relocation showed twice the number of expat families left China than moved in. From staggering pollution numbers to a slowing economy to more multilingual, highly-educated Chinese replacing expats, the mass exodus doesn’t come as much of a surprise.  

In spite of a stagnating expat population, Shanghai still has the highest number of international schools than any other city in China to accommodate the large number of expat families. As a whole, China boasts the highest number of international schools in the world, and according to South China Morning Post, analysts say it will need at least 1,000 more in coming years.

Traditionally, these international schools had to adhere to local laws that only allowed them to admit students with overseas passports. However, in recent years, many international schools in Shanghai have been attempting to diversity into joint-venture schools in order to accept local Chinese students and address Chinese families’ demands for a Western education. 

Many local Chinese parents are seeking an alternative to the intense pressure and drudgery of China’s public schools; a more personalized, creative, and well-rounded curriculum; and perhaps most of all, to improve their children’s future chances for higher education opportunities in the US, UK or Australia. And, these families are willing to pay high tuition fees to get this for their children. 

However, new stricter education regulations refocus attention on Chinese national curriculum and threaten to undermine the international education parents are seeking.


Brakes on the Boom

With all the talk of a booming China business for bilingual schools, the course can change swiftly. There is a growing movement in China against Western influences, and the education system is receiving new pressure. 

In October 2016, the Shanghai Municipal Education Commission demanded tighter control over curricula at all types of non-public schools. Then in early November, the National People’s Congress Standing Committee announced regulations impacting the curricula and tuition of non-public schools in China, which will officially take effect in September 2017. But some schools have already noted changes as early as Spring 2016.

The regulations will ban for-profit private schools from offering programs in grades 1 to 9, which are already offered as free and compulsory in the Chinese public school system. Not-for-profit, non-public schools in China are to be handled like its public schools, with strict adherence to curriculum requirements and tuition limitations. Such schools can still charge fees but will need to demonstrate the money is invested back into the school.

Feeling the Effects

While the latest round of education regulations won’t impact international schools exclusively for expats, the government is taking aim at schools offering international curricula for local children. But what do the new regulations mean for non-public schools in China? Schools most likely impacted by the new regulations are those offering Primary Year Program (PYP) or International Primary Curriculum (IPC), two programs for students aged 3 to 12, as well as schools offering the two-year IGCSE program for grades 9 and 10.

Many bilingual schools confidently report they already adhere to the standards. But some schools will have to go back to the drawing board for next year. Dr Mark Abell, Partner and Head of International Education at British law firm Bird & Bird, has helped establish international schools worldwide, including Shanghai. “Blended curriculum must be approved by the Chinese authorities, and this is a real operational challenge,” says Dr Abell.

Chinese public schools with international divisions were already receiving criticism from China’s Ministry of Education before the new regulations were passed. According to Richard Gaskell at ISC Research, “In some of these schools, the international stream has become so dominant that the whole school operates as an international school, even though it is still officially a Chinese public school. This is clearly not the intention of the authorities that have granted licenses for such programs.”

A November 2016 article in The Economist further explains, “The expansion of international programs within public Chinese schools also spurred a popular backlash against the use of public facilities and funds to teach pupils who plan to leave China.”

A Rush to the West

With the rise of China’s middle class, the number of students it sends to the US jumped to 274,439 in the 2013-2014 school year from 61,765 a decade earlier, according to the Institute of International Education. Today, The Economist reports, “record numbers of Chinese study abroad: over half a million people left in 2015 alone, many for America.”

Dr Abell predicts the regulations won’t stop parents from seeking non-public education for their children, however. Nor will it deter foreign brands from launching campuses here. The appetite for English-medium, international curriculum is only growing.

Given the worldwide shift toward nationalist philosophies, perhaps the most valuable benefit to international education is one that’s difficult to measure: cultivating open minds. Time will tell if today’s changing political and social climates can support this type of growth.  

Good to Know

A breakdown of school descriptions*:

Independently foreign-run international schools:Independently foreign-run schools can only admit overseas passport holders and students from Hong Kong, Macao, and Taiwan. Examples of these schools include Shanghai American School, Concordia International School, Wellington College International Shanghai, etc. and offer an international curriculum such as Advanced Placement (AP) from the US and the International Baccalaureate (IB) Diploma Programme from the UK.

Sino-foreign cooperative schools:These schools are joint ventures between a Chinese owner (typically providing the land and financial investment), and a foreign education company or school that provides the learning and teaching and, frequently, a prestigious educational reputation. Both expatriate and Chinese students can attend these schools. Examples of Sino-foreign cooperatives include: Nord Anglia Chinese International School Shanghai, Wellington College Bilingual Shanghai, Shanghai HD Bilingual School and Wycombe Abbey Changzhou.

Chinese-owned private bilingual schools:These schools have a distinctly international focus and many offer internationally recognized programs within a Mandarin-English bilingual learning environment. Foreign organizations cannot legally own any part of a Chinese private school. YK Pao School is an example of a private bilingual school.

Chinese public schools with international divisions (for high school students): Some Chinese public high schools have created international streams, offering British, American or IB diploma programmes alongside their national streams. International streams are often administratively separate from the main parts of the schools that accommodate them. Shanghai Jincai International School and Fudan International School are examples of such schools.

*Adapted from “China – leading international school growth,” by Richard Gaskell, Director for International Schools at ISC Research, 2016 and an email interview, 2017.