A Guide to International Schools in Shanghai

By Michaela Fulton 2018-12-20 23:26:08

Find the right international school for your child.

Cost of international schools in Shanghai

Curriculum, systems and governing bodies

The difference between international and bilingual schooling

The benefits of attending an international school in Shanghai

What to look for when choosing an international school in Shanghai

1. Where is the school located?

2. What is the learning environment like?

3. What is the student-teacher ratio?

4. How secure is the school?

5. What extracurricular options are there?

6. What are the entry requirements?

It’s not easy deciding on a school for your child. If you’re already in the city or preparing to move with your child(ren), it can be overwhelming as you begin your search to find the right school to fit. Undoubtedly, you’ll have a number of questions running through your head – what curriculum would best suit your child(ren)? Would living in a certain neighbourhood make a vast impact? Do you opt for a local, bilingual or international school?

Today, Shanghai has a wide range of options available for expat children where there is “the opportunity to choose from some of the best schools in the world” as “international schools in Shanghai will continue to hire outstanding educators and produce terrific experiences for their students,” states Concordia International School Shanghai. So, it’s important to discuss what matters most to your family as you begin your search.

As Alice Li-Arndt, Director of Admissions at Shanghai American School (SAS) explains, in a nutshell, “international schools in Shanghai come in many different forms but, generally, they are those that follow a national or international curriculum different from that of Mainland China’s.”

Cost of international schools in Shanghai

International School Building

Predominantly, the last 30 years have featured international families being sent to China and living on expat packages. More often than not, these packages would cover everything from accommodation and transport to the international tuition of children too – ensuring that they would be able to continue their education easily when the family eventually moved back home. Now, though many expats continue to live and work in China with their families, the offering of expat packages is vastly declining, so it’s important to know the costs involved when considering the international schooling options available to you.

Costs for international schooling will vary depending on:

  • your estimated length of stay

  • whether you choose to enrol your child(ren) all the way from preschool to year 13 within an international system or not

  • facilities and curriculum offered and more.

These costs can easily range from ¥79,800 (US $11,795) to ¥297,800 (US $44,017) per year. Private international education in Shanghai is the most expensive option in the city, reigning high above the price of bilingual schools or local schools with international divisions in Shanghai.



 International Schools 





 Bilingual and Local Schools





 Preschools and Kindergartens



 ¥79,800-¥297,000/year   ¥100,000-¥210,000/year  ¥40,000-¥162,000/year

Curriculum, systems and governing bodies

International School Mathematics Curriculum

International schools in Shanghai are influences by country specific standards and teaching practices, so one factor to consider is that of the curricula offered in the differing systems.

  • American Curriculum: where, in secondary school, a couple of elective courses are taken alongside several compulsory subjects like English, Science and Math. Generally in high school, all courses count towards credits.

  • British Curriculum: which follows the uniform national curriculum of England where all learning materials are produced in the United Kingdom. Exams are marked according to a standardised set of criteria.

  • International Baccalaureate (IB), Primary Years Programme (PYP), Middle Years Programme (MYP), Diploma Programme (DP): the International Baccalaureate Programme which includes primary years, middle years and diploma programmes. IB fosters critical thinking, problem solving, research and writing skills. The IB DP is accepted in college applications worldwide.

Additionally, marks of quality come in the form of governing bodies that accredit an international school. “Our school is part of Western Association of Schools and Colleges (WASC), which has an accreditation from the US. WASC accredits schools around the world and is recognised in many countries and international schools around the world,” informs Shanghai Community International School (SCIS), “WASC comes to SCIS every couple of years to make sure the school is up to the standard it should be [and] to make sure the students are getting the required education.” This process of accreditation from WASC ensures to monitor student learning and set school improvement goals in an ongoing cycle of quality “necessary for high schools whose goal it is to send students to the University of California (UC) system,” writes Damon Kerby, Chairperson of Accrediting Commission for Schools, WASC in his latest newsletter.

A number of international schools in Shanghai are also accredited by WASC, including:

International School Student Chalkboard

Similarly, many international British schools in Shanghai receive accreditation from the UK by the Council of British International School (COBIS) – a globally recognised quality mark and system. Through inspecting and ensuring a broad and balanced curriculum, skills and qualifications to enter the UK education system, a wide range of extracurricular opportunities and more, COBIS state that “member schools operate within specific guidelines of ethical practice and good governance which reflect the high standards and ethos expected of a first class British style education.” There are more than 4.5 million pupils studying in English medium international schools around the world,  of which 3,700 of those are British schools, according to the International School Consultancy (ISC Research). As the largest educational association for international British schools overseas, the COBIS mark of high quality assurance is open to the best overseas British schools.

In Shanghai, you’ll find schools that hold this accreditation such as:

There are a number of other accreditations that are also widely recognised as a mark of quality, such as Yew Chung International School of Shanghai (YCIS) who are accredited by the Council of International Schools (CIS) – who award schools that ensure high educational standards and a focus on infusing an international and intercultural perspective into their programs.

The difference between international and bilingual schooling

International Schools Classroom

Already factored in cost and curriculum that best fits your family? There’s also the debate between international and bilingual to consider too – but what’s the difference? Simply put, international schools are licensed for expat children. Following Chinese regulatory law, “international educational institutions in Shanghai are solely permitted in enrolling students with foreign passports, or students where one parent in the family holds a foreign passport with a valid Shanghai visa,” informs Shanghai Community International School (SCIS). Another major difference pertains to the two types of institutions’ language programs, where “International schools have a tendency to follow a curriculum mainly taught in English, while incorporating the local culture and language … bilingual schools will teach predominantly in Mandarin,” SCIS continues. However, usually, as long as you meet the requirements for an international education, all are welcome to apply.

Many international schools provide internationally recognised programs which allow students to access universities in a wide range of countries and gain acceptance worldwide with the qualifications gained, as “most are well-resourced with foreign-hired teachers, have smaller student-teacher ratios and offer access to elite college preparatory programs (i.e. Advanced Placement or IB Diploma Programme),” writes Jeffry Stubbs, Chair of the Shanghai International Schools Association (SISA) in a previous interview with Shanghai Family, “which are the most recognised programs worldwide.”

The benefits of attending an international school in Shanghai

International Schools Student Group Work

Through international schooling, students are given the opportunity to experience an education that is diverse and differentiated. They are designed for those families who are transient with curricula that is recognised worldwide and “whether it’s through their teachers or classmates, students in international schools are exposed to a diversity of backgrounds and cultures, helping them to be more intercultural and globally-minded,” says Dr. Mary Scott, Head of Concordia International School Shanghai. Most children may only stay for a portion of their education, so it’s important for them to be able to integrate back into the education setting from which they come from to be able to continue with ease or even in a new country if the family is needed to relocate to another destination. What’s more, students who graduate from those schools that are accredited by WASC, COBIS and/or classed as an IB World School, such as at Western International School Shanghai (WISS) who are authorized “by the International Baccalaureate Organization (IBO) to deliver all four of its programs” will have “credentials [that] are recognised and highly respected throughout the world.”

Benefits include:

  • a diverse and differentiated education
  • curricula recognised worldwide for transient families
  • exposure to a range of different backgrounds and cultures
  • renowned standards in curricula
  • an exciting setting within Shanghai
  • students become internationally-minded

International schooling gives the best of both worlds where, on the one hand, there are “renowned standards that are achieved such as ours, with students achieving the perfect IB scores of 45 … which means that that can access the very finest universities around the world,” says Dr Neil Hopkin, Principal of British International School Shanghai (BISS) Puxi. On the other hand, students are also able to enjoy an education in the exciting “setting in this fabulous city … students develop a truly global perspective on life” alongside a broader understanding of the world. Through this, students obtains an international education that “promotes global citizenship,” explains Alice Li-Arndt, Director of Admission at Shanghai American School (SAS), “they become more internationally-minded, culturally competent, bi- or multilingual” which is important in an “increasingly political and economically interdependent world.”

What to look for when choosing an international school in Shanghai

International Schools Books

There are many characteristics to look for and consider when choosing the right school for your child(ren) and it’s a decision that can come down (but certainly not limited) to a handful of key attributes that the whole family will need to discuss. It’s always helpful to make sure you visit as many schools as possible and speak to other parents and children to see what they think too.

Download our School Visit Checklist to take with you.

On speaking to a number of international schools and parents, key factors included:

  • location of the school
  • what the learning environment is like
  • student-teacher ratio
  • security of the school
  • extracurricular options 
  • eligibility requirements

After speaking with many schools and parents, the first factor to consider was that of a school’s accreditation. “Finding the right one takes some time and careful consideration,” states Western International School of Shanghai, “the first thing parents should look for is a school’s accreditations and where those accreditations are recognised. Accreditation is a good indicator of high quality, professional standards and practices at a school.” Curriculum came second, where finding the right fit for your child can be influenced by whether parents wanted the curriculum to match that of their home country, or fit their future in China.

Another important factor to consider is that of a child’s happiness, which is when they learn best. Dr Neil Hopkins, Principal of British International School Shanghai (BISS) Puxi, explains how much of this happiness is “derived from experiencing learning in an environment that shares similar values to those values that parents embrace,” so, it’s important to make sure that parents take the time to explore and understand what each school stands for when in consideration.

International Schools Idea Lightbulb

1. Where is the school located?

How accessible is the international school? Is there a bus that will take them? Would it be a problem if there were after-school activities your children were eager to join? Would it be easy for your child to travel there alone should they reach an age where they crave that independence? Whilst time spent travelling to the ‘perfect’ school for your child(ren) might be worth it in the long-run for compatible school ethos, good curricula options or community spirit, it is also important to consider whether this will impact valuable time that could also be spent either with family or participating in extracurricular activities.

2. What is the learning environment like?

When visiting the schools, look into the classrooms and see how they are organised. What kind of community and learning environment are you looking for? Rows of seating may suggest an old-fashioned teaching style where students are encouraged to interact with the teacher rather than each other. If there is work displayed on walls, is it up-to-date? Be sure to look for a range of children’s work too, not just the top apples. For example, if you value a more traditional approach to learning, but choose a school with a progressive approach it will be a frustrating experience for everyone. Ultimately, selecting a school in Shanghai comes down to personal taste.

3. What is the student-teacher ratio?

This has continuously remained an issue of debate, where many have claimed that a low student-to-teacher ratio can increase a child’s achievement, enhance test scores and provide other lasting academic benefits. The ratio of students to teachers provides an indication of workload for teaching, as well as an indicator of the quality of education provided for students and learners. According to the UNESCO Institute for Statistics (data.uis.unesco.org), the pupil-teacher ratio in China for pre-primary education in 2015 was recorded at 19.9, whilst primary and secondary were 16.3 and 13.8 respectively. Within international schools of Shanghai, such as British International School Shanghai (BISS) Puxi and Shanghai Community International School (SCIS) student-teacher ratios are 11:1 with an average class size of 22 and 20:1 from grade 1 to 12 respectively.

International Schools Stationary

4. How secure is the school?

Every school should have a health and safety policy, which will contain details of what the school is responsible for as well as what they should do to take care of your child. Take note of the safety measures schools take to ensure the safety of your child(ren) whilst at school. In general, school staff are responsible for the supervision, welfare and behaviour of children at all times; all adult leaders should carry a list of the children in their group and many schools have started to limit access to school property by locking all unmonitored entrances and requiring all visitors to check in at the main office – as well as issuing distinct identification that all visitors are required to wear while on campus.

Especially when looking for a school for your younger child(ren), take note of:

  • how easy it is to access or leave school grounds, because no one wants to worry about a stranger entering or a child wandering off!

  • security guards manning entrances to the school in question

  • fencing placed around the outskirts of the school plot and campus

  • if kids are going home by bus, some schools will also employ bus wardens to ensure they get on the correct bus home.

5. What extracurricular options are there?

A certain level of importance lies within the benefits of extracurricular activities as it gives students the chance to extend their learning beyond a formal curriculum and explore new interests, be it Sport, Drama, Music, Debating or getting involved in projects like working in a local school for migrant children.

6. What are the entry requirements?

As a rule of thumb for many international schools in Shanghai, entry is only open to those who hold foreign passports “or residents from Hong Kong, Macau and Taiwan,” in compliance with Chinese government regulations, informs Renee Gian, Director of Admissions and Marketing at Western International School Shanghai (WISS). However, “applications can also be received by any Chinese passport holder who has one or both parents holding a foreign passport, or those who qualify to apply under the regulations of the Shanghai Education Committee.” In addition to this, students applying are also evaluated on their ability to read, write and speak English due to this being the primary language of academic instruction. Those entering Middle and High School, who are not native English speakers, must at a minimum “be at a level from which they can work to complete the IB Subsidiary English program by graduation, along with self-taught study of their mother tongue literature,” Gian continues.

For more information on the different schooling systems available in Shanghai, be sure to check out our guide to Bilingual and Local Schools as well as our guide to Preschools and Kindergartens in Shanghai for more insight.

Want to see details on schools in Shanghai? Click here to visit Shanghai Family's School Directory.