Parents who can afford it believe the international schools are the passport to a better life for their children, despite the steeply higher costs. They offer the chance for a university education overseas, avoiding the pressure cooker of the national college entrance exam, taken by more than 9 million Chinese students last June.
There are good state schools in every city, but the problem is their teaching is aimed entirely to the university entrance exams.
“This hurts students’ confidence and the quality of the teaching,” said Xu Jin, whose 16-year-daughter started at a branch of Dulwich College in Suzhou city in September.
“She was at the best public school but we were more and more dissatisfied. The teachers just taught the right answers and didn’t want the students to ask why ... We can already see the difference. She’s happier and learning faster.”
The international schools in Beijing or Shanghai generally are limited by law to foreign passport-holders. But that’s not the case in many provincial cities, where growth in private education including bilingual schools is exploding.
For newly wealthy Chinese parents, the international schools offer an alternative to China’s conformist, competitive exam-based state school system, and, some say, make for more well-rounded youngsters.
But other parents are not entirely ready to jettison the Chinese education system and want to retain both options — applying overseas and taking the national college exams.
For them, companies like Tianjin-based Compass Education and Australian education services provider Dipont Education offer joint-venture international sections within established public schools, with an average tuition fee of up to US$16,000 a year. That lowers costs and cultural barriers.
“International education is not mark-centric, which is a brand-new idea for parents from second-tier cities,” said Compass board member Gavin Newton-Tanzer.
“For Chinese parents it’s a totally different idea. Their children study only through memorizing things.”
The joint-venture schools offer the best of both worlds, he added.
“Students can still be exposed to Chinese learning, which is more acceptable for local parents.”