International Schools in China: The Changing Landscape


Despite regulatory and competition challenges for international schools operating in China – demand still outweighs supply, writes Sophie Loras.

The growth in international schools in the last 12 years has been huge – an increase from 22 international schools in 2000 to 342 schools in 2013, according to research by UK-based ISC Research, which maps the world’s international schools.
The growing demand for international schooling in China reflects the boom in the number of expatriate employees arriving in China since the late ‘90s as part of the country’s economic transformation.
ISC defines an international school as one that delivers a curriculum to any combination of infant, primary or secondary students, wholly or partly in English outside an English-speaking country.
Under Chinese law, Chinese children, such as Chinese passport holders, must attend a Chinese curriculum school. Therefore, international schools in China have, traditionally, only accepted foreign children, and Chinese schools have only taken in Chinese children.
Today, however, the schooling environment has changed dramatically. More and more middle class Chinese families are looking for international schooling options for their children, while more and more locally-engaged foreign families living in China long-term, seek more affordable and local options for their children in China.
China too has undergone its own education reform with a growing push for local Chinese schools to become more international by offering international curriculums such as the IB and introducing bilingual streams to attract foreign students.
What this means for foreign and Chinese parents alike in China, is a hybrid of options opening up to accommodate the needs and expectations of just about everyone.
Some Chinese private schools do now offer an international curriculum, especially at the 16 to 18 year age group – operating with local licenses.
The growth in international schools in China has been nothing short of phenomenal. In May 2000 there were 22 international schools in China with a total enrolment of 7,268 children, today, that figure has reached 342 international schools in China with a total enrolment of 186,773 students, employing more than 18,000 staff.
Although more than 50 Chinese cities have international schools, greatest concentration remains in the tier one cities of Shanghai, Beijing and Guangzhou and second tier cities, Shenzhen and Chengdu.
Changing opportunities in China’s domestic schools
Over the last four years, there has been considerable growth in foreign programs offered by English-medium sections within China’s domestic schools. ISC Research estimates there will be 3,000 of these schools in China in the short-term. This reflects a growing preference in China for local students to opt out of traditional Chinese curriculum programmes in order to increase their chances of attending North American, Australian and British universities.
While regulations in China continue to restrict Chinese students from attending international schools, ISC predicts that once Chinese passport holders are granted permission to attend non-Chinese international schools, the number of international schools will grow dramatically.
The ISC says there are 200 million Chinese children who will need schools, and the proportion of those wanting international schooling will be hard to satisfy with the current system.
The research suggests, that even if the number of international schools in China grows merely at the same rate as the rest of the world then ISC Research predicts there will be more than 500 international schools in China by 2020.
These figures remain largely conditional to expatriate trends. The future will lie in the options available to Chinese students.
“Regardless of the growth, demand for international school places is still not matched by supply,” says Nicholas Brummitt, Chairman of the International School Consultancy Group.
“Our research has identified that many schools are increasing capacity as quickly as they can. In addition, there are many new developments; the dramatic growth of English-medium sections in locally-owned, private Chinese schools for example.”
The future of the traditional international school model in China
Today, the options available for international students in Beijing, and the children of Chinese parents with foreign passports, is wide and varied. Beijing currently has 19 international schools and kindergartens operating in Beijing as recognized by the local government – these are schools with a licence to accept only foreign-passport holding children.
Added to this, are private schools, which can accept both foreign and Chinese students, as well as a growing number of Chinese schools now offering specialized international streams and IB curriculums.
The Western Academy of Beijing is one of Beijing’s oldest running international schools and one of the best known. It is unique in China as it was founded by a group of parents in Beijing in 1994 to accommodate the educational needs of Beijing’s growing expatriate community by creating a non-profit, independent international school guided by a parent board. Its aim was a simple one – embracing Chinese language and culture and offering a truly international curriculum through the International Baccalaureate programme. All profits are reinvested back into the school.
When WAB opened in 1994 it was one of just a handful of international schools operating in the Chinese capital, responding to a lack of supply in the international education market. Until then, the International School of Beijing was the only school accommodating the children of predominantly ambassadorial families and the early trickle of foreigners working for multinational companies.
Today, WAB has grown from 146 students in 1994 to over 1500 students from more than 50 different nationalities today.
The school’s success is in its core values – remaining a parent-based board. The school is run as a community rather than a business, offering the International Baccalaureate programme and maintaining a vibrant and varied mix of students from around the world. It keeps tabs on student enrolments so that no nationality of students outnumbers any others.
It is a unique model. Many international schools in China are run by a board of investors. This will continue to be the prevailing model into the future as China’s increasingly affluent middle class parents begin investigating private, international education options for their children.
One factor that has played a big part in the diversity now offered to foreign families in choosing educational options for their children in China is an economic one. In the past, international schools were established to cater for the expatriate children of diplomats and foreign embassy staff or multinational senior managers on big wages and packages which have traditionally included international school fees.
Foreign companies in China today are looking more closely at options to localize expat packages or reduce expatriate costs by relocating single employees in preference of those with dependants. Foreigners in China are increasingly being employed on a locally engaged basis, which often excludes schooling perks. This has seen an increase in expatriate families looking at the less expensive option of sending their children to top tier Chinese schools offering bilingual and international curriculums.
The human resources landscape in the last five years in China has also seen a significant shift in the employment trends of foreign staff. Many international firms operating in China today are now demonstrating a preference for Chinese managers who understand the cultural nuances of doing business in China and have the language also. Since the global financial crisis in 2008, the number of high paid expatriate executives in China has continued to fall.
Chinese language
Expatriates who see a long-term future for their families in China also tend to be more open minded about schooling options with bilingual curriculums, whereas expatriate families of traditional international schools – those here on short-term posts are looking for schools which will provide the smoothest education transition for their children either upon their return to their native country or wherever the family is posted to next.
Despite a growing range of schooling options for expatriate families in China, traditional international schools are still finding it hard to meet demand.
Harrow International School Beijing is one of several international schools in China which has recently moved to a brand new campus in order to accommodate its growing student community.
When Harrow opened its doors in Beijing in 2005 it had 45 students – starting as a secondary school for boys and girls aged 11 to 18, and then opening a second campus for younger children in the city’s Chaoyang district. Today the school has 715 students across its Early Years and Pre-Prep, Prep Phase, senior school and Sixth Form levels. Its new purpose built campus can accommodate up to 1200 students. And Harrow predicts it will commence its 2014/2015 academic year with over 1000 students.
“Harrow Beijing has been looking to build a permanent campus that would accommodate all of its students here in Beijing since the School opened its doors,” says Joanna Scaramella, Harrow International School Beijing’s Head of Marketing and Public Relations.
The new campus, located on a lake between downtown Beijing and the outer-expatriate suburb of Shunyi, sits on 66,600 square metres of land. Its new facilities include two full-sized football fields, two swimming pools, indoor air filtration, a 20,000-volume library, 13 science labs and a multi-function theatre.
As a top tier international school in China, Harrow has a strong emphasis on integrating leadership skills across the school day and beyond. Student leaders run extra-curricular clubs and the school also encourages charitable and community services into the curriculum for developing links with local, national and global communities.
It is one of three Harrow schools in Asia, with campuses in Bangkok and Hong Kong – all adhering to the same standards derived from its base in London.
Extra curricular activities, leadership programmes, first rate sporting, musical and theatre facilities, and an emphasis on the school community will also continue to separate traditional international schools in China from 
their competitors, as well as small student to teacher ratios.
Like other prestigious international schools in China, the British International School of Beijing offer its students a solid curriculum and internationally recognised qualifications for students to continue their international education from or upon return to their home country.
“At The British School of Beijing, we value the well rounded success and development of our students – we not only nurture the academic success of our students but place strong emphasis on behaviour and social graces and encourage students to undertake extracurricular activities,” says BSB’s Marketing and Communications Manager, Kate Ferrier.
Meanwhile, Harrow’s former campus in Chaoyang district has been converted into a new International Leadership Institute operated by AIS Education, an affiliate of Harrow International Management Services. The new institute will provide language support and bridging courses to students in the local and expatriate community as well as developing a range of programmes to support teacher training for English Language Teachers. It will provide intensive language programmes, exam preparation courses for IELTS, TOEFL and Cambridge Main Suite exams.
The new leadership institute demonstrates the evolving landscape of the business of education in China – now moving from facilitating the international expatriate market, to developing programmes for the growing number of students and families in China eager to develop the skills and knowledge needed to succeed in an English language learning environment whether in China or overseas. 
Growth in international schools in China:
In May 2000 there were 22 international schools in China with a total enrolment of 7,268 children
In June 2010 there were 260 international schools in China with a total enrolment of 119,319 and a total staff of 12,876
As of February 2013 there are 342 international schools in China with a total enrolment of 186,773 students and a total staff of 18,533
There are 54 cities in China where international schools are located. The major cities are:
Shanghai 91 international schools
Beijing 77 international schools
Shenzhen 17 international schools
Chengdu 16 international schools
Guangzhou 12 international schools
*Source: ISC

An international school is one that delivers a curriculum to any combination of infant, primary or secondary students, wholly or partly in English outside an English-speaking country. For more information visit:

**All pictures courtesy Harrow International School Beijing.


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