Stakeholders in China’s education sector ponder the future of and competition surrounding international schools in Beijing

By Chen Ximeng Source:Global Times Published: 2017/3/28 17:18:39

The international school industry in Beijing is growing rapidly and entering a very competitive phase, stakeholders say. Photo: IC

Francis Felicelli, the foreign teachers' director at Beijing Royal School (BRS), a Chinese-owned bilingual school that enrolls both Chinese and foreign children, recently noticed that two new international schools have started up in Beijing's Shunyi district. His school has also experienced exponential growth in the last three to four years and plans to expand.

The school's owner recently purchased a French castle replica in the suburb of Beijing. It is on a scale equivalent to a small Disney World. The new place will have a stable, hockey rink, baseball field, greenhouse and a research lab that has a partnership with University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill (UNC) Eshelman School of Pharmacy, he said.

It is unbelievably ambitious, according to Felicelli.

Grace Shi, the China consultant at ISC Research, a UK-based company that provides data on the international school market, including China, attributes the growing demand to the changing needs of middle-class Chinese.

"According to our research, the schools that are doing very well now are the Chinese-owned bilingual international schools. They are meeting a demand that is increasing among local Chinese families for a Western education and qualifications," Shi said. "Many schools are reporting that demand from wealthy upper-middle-class Chinese families in Beijing is soaring."

As for which direction the market is trending toward, several teachers and industry stakeholders interviewed by Metropolitan think that parents are becoming more discerning about where they send their kids, which has made schools more competitive and created a kind of "survival of the fittest" atmosphere among schools in the sector.

Students at Dulwich College Beijing Photo: Courtesy of Dulwich College Beijing

Parents learning more about international curricula and the international school market, can help drive away improperly certified institutions. Photo:IC

Chinese-owned Intl school boom 

Felicelli, who has over 20 years of experience teaching in public schools in the US, came to Beijing to teach two years ago. He thinks the international school market in China is entering a very competitive phase.

Compared with foreign students, Chinese students or parents have an increasingly greater need for so-called "international schools" that teach advanced placement (AP) or international baccalaureate (IB) curriculum, said Felicelli.

"Again, our numbers at BRS seem to support this. We have experienced double-digit growth for the last few years," he said.

The school now has over 2,000 students, and most of them are Chinese. Among them, over 1,100 students are from families with significant wealth and/or assets. This is why it has launched such an ambitious project.

Shi has seen a similar change in the enrollment at the Beijing City International School (BCIS). She said according to their research, BCIS, which is open to both the children of expats and Chinese, has seen its Chinese student enrollment increase from 6 percent in 2008 to 60 percent in 2017.

"The ISC China Report indicates that Beijing now has 141 international schools, which is 25 percent of China's total, and over 49,000 students, which is 22 percent of China's total," said Richard Gaskell, ISC Research schools director.

"Among them, the international Chinese private schools in Beijing have increased from 46 schools, enrolling 8,000 students in 2011 to 104 schools in 2016, enrolling over 30,000 students."

Gaskell said many Chinese-owned private international schools that have early childhood centers and kindergartens have parents putting their children on waiting lists the moment they are born because of the huge demand.

Foreign-owned Intl school decline?

Shi said compared with Chinese-owned international schools, many of the Schools for the Children of Foreign Workers (SCFW), which are not allowed to enroll Chinese passport holders, have seen a decline in Western student enrollment in Beijing in recent years, according to their research.

"Some of these spaces have been filled by returning Chinese families and Asian expats, and there are still some new Western expats coming to Beijing, for example, with the new Universal Studios that is opening," she said.

Some SCFW schools have noticed an increase in African students, as China's growing investment in Africa, especially in mining, has led to more Africans being employed by companies based in China, and also German students due to the German automotive industry in China, according to Shi.

Simon Herbert, the principal of Dulwich College Beijing, has noted the decline in foreign student enrollment. He said some schools have become uneasy or even panicky about the situation, but his school spotted the trend several years ago and adapted without changing its ethos.

"Our school's holistic educational offering and excellent academic outcomes appeal to the growing 'returnee Asian' market of discerning parents," he said.

Closing down

Though the market is growing with startups or expansions, some international schools in Beijing are shuttering their doors due to qualification issues or education philosophy conflicts.

A recent example was the closedown of the primary school of Peide School, a Chinese-owned private "international" school in Shunyi.

In January, the school, which was registered as a bilingual kindergarten, was asked by the local government to close its primary school due to lack of proper certification. The school later announced the dismissal of the then principal, according to a report.

The certification issue came out after an incident in December, in which a ball hit a Chinese student at the primary school during class. Her parents expressed their concerns, and the girl was later expelled by the then principal because of differences in philosophy. The incident aroused concerns over the qualifications of some "international" schools.

Some cooperation projects have also been affected by differences in education philosophy or licensing issues.

Avenues, a private school in New York with campuses worldwide, is struggling to open its Beijing campus because of challenges in obtaining an international school license, said Chris Lipinski, a former international kindergarten school principal who currently works as an educational consultant.

Avenues Beijing is meant to be a cooperation between Avenues and the High School Affiliated with Renmin University of China and would hold over 3,200 Chinese and foreign students. It was scheduled to open in 2016 but has yet to open its doors. It is not the first time the school has missed its own deadline.

"I heard that they already identified a site in Haidian district for the campus, and the Avenues team in Beijing was pretty much sitting on their hands due to inability to obtain a license," said Lipinski.

In August, another branded international school, Shattuck-St. Mary's School, shut down its expansion school on the campus of the Bayi School in Beijing because of belief and methodology conflicts, according to a report on

Shi said while some schools are succeeding, some Western international schools that have tried to cooperate with Chinese schools have not succeeded due to the challenges of combining Chinese education methodology with Western style, and also because of strict legislation.

Future prospects

Industry shareholders think that despite rapid growth, the market will become more mature in the future as parents become more knowledgeable about the market and international education.

Gaskell said through school open days and other activities, local Chinese families are beginning to understand what international education involves and what the different curricula and qualifications are to help them make an informed choice.

Parents are also learning about the benefits of the different Western curricula and the quality of schools from other parents, particularly by word-of-mouth and through WeChat, Shi added.

Lipinski said the majority of the parents he has worked with are still intrigued by uniforms, elaborate facilities, and big name curricula. He said families rarely inquire deeply about how the teachers interact with the children and how the children are taught in a holistic manner that considers the complete needs of the child. However, the number of curious parents is growing, and he hopes it will continue to grow over time.

"So, while many schools that promote 'international' education but might not be truly equipped to deliver a high caliber of education can still thrive in the current market, I think that the growing number of parents who ask deeper questions will begin to challenge those types of schools, and, ultimately, flock to schools that not only talk the talk, but can also walk the walk," Lipinski said.

He has talked with a few international-style schools that are taking curriculum development, teacher training and retention, and parent education much more seriously.

"I think in five to 10 years' time, schools that are currently investing in quality staff, management structures, and curriculums will be the competitive schools that parents are lining up to attend, while schools that continue with only fancy slogans and class names, but no solid system to back them up, will be closing down more frequently," he said.

Lipinski suggests that parents ask more questions and do their research. "It does seem to be persuading schools to deliver a higher quality of education," he said.

Felicelli and Herbert think a possible stumbling block in the future development of the market will be teacher recruitment.

"With the recent decree about teacher licensure, I believe that salaries for foreign teachers, especially for Americans or 'native speakers' like myself, will necessarily increase and further drive up the cost of tuition for each student," said Felicelli. "When will it all end? I don't know the answer to that."

Herbert agreed that the future of the sector will be challenging in terms of teacher recruitment and student enrollment, but cautioned against alarmists.

"A large part of my role is to recruit the best teachers in the world to come to Beijing," he said. "The climate does make this a challenging task, but one must be positive and also consider what an exciting time it is for an educator to join a very strong international school where they can develop professionally and be trusted to innovate in the capital of one of the fastest changing and dynamic world powers."

Newspaper headline: Survival of the fittest


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