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2019-10-30 14:03:51

SHANGHAI — China’s education policy is constantly changing, and British schools are counting on their local partner institutions to ensure that they stay aware of Beijing’s red line “as much as possible,” according to an official from the U.K.’s Department for International Trade (DIT).

Addressing a group of Chinese and British teachers and administrators Wednesday at an education conference in Shanghai, Vipul Bhargava, a special adviser to the DIT, called on British schools and their Chinese partners to build stronger ties if they hope to maximize growth.

British schools are a popular preference for well-off Chinese couples hoping to give their children a Western education and perhaps send them abroad for university. But new and sometimes frustrating policies targeting private schools — including randomized admissions and stricter curricula controls — have left both families and businesses rattled.

British schools operate 47 campuses in China, mostly in major cities. While Beijing, Suzhou and Shanghai are the most mature markets for bilingual education, according to management consulting firm Oliver Wyman, more British schools have been sprouting up in second-tier cities — a dozen-odd metropolises that are relatively developed but less populous than megacities like Beijing, Shanghai, Guangzhou, and Shenzhen.

In 2017, the Ministry of Education began replacing China’s diverse selection of school textbooks with a unified curriculum focusing on patriotism, literary classics, and revolutionary heroism, among other state-approved themes. These changes — which apply to the compulsory education period of first through ninth grade — have presented challenges to international schools whose strongest selling point was an integrated curriculum presenting both Chinese and Western content, according to Claudia Wang, a partner at Oliver Wyman.

“Many parents would like to see a Chinese textbook that also incorporates British content — but that’s forbidden now,” Wang told Sixth Tone. “Admission policy has also changed, with private schools now barred from granting early admission or fishing the talent.” Moreover, with a lottery-based admissions system now in place, parents might be reluctant to pin all their hopes on a top school and instead try their luck at a more average one, Wang said.

China’s growing population, combined with parents’ seemingly abundant willingness to spend big on education to give their children a leg up on the competition, fueled a influx of international schools for many years. But recent political events have brought greater scrutiny of international schools on the Chinese mainland, according to an expert at the conference who declined to go on the record.

And this is precisely why Chinese partner institutions need to take a leading role, said Hu Jing, the CEO of Ray Education Group, an English training franchise based in Shanghai. “Otherwise, many U.K. schools might step on the red line,” he said during a panel presentation. “Our country administers ‘sovereignty education’,” he said later in an interview with Sixth Tone. “This means that international education providers hoping to operate in China need to have a deep understanding of the country.”

Whatever the new reality of doing business in China, international schools are likely to do what’s asked of them in exchange for access to such a vast market.

Graham Hawley, headmaster of a boarding school that bills itself as the oldest in Scotland, is looking for a Chinese partner institution so the school can set up a campus in China. But the search hasn’t been easy, Hawley told Sixth Tone, describing it as “a little bit like finding the needle in the haystack.”

While new regulations present challenges for international schools, there’s no denying the opportunities China offers people like Hawley. “It’s absolutely right for children to be grounded in the heritage of their language,” the headmaster said. “There are elements of the West that are very good, and there are elements of Eastern education that are very good. The challenge is to merge them together.”

Editor: David Paulk.

(Header image: Jo Hawley, the British consul general in Guangzhou, gives a speech during an education conference in Guangzhou, Guangdong province, Oct. 28, 2019. From @英国驻广州总领事馆 on Weibo)