Middle-class families in China are becoming the money spinners for the country’s private education providers, particularly for kindergartens and primary schools offering the International Baccalaureate curriculum.
According to the latest figures from the official body that supervises the teaching of the curriculum, 105 schools in the mainland now follow one or more of the four IB programs for students aged three to 19 years.
China now has the largest number of IB schools in Asia Pacific – 86 of them private and 19 state schools.
“The number of private IB schools has doubled since 2014,” said Wesley Han Wei, chief operating officer of International Bilingual Experts – formerly IB Experts – Education Management.
Han’s Hong Kong-based consultancy firm specializes in helping education providers develop and implement the IB curriculum in the mainland, offering services from school design to operations, and teacher recruitment and training.
He added: “They are filling a market demand as local governments have announced measures to tighten the integration of Western-influenced curriculum at state schools. The surge was most evident in rich cities, such as Beijing and Shanghai.”
In China, IB schools can be categorized into two groups: international schools that only enroll children with a foreign passport (such as Dulwich College in Shanghai and Suzhou), and private schools that also accept domestic students, regardless of their place of residence under the hukou system.
The latter group is where wealthy Chinese parents are flocking to. These parents ultimately want to pave the way for their children to go to top Western universities. But the reasons why they opt for a foreign education during their children’s early to middle childhood stage are complicated.
“Middle-class families in China are turning away from the traditional curriculum because they think it places too much emphasis on teaching materials and examinations. They want an education that fosters an international perspective, problem-solving skills, and English proficiency. IB schools, coincidentally, can provide what they want,” Han said.
“Another is compatibility. The IB curriculum fits in well with the Chinese national curriculum. It encourages students to appreciate local cultures. Many parents who favor a foreign education don’t want their kids to lose their cultural identity. They also don’t want to send their kids abroad at an early age because that would mean depriving them of the guanxi network [of connections].”
Property developers are the main driving force for the opening of private IB schools in China. A case in point is the Guangdong-based firm Country Garden. In 2014, it opened a “through- train” private school in Huizhou, offering kindergarten to pre-university education.
The school is a popular destination for Hong Kong families who live in Huizhou.
The school is awaiting approval to teach the IB’s primary years program. It currently teaches Advanced Placement and A-levels program in the senior years. At full capacity, it can enroll 3,500 local and expatriate students.
Despite the hefty tuition – fees for non-residents are 55,000 yuan (HK$61,884) to 129,000 yuan per year – the school receives a high amount of interest from parents in Guangdong, having enrolled about 700 local students in under three years, Han said.
Private education is a lucrative business in China. The return on investment is higher than that of state schools, with profits reaching up to 20 percent per year.
That piqued the interest of many investors to join the game. Public universities in China are also enticed to expand into the sector to raise their profile. For example, Zhejiang Normal University has pledged 600 million yuan to open a “through-train” private school in the province. The IB school, which will open in September, will be separately run by independent managers from outside.
“We are expecting 20 to 30 schools to be opened every year in the major cities of China,” Han said. “Beijing and Shanghai are the obvious locations, but the trend has spread to second- and third-tier coastal cities, such as Kunshan and Zhejiang.”
While more choice is good news for parents, they also need to cautiously vet these private schools in times of an investment euphoria. A reason is the current shortage of qualified IB teachers in China translates into a disparity in teaching standards.
Meanwhile, the Shanghai government and the National People’s Congress were separately seeking to curtail Western-influenced curriculum at bilingual schools, Caixin reported last week. While the education sector said the news will not affect international schools that operate exclusively for expatriate children, private schools that target domestic students may bear the brunt of the policy.
The article first appeared in the Standard on November 22, 2016.