In early June 2016, I accompanied a delegation of eight Members of Parliament from the UK, representing the All Party Parliamentary Group on China, when they visited a Cambridge curriculum programme based at the Shishi High School in the city of Chengdu, capital of Sichuan Province.
Visiting the oldest school in the world
The MPs programme covered many aspects of the rapid economic and social development of southwest China. Shishi High School has a considerable claim to fame. Founded in 141BC during the Han Dynasty, it may be the oldest school in the world still teaching on its original site, in downtown Chengdu. But that was not the reason for the MPs’ visit. They came to see how a group of students at the school move from studying the Chinese curriculum at age 14-15 to preparing for Cambridge IGCSEs and Cambridge International A levels. The school is proud of the fact that over the last three years, every single student completing this programme has gained admission to a World Top 500 university – outside China. About two thirds have entered universities in the US, one quarter of them are studying in the UK , and the rest have gone to various other countries.
Rising demand for international education
Last year 55,000 students in China entered for Cambridge examinations. Several other providers of international school qualifications are also active in the country. Candidate numbers are rising every year, and the number of schools seeking to offer such programmes (more than 200 currently work with Cambridge International Examinations) is also on the rise.
While internationally-recognised end-of-school foreign qualifications such as Cambridge International A levels offer access to universities all over the world, they do not get Chinese students into Chinese universities. For that, a good score in the national university entrance examination, the Gaokao, is required.
There are three main reasons why international education is gaining in popularity:
- The pressure of the Gaokao
The Gaokao is a tough examination. Despite some progressive reform, it still requires students to have a prodigious memory. For most students, it also demands long hours of additional tuition and revision in order to achieve a good score. Students will only gain admission to top institutions such as Peking University and Tsinghua University if they get outstanding scores – such is the demand for places.
Since the risk of disappointment is so high, it is not surprising that many affluent parents consider the alternatives. ‘A’ grades in Cambridge International A Levels provide access to highly-ranked foreign universities but even ‘C’ grades will get students into a range of respectable universities in the US or the UK. The risk of failure and frustration is significantly lower that for Gaokao students.
- An increasingly international outlook
China’s middle classes have an increasingly international outlook. Many work for or own companies engaged in international trade. Private offshore investment, particularly in real estate is also becoming more common place, as is international tourism.
Parents’ views on education also appear to be shifting. There is more appreciation of the importance of student well-being, well-rounded learning and creativity. These changes in popular perception are in tune with the Chinese authorities’ thinking with regards to education reform in Chinese state schools. However, whole-system reform takes years and parents want solutions for their children today.
- The importance placed on English language
It seems that everyone in China is learning English or at the very least, everyone under 20 years old. However attainment varies greatly. A bilingual education in China, followed by study at university in an English-speaking country, equips students with language skills which open the doors to good jobs both in China and overseas.
The authorities are understandably cautious about the expansion of such programmes in state schools, preferring to concentrate on improvement of state education broadly. In many parts of China, new programmes of this kind are not being authorised. What is happening with increasing speed and scale is the establishment of private schools all over China offering education programmes leading to international qualifications such as Cambridge International A levels. Demand is so strong that a variety of entities including education companies, real estate developers and subsidiaries of famous Chinese universities are investing heavily in the expansion of private international education for Chinese children. The day before I joined the MPs in Chengdu, I visited a private boarding school in a town some thirty miles away. It was a boarding school on a stunning campus with a British headmaster and British, Irish and American teachers – preparing Chinese students for A levels and study abroad.
The next few years look likely to see private sector expansion which will change the education landscape in China. From the establishment of the People’s Republic in 1949 until well into the 1990s, there were effectively no private schools in China, apart from a few restricted to educating the children of expatriates. Up until recently, the most prestigious and highly desired schools among parents have been state schools. Now, private schools are not only growing in number but are starting to challenge state schools as the institutions of choice for those who can afford it and are keen to send their children to foreign universities.