Ask any Chinese parent about the country’s secondary school system, and they’ll tell you how tough it is. Pupils would likely tell you the same thing, but good luck getting hold of them to pose the question in between study breaks. In recent years, however, the promise of a more holistic educational experience – and the potential for their children to gain fluency in English – has been compelling greater numbers of wealthy mainland parents to send their children to study abroad at elite private schools, and at earlier ages than ever before.
Among English speaking countries, the United Kingdom and the United States are the most popular study destinations. In the UK, independent boarding schools hold particular appeal for those who can afford the fees, which can exceed £30,000 ($48,000) per year.
Despite a recent crackdown on ostentatious displays of wealth, interest in such elite schools is still growing in China, and brand names like Eton, Harrow and Winchester are now well-known among the Chinese elite. Even the fact that Bo Guagua, son of disgraced Chinese politician Bo Xilai, studied at Harrow School seems to have done little to dampen Chinese enthusiasm for top flight British institutions.
“The Harry Potter effect has certainly worked to the UK’s favour,” said Jacob Leland, director of Gatcombe International, a bespoke educational consultancy with offices in Beijing and London.
Tradition is a big attraction. But another is the reputation of UK independent schools for relative strictness, Leland told China Outlook. A wide choice of extracurricular activities to match a child’s interests and strengths is another plus, as is the UK system’s emphasis on subject specialization in the final two years of schooling.
“Within China there is the impression that US schools are laissez-faire and provide more of a college environment. UK schools are more structured, which appeals to Chinese parents,” he said.
Leland certainly knows a thing or two about structured education. Before moving to Beijing he taught at Eton College, arguably the UK’s most famous independent boarding school and one that is first on the lips of Chinese parents with high hopes for their child’s scholastic career.
Consultancies like Gatcombe International are finding increasing favour on the mainland as choosing the ideal school abroad is tough, especially when a language barrier is involved. Unlike in Hong Kong, which has a longer tradition of sending children abroad to study, parents in China proper don’t necessarily have the social resources to make informed decisions.
Educational consultancies fill in the knowledge gap by matching children with schools and preparing potential pupils for notoriously rigorous admissions exams.
As recently as 2006, sending children abroad for high school was exceedingly rare among mainland parents. During the 2005-06 academic year, for instance, only 65 Chinese students were enrolled in American high schools, according to the US Department of Homeland Security.
There’s been a big change since then, and despite the financial implications, wealthy mainlanders are now more willing than ever to send off their children at a young age.
“When we first started operating in China, 95% of our students were over 16 and really only considered study in the UK for A-levels (the UK school leaving qualification),” said Emma Vanbergen, study abroad director for BE Education, an educational consultancy with a large presence in China.
“Now I would guess that 85-90% of our students are younger than 16. Indeed, the super wealthy, who tend to aim ‘high’ in terms of ultimate target schools, now often consider sending their children overseas at primary school level (age 9 or 10).
Departing from family homes that early can cause serious issues in children’s subsequent development. Indeed, there is much debate in the UK itself about the merits of such a move – and about the effect it has on the country’s elite politics.
In China, the very strong emphasis parents place on education compels many to make the sacrifice, in the hope that overseas schooling will differentiate their child from others in China’s highly competitive job market once they leave education.
While the prospect of an overseas education is also increasingly appealing to the less wealthy, Vanbergen says early start dates are still the preserve of the rich – parents must be confident they can cover over 10 years of tuition fees: “(Middle class families) certainly do consider studying abroad and there are now lots of banks offering financial products to help such families save for their child’s future education.”
But she adds that such families may only consider sending their children overseas for higher education, or perhaps at the very earliest for the last couple of years of high school.
Nevertheless, such is the Chinese demand for the few places at the UK’s top boarding schools that it is changing the make-up of the schools themselves. While the Independent Schools Council records that there were just under 26,000 non-British pupils at UK independent schools in 2013 – 5% of the total private school population – at elite schools the ratio is more skewed towards internationals.
Roedean School, an independent day and boarding school in Sussex, is now 40% international. Overseas pupils are predominantly from Asian countries. At Eton College the most common international pupil surname is ‘Kim,’ indicating a strong Korean presence at the school.
Hong Kong and mainland Chinese pupils account for one third of the international population at independent schools, a higher ratio than anywhere in Europe. Indicating a long-term trend, in 2013 the numbers of mainlanders rose by 5%, while the number of Hong Kongers fell by the same amount, according to the Independent Schools Council.
Having too many compatriots at one school is not necessarily good for incoming Chinese pupils, said Gatcombe International’s Leland. “From Chinese parents’ point of view it’s a fine balance between having their child enjoy an immersive British experience and being able to compare notes with other children’s parents at the same school.”
For those who wish to keep their children close by but still want a Western-style education, a host of boarding schools now operate in China that follow US or UK curricula. Offering a range of international high school qualifications, such schools typically charge tutorial and accommodation fees at less than half the rate of their overseas counterparts.
Parents considering a foreign education for their children would be wise to first attend a summer school modelled on the British or American experience, Leland said.
“Many famous boarding schools now offer summer schools for international students. Many operate a strict country quota system, and tend not to be oversubscribed from China. They’re not that popular on the mainland. At least not yet.”