Schools in China

The Chinese take schooling very seriously and the country is known for its rigid, results-driven educational philosophy. This can often come as quite a culture shock to expats moving to China from countries that employ a more holistic approach.

China offers a number of public, private and international schooling options for expat families. The decision of which school to choose will depend on a number of factors including the age of the child, the available budget and the family’s location within China.

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In the past, Chinese public schools haven’t been a viable option for expat students, mainly because of the language barrier and incredibly disciplined approach to learning, which focuses on rote learning. The lack of second language programmes, as well as the fact that few concessions are made for foreign students, mean that most expats opt for private or international schools instead.

However, as most Western families are beginning to make long-term moves to East Asia, public schools are becoming more popular, especially for parents with young children who want them to be as well assimilated into the local culture as possible.

The standard of public schools in China varies considerably. Overall, the best schools do offer a high standard of teaching but, in many cases, this also means that they are more competitive and rigorous than similar public schooling options in an expat’s home country.

Public schools are usually free, but some schools may charge minimal fees or may charge for extra costs, such as food and extra-curricular activities. Overall, though, public schools are much cheaper than their private and international school alternatives.

Private schools in China range from better funded versions of state-sponsored public education to institutions that teach bilingually and integrate aspects of international curricula. Alternative models of learning such as Montessori and Waldorf can also be found in China.

Generally, private schools in China offer better infrastructure and a larger selection of extra-curricular facilities in comparison to the state alternatives. These institutions tend to attract students from diverse but generally wealthy backgrounds. In terms of school fees, private schools charge more than local public schools but considerably less than the international options. 

international schools

Most expats in China opt to send their children to an international school. There are plenty to choose from, especially in major cities such as Beijing and Shanghai. These institutions are often the obvious choice for parents looking for a smooth transition for their children.

International schools follow a range of different curricula, including British, American and the International Baccalaureate (IB). While most classes are conducted in English or the primary language of the school’s country of origin, many international schools also offer classes on local culture as well as Mandarin or Cantonese language lessons.

The most popular international schools tend to be oversubscribed and many have long waiting lists in place, so it’s best to apply as early as possible. Admission processes can be arduous, involving lots of forms, interviews, placement tests and application fees. Tuition fees at international schools are high, so expats may want to consider negotiating for an education allowance as part of their employment package.