One of the most difficult parts of relocating to a new country with a family is finding the perfect school that suits your children’s needs, has a minimal commute and provides the ideal learning atmosphere. Below are answers to common queries from families new to the Beijing international school scene.
Q: My family and I just arrived in Beijing, and we are quite confused about how to go about finding the best school for our children. Any advice?
A: Schooling is the number one concern for most families moving to Beijing, and with the wide range of choices here it can be a very daunting one.
The best way to approach this is to look at your family priorities: budget, location, education goals.
First, your family’s budget is the number one consideration; there is no point in looking at schools you can’t afford. Second – location, location, location – think about commute times from school to home. Hours spent in transit can really take their toll. Third, consider specific curricula and language requirements. Finally, consider any other special considerations that might sway you – an active PTA, if your children require special needs, specific after school activities that you or your kids desire, the opportunity to learn Chinese, as well as the mix of local and international students.
A serial expatriate might stick with International Baccalaureate (IB) schools because they can be found in virtually every country, and for a family that frequently moves, the programs from school to school are relatively consistent, so children won’t fall behind when switching schools. A family on a two-year assignment with a 16-year-old might want to keep her within the same education system as their home country, so she can graduate at the same time as her friends. A family with younger children can afford the luxury of immersing their children in Mandarin-language programs or enrollment in a local school.
Like everything in life, there are exceptions to every case.
Q: Can you give me an overview of the different types of schools available in Beijing?
A: Most people would compare the IB system vs. the American system vs. the British system vs. bilingual curriculums, but I am going to take a slightly different approach using my own categories. The prices are included as a guide
The top-level international schools are the equivalent of the best schools in your home country – beautiful campuses, modern facilities, excellent international reputations. These schools often start at RMB 130,000 a year and up. Keep in mind, though, that if you were still residing in your home country, your kids might not have attended this sort of top-tier school – while it’s wonderful if they get the chance in Beijing, don’t feel they are “missing out” if your budget cannot accommodate the tuition.
Local international schools offer very good facilities (many are on brand-new purpose-built campuses), have special features (such as a specific curriculum or a bilingual option), and some local teaching assistants as well as the international accredited teachers. These schools start at RMB 80,000 per year or more, depending on the grade level and the school.
Local-private schools are local schools which charge a fee, enroll a percentage of foreign students, and often have a few native English speaking teachers for daily English classes. These schools tend to attract wealthier local middle-class families, mixed families, and expatriates who want to expose their children to more Mandarin and math, as well as excellent study skills. These schools average RMB 2,000 -5,000 per month.
Local-local schools are local government schools, some of which have a long history of accepting foreigners. At the kindergarten level, the price begins at RMB 300-1,000 per month, and at primary and secondary level, RMB 1,000 a month to 50,000 a year, depending upon the school and your visa status.
A special category is embassy schools, which teach the national curriculum of their country, and offer extensive discounts to passport holders, but are also open to non-passport holders.
Q: What if we can’t afford the more expensive international schools?
A: More and more families in Beijing are not choosing the most expensive schools. For some, it is because their company will not pay the education fees; for others, it is because they are looking for a different type of school.
You don’t have to replicate your home country’s schooling system. Many families take this opportunity to expose their children to a different curriculum style and/or to learn Mandarin. This is a unique opportunity for your whole family, and could give your child skills that will put them ahead when they return to your home country and boost their college applications.
Q: What other factors should we consider?
A: Don’t forget the big picture. You are not outsourcing the raising of your children to the school; the largest influence on their development will still be you, the parents. So while the ideal school might not be possible, the options here each have their benefits (and frustrations!), but at the end of the year, your child and your family will have had an enriching educational and cultural experience.
For more guidance, try:
1. School Choice International, an international company that assists with school placement all over the world and has a counselor in Beijing (www.schoolchoiceintl.com)
2. APA China, a Beijing-based company, has been assisting expatriates in China for over 15 years and offers a school search service for both international and local schools (www.apachina.com)
Jacqueline Renee Cohen wishes she had started to study Mandarin when she first moved to Asia in 1994. She has lived in Beijing since 2007, and recently started studying Mandarin 4 hours every morning. Her two toddlers attend a local all Mandarin kindergarten. To contact her, email BeijingWithKids@gmail.com or visit www.facebook.com/jaqatac