For children and families, the start of a new school year brings excitement and promise; a fresh start complete with clean uniforms, blank notebooks, new classes and a raft of new challenges. Once those first few golden weeks of September have passed, many families find that the reality of school life is very different from the one presented in the brochure.
Beijing’s international schools offer families an overwhelming selection of curriculums, educational philosophies, subject areas, languages, locations, and extracurricular activities. Choosing a school that meets your family’s needs and academic expectations can be a daunting task, but making an informed choice will help minimize problems in the months and years to come.
A veteran of the Beijing international school circuit after three postings in Beijing, American mother of two Marnie Li* has some hard won advice for those considering their school options in the city. Her children attended a variety of schools during their time in Beijing, and during her last posting Li herself worked at a Shunyi area international school. Growing disappointment with the schooling options available to her children was part of the family’s decision to repatriate for good this summer.
Based on her experience, Li believes, "Independent schools [governed by an independent and locally elected board]are the only way to go in China, and independent is not the same as private." Independent school boards are closely connected with their school, react quickly to the needs of their school community and, in Li’s experience, provide closer academic oversight.
In contrast, many of the private international schools in the city are part of larger international chains, and ultimately report to a head office overseas. While quality education, good curricula and a committed staff can be found at these schools, Li stresses that it is important to recognize that these institutions are in the business of education. Conflicts can and do arise between the local administrators and their head office, and this can negatively affect your child’s school experience.
The number of schools in Beijing serving the international community has grown rapidly over the last ten years. Competition is pushing schools to improve, but the cost of running a school is high. The pressure to meet enrollment goals requires schools to focus resources on marketing and community outreach. "[Some] schools overpromise, and under deliver," says Li, but "once you see their true colors, it is financially hard to get out."
Indeed, the fee structures at some schools in Beijing make it difficult to remove your child once you’ve enrolled. This is done to allow schools the time and financial resources to plan for the upcoming school year. For parents, especially those who pay some or all of their children’s fees out-of-pocket, the financial burden of changing schools can be high enough to make it impossible. With the tightening of corporate budgets, even those who do have education covered by company benefits are reporting increasing resistance, even outright refusal to pay, for children changing schools regardless of the reasons cited.
The personal and emotional cost of changing schools is also high. After three international relocations and countless moves, Li is realistic about the challenge faced by families who are unhappy with their school. "Settling in and [maintaining]routines are big [issues]for families in transition," says Li. "Many parents are reluctant to pull their kids from schools that they don’t like because it may take six to nine months to realize the incompatibility and then, well, if you are only staying two to three years, is it worth the switch?" Most families decide it is not.
Others, however, find that the increasing cost of schooling in Beijing forces them to change schools. Amanda Cohen* is an educator and longtime resident of Beijing. The mother of three sons, she loved the Montessori school her two eldest sons attended. But when it came time for her youngest to start kindergarten, it became clear that even with a generous sibling discount, it would be financially impossible for the family to continue attending the school.
"I’m a Montessorian by training, and it was really tough to accept that we had to leave that [system]. My oldest two loved school; their teachers, and had made such close friends. It wasn’t just a school, it was our community. And we couldn’t afford to be part of it anymore," says Cohen.
Taiwanese mother of two, Mary Mok* agrees. After five years at an international school in the city, the family could no longer justify the cost of tuition for their two children. "Over five years, our fees increased almost 30 percent, and then they wanted more again this year. It was such a burden," laments Mok. "The school was fine, and my kids loved their friends, but the value just was not there anymore. My older son’s Chinese studies were falling behind even though the school claimed to be bilingual."
Li faced a similar frustration with ensuring her bilingual children learned adequate Chinese and English during their years here. As the interest in Mandarin as a Second Language increases around the world, Li is baffled by the lack of quality Chinese programs in Beijing schools. "Why every school doesn’t require Chinese of every student every day is beyond me," says Li.
This fall, the Mok family opted out of the international school system in favor of a less expensive private Chinese school with an international division. The commute is long, but in general they are satisfied. The amount of English taught is minimal, but for now, it works. "I feel free," says Mok, "That [financial]burden and worry is gone."
After much consideration, Cohen selected an international school with a bilingual program in the Shunyi area. The transition to a new school, and an entirely new teaching style, was not easy for the family, but her oldest child struggled most of all. "At first I thought it was just an adjustment issue, but it quickly became apparent that we had a real problem with the teacher that went far beyond getting used to a new school."
As the months wore on and Cohen’s son continued to struggle emotionally and academically, she approached the school about her growing concerns. "[My son] did everything to avoid going to school. There were constant battles about homework, loss of recess time for incomplete work, mountains of busy work, tests, and an absolute killing of any ability or desire to learn. No 8-year-old should have that level of anxiety about school." While the administration was sympathetic, the teacher remained in the classroom and most issues remained unresolved. The anxiety became overwhelming, and resulted in a panic attack that ended only when the child was admitted to the emergency room.
"It was so frightening to see the impact one inexperienced, under qualified teacher had on my child," states Cohen, "And I was at a loss as to what to do. My other kids were doing well, but we had a real problem in this classroom." After the panic attack, Cohen informed the school that something had to change. Cohen considered homeschooling, re-enrolling her son at his beloved first school, or even removing him from school for awhile. In the end, she found support for her son outside of school, while the school administration stepped in to make some changes in the types of discipline used in the classroom. Over the next few months, they worked together as best they could but it remained a very difficult and demanding year for the whole family. The teacher has since left the school, and China.
Li’s experience as an employee in an international school opened her eyes to the staffing issues faced by many schools. Hiring excellent staff is expensive, and schools often favor hiring teaching couples to save on expenses like housing. Staff burnout and cultural stress also affects the school community. "I heard on a daily basis how many of the teachers hated China, hated the parents of their students, and treated the students poorly as a result," says Li. While not every teacher had this mindset, attitudes such as this affected students on a daily basis. Li left her position at the end of her contract, disappointed and frustrated by the experience.
This fall, Cohen’s children returned to the same school to find remarkable changes had been made. School-wide policies have been put in place to prevent many of the inappropriate discipline and homework issues they had faced during their first year. "I’m very pleased with the school and the changes they’ve made. This year my oldest has a wonderful teacher and we’re back on track. I still miss the Montessori approach and the smaller school environment, but we’ve gained some great things in return."
Even with her overall dissatisfaction with the schooling options in Beijing, Li is realistic and insists that in the end, "There are no good schools and there are no bad schools. There are schools that meet your needs and those that do not." The important thing is to ensure you get your children into the school that best meets your needs and expectations from the very beginning.
Li cautions parents to be realistic about their needs and see past the glossy brochures and shiny extras. "Many people who come to Beijing and get free tuition have never had a private school experience before," says Li. Faced with school choice for the first time, they become overwhelmed by the new campuses, a different school system and the marketing pitch, and forget to ask about academic standards, the qualifications of the staff, security, and transportation.
While relocation companies and school admissions staff are good places to start, it is important to make decisions based on credible information. Li believes that, "Choosing the right school based on priorities rather than general impression will likely yield more favorable results," and encourages families to make a list of what matters to them. Suggestions include price, education system, languages offered, reliable transportation, safety, sports teams, teacher-to-student ratio, ESL stats, uniforms, lunch plans, and location. Visit more than once before enrolling and if possible make one of those visits unexpected so you can see a typical day at school.
People move in and out of Beijing regularly and it is very rare for a child to attend more than a handful of years at a single school. Collective memory fades, but for better or worse, the Internet never forgets. A simple keyword search for the name of a school will provide a window into the institution, its reputation among students and teachers, and in some cases, allegations that cannot be overlooked.
A quick search for the name of a well-known kindergarten chain in Beijing reveals accusations of accidents, abuse, dubious treatment of staff by management, and even a website maintained by a former parent in the school outlining various incidents and concerns. Though claims are not always credible and in many cases cannot be proven, it does raise cause for concern. In comparison, similar searches for other Beijing kindergartens did not yield such negative results. While unanimously glowing reviews are impossible, the ongoing trend of complaints from both parents and staff, dating back to 2004, should present a red flag to parents considering this kindergarten. At a minimum, it should encourage parents to ask very specific questions of the school before entrusting a child to the institution in question.
It is important to accept that schools cannot be tailored for each individual child. Successful schools come from a partnership between educators, administrators, students and families working together for success. Take your time when selecting the right school for your family, be aware of the different advantages and challenges they bring, trust your instincts and then get on the team to support and improve your child’s school experience for the years to come.
*Names have been changed.
Canadian Sarah Peel is a mother, childhood educator and Kindermusik instructor. Before moving to Beijing in 2006, she spent four years teaching in Japan.