When considering a move to Beijing, one of the biggest decisions a family wrestles with is where to enroll their child for school. A simple search will present prospective families with a dizzying array of choices. International choices range from a British-based curriculum to French, Canadian, American, Korean, Japanese, and Swedish ones. There is also a host of local Chinese options. Narrowing the field, let alone picking “the right one” can take days of searching, seeking advice on forums (such as the one ons www.beijing-kids.com and the Beijing Mamas Yahoo group), multiple visits to the campus, and plenty of agonizing.
Whether your child ends up at a local school, an accredited international school, or something in between, cost is usually a major concern. With tuition rates at some international schools now topping out at more than RMB 200,000 per year, the cost of education in Beijing is becoming one of the most expensive in the world. In an effort to better understand what families go through in the hunt for the perfect school, beijingkids sat down with four families, each with different experiences, to discover how they arrived at their decision and how they manage their funds for their child’s education.
The Rosenberg Family
Father: Joachim Rosenberg (Sweden), president of Volvo Group Asia Truck Operations
Mother: Kristin Rosenberg (Sweden), stay-at-home mom Children: Nellie (7), Morris (5), Miriam (3), Leon (18 months)
School: Western Academy of Beijing (WAB)
In 2007, the Rosenberg family set out on an adventure from Sweden to Beijing. Joachim always had an affinity with Asia; when he got the opportunity to be president of Volvo Group Asia Truck Operations in Beijing, he jumped at the chance. Pursuing a career opportunity and fulfilling a lifelong aspiration for Joachim was great, but he also wanted to make sure Kristin would like Beijing too.
“It was important to move somewhere where Kristin could have an interesting experience,” Joachim says. Fortunately, Beijing has always proven to be interesting in the four and a half years they have lived here. Their two youngest children, Miriam and Leon, were born in the city.
When it came to educational matters, the family started out with the International Montessori School of Beijing because it was closest to the compound where they lived. Yet, after two years of living in Shunyi District, Kristen felt quite isolated and they considered moving downtown, but couldn’t find the right school for the kids. That changed when Kristin walked onto the Western Academy of Beijing (WAB) campus. “WAB felt like where I would want to go to school,” she recalls. Now, three of their children attend WAB.
With three kids in school and a fourth preparing to attend school, Joachim points out that cost is always a factor, but quality is the decisive one.
“There are few investments, if any, that are more important than your child’s education. In general, I think the quality of education at international schools like WAB is high and people who move away from here miss that quality,” he explains. Joachim also commented that tuition is part of the compensation package at his company, but other expenses – such as meals and piano lessons – are not. Still, he and Kristin have no illusions about how expensive it is to educate four kids and are “absolutely saving” for their children’s school costs.
This summer, the family will bid farewell to Beijing and say hello to Tokyo – the base for Joachim’s new position. Though five years is a long time, they never considered enrolling the children in a local school. Eventually, the family may move back to Sweden and the parents feel it is important for the kids to have a consistent educational experience. As for Tokyo, the family has a stack of guidebooks and has already narrowed their school choices down to two.
The De León Arteaga-McCormick Family
Father: Fernando de León Arteaga (Mexico), airline pilot
Mother: Patricia McCormick (Mexico), stay-at-home mom
Children: Fernando (11) and Alejandra (9)
School: Beijing Rego British School (BRBS)
Sometimes finding a spot at school isn’t easy. When De León Arteaga found a position as a pilot with Hainan Airlines Group, he and McCormick thought they would be based in Wangzhou, but there was no available space for their son at the Canadian International School of Wangzhou. Instead, they moved to Beijing, where Fernando flies for Beijing Capital Airlines.
With Beijing came more school options, but the family again experienced the same problem with their first choice of schools; the Canadian International School of Beijing didn’t have space for their son. Several months before the rest of the family arrived, De León Arteaga was living in Shunyi at Dragon Bay Villas. He described his school woes to his neighbors when he learned that they were the principal and vice-principal of Beijing Rego British School (BRBS). “It was like destiny,” De León Arteaga says. The family moved one block away from the school.
According to McCormick, this is the first time the kids are enjoying school. They love studying French and happily do their homework. “I don’t know what the they are doing [at the school], but they are doing it right,” she remarks.
De León Arteaga and McCormick were surprised at how expensive international schools in Beijing are compared to other cities. Fortunately, BRBS offered a 25 percent discount for life for the first 50 families who joined the school. The family pays about USD 1,500 per month per child, which is still about USD 1,000 less per month than American and other British international schools, according to De León Arteaga. In addition, for the first six months, the school did not charge tuition since the pool and library were not finished. Because De León Arteaga’s company does not cover the cost of tuition for their children, this was a huge help to them. Because of the price, convenience and the quality of the education, they plan to stick with BRBS while living in Beijing.
De León Arteaga adds: “Being at a medium-sized school is great, especially for introverted kids. The staff includes parents in activities and there is close collaboration with the school. It feels like a family. I’m very happy with the school.”
The Afnan Family
Father: Masoud Afnan (UK), chair of the OB/GYN department at Beijing United Family Hospital
Mother: Nassrin Afnan (UK), lawyer
Children: Michael (17) and Maximillian (15)
Name of school: Dulwich College Beijing (DCB)
For the Afnan family, the decision to move to Beijing was a unanimous one. They had what Nassrin called an indescribable pull to move to China and be a part of “the country of the future.” Nassrin says: “Our life was very good in the UK, but we had a family consultation and each of us had a veto on the decision, but we all wanted to come. It has been a true family adventure and that has been an unexpected result.”
Masoud and Nassrin also thought it would be beneficial to give Michael and Maximillian an opportunity to experience China and learn Chinese, but it was clear that the boys were too far along in their studies to switch to a local Chinese school. Since the boys will most likely return to the UK for university, they decided to stick with the British school system. “Dulwich [College Beijing] was closest to the school they attended in England and we’re very happy with it,” says Nassrin.
Before moving to Beijing, the Afnans had to factor in tuition expenses carefully as the tuition at DCB is more than double what the family paid in the UK. Nassrin points out that they pay the tuition themselves, but as foreigners, the tuition fee is paid pre-tax, which is somewhat helpful.
Maximillian is in his final year at DCB and plans to attend university next fall in the UK. This year, university costs in the UK are increasing from GBP 3,000 to 9,000 a year. It is a steep increase, and there will also be the additional costs of room and board, so the family is saving to ensure that they can cover the continuing educational costs. Yet the tuition at say, Oxford is still less than half the price of tuition at DCB.
For families considering a move to Beijing, Nassrin doesn’t think it is worth coming to China only to replicate a non-Chinese environment. On the other hand, she says: “If you are coming here to embrace Chinese culture, to serve this great country, and to learn from its ancient wisdom, don’t hesitate, because it’s a terrific experience.”
The Kahn-Jiang Family
Father: Alan Kahn (US), group vice president of marketing and communications at Beijing United Family Healthcare
Mother: Jiang Ruoyu (China), university professor
Child: Elijah (6)
School: Beijing New Talent Academy (BJNTA)
Alan Kahn’s history with Beijing goes all the way back to 1991, when he came to study here for one year as a university student, but his interest in China began when he was just 18. Even then, he knew China was the place to be. After his year in Beijing, he returned to the US to finish his university studies, where he met Jiang Ruoyu, a Chinese exchange student from Yunnan province. After getting married and finishing their degrees, the two returned to China in 1998 and have lived in Beijing ever since.
Fast forward through a decade and a half of economic growth, and Beijing has transformed into the metropolis we’re all familiar with today. Six years ago, Kahn and Jiang’s lives also transformed when their son, Elijah, was born. Today, Elijah attends Beijing New Talent Academy (BJNTA), a private Chinese school in Shunyi.
When discussing the decision to place Elijah in a Chinese learning environment, Kahn says: “As a Beijing resident, Eli has some good opportunities at BJNTA and in the Chinese educational system.” For families with children born in Beijing and accustomed to a more Chinese atmosphere, Kahn doesn’t think parents necessarily need to send their kids to an international school from day one. By starting off in a local school, Elijah can lay the foundation for his Chinese learning and culture, and later transition to an international school if the family decides it’s in his best interest.
Although cost was certainly a factor in Kahn and Jiang’s school choice, it was about the third on their list of concerns and by no means the most important one. Tuition and other school costs are paid straight out of salary and they have not started a savings plan for Elijah’s education costs.
After so many years of living in Beijing, the family has begun to entertain the possibility of moving elsewhere in China or even overseas, but for now, they are content with their situation and plan to keep their son in a Chinese learning environment at least through elementary school. Kahn points out that parents considering local schools need to be flexible, since they will sometimes have to make compromises to their value system. He notes: “There are Chinese schools that are providing quality Chinese education, and there is always the option to switch to an international school later on. But a Chinese school is still a Chinese school and there are incredible pressures.”