Smog is a fact of life in Beijing, and the best we can do is clean the air indoors. Several schools – such as the British School of Beijing (BSB) Shunyi, Western Academy of Beijing (WAB), and Dulwich College Beijing (DCB) – have sports domes with air filtration systems. But it’s not all about air-locked, purpose-built facilities. Look into each school’s air purification systems, testing and monitoring processes, and Air Quality Index (AQI) cut-off point for outdoor activities.
For many families – especially those with frequently changing postings – boarding schools can be a viable option. For some children, they can provide a stable environment, foster independence and maturity, and strengthen social and academic skills. Schools with residential accommodation include Keystone Academy, St. Paul American School, Wellington College International Tianjin, and Harrow International School Beijing.
Beijing’s schools offer a wide selection of curricula and educational philosophies, including American school systems (with SAT/PSAT testing), the Chinese National Curriculum, International Baccalaureate (IB), Montessori, Multiple Intelligences, Reggio Emilio, UK National Curriculum, bilingual programs, and more. For more detailed information, pick up a copy of the 2016-2017 beijingkids School Choice Guide (contact firstname.lastname@example.org for more info).
Smaller schools have their advantages, but the likelihood of uneven gender ratios is higher. This can be a concern for some parents, as it is normal for kids to pass through stages in their maturation when same-sex friendships are dominant. Similarly, a lack of diversity may be a concern in some schools. For example, some kids may not enjoy being the pioneering waiguoren at a local Chinese school, while some parents may feel being immersed in a completely familiar western culture is not a productive use of their child’s time in China.
The quality of the teaching staff is of paramount importance. If possible, meet the teachers who will be educating your children. International schools can face greater levels of staff attrition; think twice about schools with high staff turnover. It takes time for teachers to settle in, develop rapport with their students, and build quality learning programs.
Facilities and equipment at top-of-the-range international schools are second to none (see Air Quality and Sports). Modern learning spaces, science and robot labs, vast libraries, black box theaters, organic vegetable gardens, koi ponds, meteorological stations, dark rooms, TV and radio stations – if you can dream it, chances are one of Beijing’s international schools has it. By contrast, the amenities and hygiene conditions at smaller local schools may not always be up to standard; we suggest carefully inspecting each school before making a decision.
Of successful child-school pairings, parents often tell us: “It just felt right.” When you’ve narrowed down your options, and weighed all the pros and cons, you may still be left with a coin toss between schools. Trust your intuition and the impressions garnered from school tours (see Visit).
It’s not compulsory for foreign children to attend school in China, so there are no legal obstacles to homeschooling. Many families will opt for homeschooling to save on costs, spend more time with family, and get the best out of their China experience by exploring the hutongs, museums, and other cultural heritage sites. Homeschooling can be tailored to any curriculum, belief system, or language. Homeschooling parents can collaborate to address socialization and sports needs through Beijing’s active homeschooling community, Beijing Homeschoolers (Yahoo group), which provides support, information, and opportunities to meet other families.
Beijing’s international schools are truly international. Most of them can legally only accept foreign passport holders and many of the student bodies are incredibly diverse – it’s not unusual to have 40 different nationalities together on one campus. The international school alumni network is also one of the largest in the world, and can be a wonderful way to initiate your child into global citizenship. The city’s best educational institutions are on par with top schools all over the world. However, their academic excellence, manicured campuses, and state-of-the-art facilities don’t come cheap (see Tuition).
For new families, the school provides a vital link to the community. Many schools act as a social hub; some have parent-run cafes (such as DCB, MSB and BSB Shunyi) and others offer all-day drop-in services for parents (such as at HoK). Many schools also have teacher-parent coffees, parent education workshops, and other ways to involve parents in their children’s education.
Checking up on accreditations is a vital part of the school selection process. Any school can call itself “international” or “Montessori,” but talk is cheap unless there is a stamp of approval from an established governing body. Accreditation naturally increases the price of tuition because the process of obtaining and maintaining certifications entails substantial costs for the schools. If the school you’re looking at isn’t properly accredited, ask comprehensive questions about its curriculum and methodologies.
Since 2006, foreign students are allowed to attend any local school, even those without an international campus, as long as the school has the right permits. However, interacting with local schools can be especially challenging for expat families. Differing expectations, larger class sizes (commonly up to 40 students), mismatched holidays (local schools follow the Chinese national holiday schedule), and communication difficulties are some common complaints. It’s crucial that you speak Chinese and/or interview a parent whose child attends the school to get an idea of what lies ahead.
Beijing-based families can offer their children a major advantage: exposure to Mandarin. There is a wide range of options available ranging from Mandarin as a subject all the way to unilingual Chinese programs. Bilingual programs have become increasingly popular as families realize how much of a leg up Mandarin proficiency can give their children—just look at how Mandarin has seeped into the curricula of K-12 schools in the US!
Number of Students
Is bigger always better? Smaller schools may lack the resources of their larger counterparts (see Facilities), and it is likely your child will have to change school locations (and perhaps curriculum) as they progress from primary to secondary school. On the other hand, smaller schools are less constrained by bureaucracy, and educators are free to make flexible day-to-day decisions based on independent situations. Young children may also be less intimidated by cozier settings.
Obedience and Discipline
You might have raised model citizens, but be sure to research the school’s disciplinary and bullying guidelines to ascertain if their policies seem workable and effective when children do step out of line. Overall, disciplinary policies at international schools are more forgiving, whereas the rote learning system at local schools requires a level of focus that often entails stricter regulations for students.
An active Parents’ Association (PA) can provide networking and socializing opportunities as well as offering a platform to contribute to the school and community at large. Many Beijing PAs hold annual fundraising balls and other events to benefit local charities (see Join In).
Accredited schools should have properly qualified faculty. Check that teachers have the right qualifications to teach the curriculum offered by the school, whether a teaching certificate from your home country, a Montessori certification, or just relevant degrees. There is a broad range of daycare, playgroup and kindergarten options in Beijing, with significant differences in educational quality and approaches.
Ask your existing network, such as your company or new acquaintances for school testimonials to have a better understanding of the school’s reputation in the community. Talk to parents whose children attend your preferred school, but also use community resources to get other perspectives on your shortlist by contacting other parents online through Beijing Mamas or Beijing Café (Yahoo Groups). Once you arrive in Beijing, draw on newcomers’ groups, such as INN, or simply turn up to the school gate and mingle with other parents. (For more infomation see page 42.)
Alongside more traditional facilities such as running tracks, football fields and gymnasiums, Beijing’s international schools feature everything from Olympic-sized pools to rooftop putting courses and air-purified equestrian arenas. If your child’s chosen sport isn’t available at their school, check out the many after-school sports programs available from organizations, such as Imagine, Flips and Kicks, and Sports Beijing.
Beijing has joined the ranks as one of the world’s most expensive metropolitan cities to live, so don’t expect education to be cheap. Inflation hasn’t just affected the housing market, but the cost of education has been rising as well. Budget ought to be your number one consideration; after all, there’s no point wasting time on schools you can’t afford. That being said, tuition costs vary widely. Grade 12 in the international section of a local high school can range from RMB 50,000-100,000 per year while international school fees range from RMB 150,000-300,000 per year, though sibling and other discounts may be available.
Uniforms and Dress Codes
Many schools opt for uniforms as a way of reinforcing their ethos, increasing identification and school spirit, and reducing the differences between students. Schools without uniforms, albeit not without dress codes, generally emphasize personal choice, freedom of expression, and individual responsibility.
After you’ve read the School Choice Guide and various school websites, it’s time to draw up a shortlist and pound the pavement. If you’re unable to attend the school’s open house or take a tour, contact their admissions departments. Most will be happy to arrange a private visit. Observe the students as you go around. Are they orderly or rowdy, excited or exhausted? Can you see your child fitting in?
Some expat families have difficulty adjusting to the Chinese school system due to the long school hours and the excessive amount of homework (and subsequent performance pressure) from school, even for younger students. Despite a focus on academics, the school workload is generally much lighter at international schools, and can be adjusted via a more challenging program, for example.
After-school activities (ASA) may not be the most important factor in choosing a school, but they can tip the balance when it comes to deciding between two otherwise evenly-matched schools. These days, extracurricular pursuits are weighed more heavily – particularly for students preparing for university. Music, arts, sports, and honor societies – ask your children for their input, and think about what’s important to your child and their life stage.
Is this a short-term posting, or are you here for the long haul? Families committed to expat life tend to prefer education systems, such as the International Baccalaureate (IB), which is both available and accepted worldwide. If you’re not planning to be away from your home country for long, you may not want to change curriculum in Beijing. Some schools – like the German Embassy School and French International School of Beijing – are backed by foreign education ministries.
Distances in Beijing are often exacerbated by traffic conditions. Cross-city commutes can mean getting up brutally early in the morning, so the school’s close proximity between to home is a key consideration. Before making your final choice, try to run through the commute to each of the schools you are interested in at peak rush hour. Long transits can wear kids out, especially if they have a lot of homework to complete after they get home. Be sure to ask the schools about their school bus schedule and pick up/drop off locations as well.
Photo: Tomohiro Tokunaga (Flickr)
This article originally appeared on pages 8-11 of the 2016 Home and Relocation Guide. Click here for your free online copy. To find out how you can obtain a hard copy, contact email@example.com.