The China expat parents choosing public over international schools, and how their kids cope

02-May-2019 Intellasia | South China Morning Post | 6:00 AM Print This Post

Thirteen-year-old Trey Crawford stands out at the high school affiliated to the University of Science and Technology Beijing. Trey, who is American, and a Dutch pupil are the only foreigners among the 39 students in their class at the public school in the Chinese capital.

“As a foreigner, I have more privileges than local Chinese classmates to do what I want,” Trey says. “The English classes are too easy for me. The English teacher lets me read [Chinese novels] during the classes. All my friends are local Chinese. I’ve studied in local schools throughout my school years so I am totally fluent in Chinese.”

Gloria Crawford, who runs an educational technology company in Beijing with her husband Terry, says she chose to send Trey to the local school because it would be the best way for him to master the Chinese language, and also instil in him resilience and discipline.

“At the primary level, Chinese schools provide a strong foundation in language training, which requires rote memorisation and repetitive copying to learn the strokes and everything,” she says. “How they teach languages also informs the way they teach everything else, like maths and science. My children’s maths skills are stronger than their friends’ when we go back to America. Because of the strict nature of the Chinese school system, they also have more resilience to be able to handle difficulties later in life.”

The Crawfords’ two younger children, Sean and Mia, are also receiving a local education in Beijing, at Jingcheng Experimental Primary School.

Gloria Crawford says another reason for enrolling her children in local schools is the exorbitant tuition fees charged by international schools.

According to a 2017 report by Chinese educational consultancy Newschool Insight Media, there are 734 international schools in China, with about 60 new ones opening every year. But the explosive growth has not led to a drop in school fees. A 2018 survey conducted by the Singapore-based on 688 international schools from 27 countries found the highest fees were in China, at an average of $33,591 a year. Switzerland ranked second at $32,453, followed by Belgium at $29,613. “Most of our foreign friends in Beijing either enrol their children in local schools or homeschool them,” Crawford says.

According to the weekly Oriental Outlook magazine, as of October 2016 there were 218 Chinese public schools admitting foreign children, and overall they were “top-drawer schools”. They charge international students between 50,000 yuan (US$7,457) and 100,000 yuan a year.

Betty (who spoke on condition of anonymity), an American mother working in education who has two daughters studying in Beijing Xiyi Elementary School, in Haidian district, says she cannot afford to send her children to an international school.

“My two daughters are the only white people in the whole school,” she says. “My Primary Six elder daughter has been there since Primary One. While some lessons, like those on ancient Chinese poems, are not useful for foreign kids, I am very satisfied with the school. Their teachers are very understanding. They have good friends at school and my elder daughter is fluent in Mandarin. She has no accent and can read and write Chinese very well.”

Though Trey credits the local school for his high proficiency in Chinese, he says there are no research projects on the curriculum.

“In a science class, we might observe blood cells or look at the skin of an onion, but there are no actual experiments,” he says.

Trey is an outspoken boy, not afraid to challenge teachers… he always asks the teachers in class why the students are doing this and that

Terry Crawford on his son Trey

Trey has had frequent dinner table conversations with his parents about Western politics and philosophy, he says, to counter the propaganda taught at school. However, he finds communist ideology interesting.

“It helps me to see the difference in the way people from around the world think about how to run a country.”

Terry Crawford says he and his wife challenge their children to consider whether what they are told in class is true.

“Trey is an outspoken boy, not afraid to challenge teachers… he always asks the teachers in class why the students are doing this and that. He asked why they have to do marching. The teacher said it’s for character building. After his questions, [the students] started marching less,” he says.

Betty says she gives her elder daughter extra English tuition at home because of the low standard of English lessons at school. She adds that there’s no encouragement to think freely.

“The teachers tell them exactly what to do. They are graded on how well they do it. I teach American history and things about different countries at home.”

Though the children are enjoying their experience at local Beijing schools, Gloria Crawford says it is not the same for everyone

“We are blessed with good, caring teachers. Every class has a collective WeChat group for [information dissemination]. The teachers sometimes send me private messages because they worry that I might miss some information due to my insufficient command of the Chinese language,” she says.

“I have [foreign] friends who have not had good experiences with local schools. They tried the local system for a few years, but the parents’ Chinese-language skills are not strong enough. At grade three, they realise it’s hard to help their children keep up in school.

“Also, their children look very foreign and conspicuous, unlike mine who clearly have some Chinese blood in them,” says Crawford, who is an American of Taiwanese descent. “I heard about a blond American boy in a local junior school. On the last day of school, everybody was given a red neckerchief. The teachers said all good students could get one, but he didn’t get one. He didn’t understand he was being treated differently because he’s American. He thought it was because he was not a good student. My kids are very fortunate as their teachers are very understanding and caring.”

Betty says she wouldn’t recommend others to enrol their children in a local school if they only planned to stay in China for a few years. Besides, it is not easy to find a place because many local schools are not allowed to admit foreign students.

“We looked at several schools in our area and only one agreed to take us in. But for those who plan to stay in China for a long time and raise their children there, studying in a local school is definitely worth it.”

Thailand’s international schools, meanwhile, are looking increasingly appealing to cost-conscious parents from China.

Julianna Liu Chang, who runs a Beijing-based beauty business remotely from Chiang Mai, has two children, aged four and five, studying at an international school in the northern Thai city.

“My elder son first studied in a Beijing international school, which cost 170,000 yuan (US$25,260) a year. When my younger daughter was due to attend nursery three years ago, I started looking for alternatives because enrolling both of them in international schools in Beijing would cost too much,” she says.

Liu checked out schools in Malaysia, Hong Kong and Bangkok before settling on Chiang Mai because of its relatively temperate climate.

A native of Hebei province, in northern China, Liu says annual tuition fees at Unity Concord International School in Chiang Mai totalled just 100,000 yuan for both children. The family lives in a spacious two-storey house with a back garden and have seldom returned to Beijing in the past three years.

“Including rental and living expenses for three people, it costs just over 300,000 yuan a year [to live in Chiang Mai], which is not enough to even cover school fees in Beijing.”

The son of Teng Da from China’s Jilin province has also been studying at Unity school since January.

“I came to Thailand with my husband on a leisure trip some time ago and fell in love with the place. When our son is at school, I travel around the area with my husband and baby,” says Teng, whose spouse is a salesman.

The school has a number of students from China, she says, who make up 20 per cent of the total student number.

Liu is happy with the American curriculum followed at Unity. “When teaching the English letter ‘s’, teachers will ask the children to look for a snake [from a pile of toys], instead of just writing the letter ‘s’ on the blackboard. Children can learn it by heart in this way,” she says.

There are few Thai elements to the curriculum, one being the playing of Thailand’s national anthem during the morning flag-raising ceremony.

“My son sings it all the time at home. [But] I play the national anthems of China and America on our daily car journeys to school to give him perspective,” Liu says.


Category: China

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