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Choosing an international school in Shanghai to meet the needs of your family and your child

Updated 24 Mar 2017

Shanghai was an educational hub well before the international school scene arrived. With some of China’s most well-respected middle and high schools and some of the country’s top universities, Shanghai has long been the pride of China’s education system. Even today, visiting teachers from the surrounding provinces are bussed in to spend weeks observing in a Shanghai classroom learning from their Shanghainese peers.

With the growing expatriate population over the last two decades and Shanghai’s desire for ‘the best’ and ‘the newest’, it is little wonder that it has also fast become one of Asia’s top international school cities. Alongside Singapore and Hong Kong, it has built a reputation in Asia for top quality provision in the education market. Unlike its sister city rivals, though, education in Shanghai has become a buyer’s market, with a rapid growth in new international schools flooding the city, all eager to take their bite of the expatriate's (or their employer's) paycheck.

With many expatriates in the city being executives and top educated people themselves, it is also a customer base that knows what quality means, and this, in turn, has meant that international schools in the city have to play at the top of their game. Unless an international school is building its reputation on quality, it will be quickly dismissed by Shanghai’s discerning parents.

So what does all this mean for incoming expatriates looking to select the right school for their child? Well, what it does mean is that parents have choices. Unlike many other cities that expatriate parents may find themselves in, where it is simply about selecting the ‘best’ school, in Shanghai there are many excellent schools, all of which are worthy of the highest accolades in educational accreditation circles. What this therefore means is parents can be really selective in deciding what is important to them as a family and for their individual child and which of the many ‘best’ schools will, therefore, best serve their needs. In other words, it’s all about looking at a school’s unique selling points.

Location of the school

Very soon after arrival in Shanghai, new expats quickly recognise that location is everything in this city. Firstly, the city never really ends. Whether you go north, south or west it appears to stretch on forever. Living in one area of the city, working in another and sending your children to school in yet another part of the city is clearly never going to work. So the first choice parents have to make is whether they are going to live in Pudong, Former French Concession, Zhongshan Park, Hongqiao or other areas. This will then dictate which compounds to live in and also the schools that are logistically viable.

More and more, as Shanghai’s traffic has become worse, schools have found themselves with specific catchment areas. Far fewer families are placing their children on a school bus in Xintiandi, in the heart of Former French Concession, to send them out to the large school complexes beyond Hongqiao airport, and only the very brave are crossing the water from one side to the other to transport their child to school. So before parents take any second step when looking at a school’s website, they should first determine whether it’s going to be a 15, 30, 45 or even 60+ minute bus or car journey, morning and night, to get their child to and from school.

Curriculum of the school

For many parents, their choice in this will be based on personal experience or the previous schooling that their child has had. Once parents enter one system they tend to stay and, in fact, educationally it's usually best staying for the long-haul, as transition between curriculum systems is not necessarily smooth. Again, it’s really down to personal choice when making the decision which system to ‘buy’ into. No one curriculum can really be argued as being better than another. Whether it is English National Curriculum, American Common Core, International Primary and Middle Years Curriculum, International Baccalaureate, or A levels, they all have their merit and all will equally educate your child to university level worldwide.

However, some systems suit some children more than others. The diversity of compulsory subjects within the IB programme is good for the all-rounder, but for a child that has strengths and weaknesses, then the option of specialising and focusing on strengths within the British IGCSE and A level programme is a definite attraction to secure top university entrance. There is also the school ethos differences of liberalness that tend to come more with American-style education and the greater formality that is associated with British style. Which one you are going to feel more comfortable with and which one will be the best one for your child will be a personal decision.

Size of the school

In Shanghai, good things come in both small and big packages. There are excellent schools of over 2,000 students and equally excellent schools that have little over 400 students. Parents certainly shouldn’t fall into the misconception that ‘bigger is better’. Even the smallest premier schools have all the facilities that the larger ones have: swimming pool, astroturf, tennis courts, theatre, sports hall, specialist teaching rooms – they just have fewer of them. What often comes with the smaller school too is ‘inclusivity’. Trying to get 2,000 pupils across a stage at a Christmas concert is going to be a tough one, but if you’re a small school, then including more or all of your students in every event is far easier. Within a small school, there is often a closer sense of community, and all pupils know all teachers and vice versa. Again, though, this will come down to personal preference and often personal experience from a parent’s home country. 

Ethos of the school

The fourth defining unique selling point of a school is often its ethos. This will depend on many factors and is often only something that can be picked up and felt through a parent making a school visit rather than visiting a school website. In fact, if you compared the premier school websites across Shanghai then you’d probably find 95 percent of the words and phrases they are using to describe their school are the same. After all, there are distinguishing common features that make a ‘good school’.

Ethos, though, is something less tangible and needs to be experienced first-hand to get a real sense of what your child is going to feel like as a member of that school community. Ethos can be heavily affected by school ownership. Watch out for the Western name of a school hiding Chinese ownership, or the ‘British school’ owned by an international organisation – these kinds of issues will influence how a school is run.

Take the opportunity to meet the head teacher as he or she will be the powerbase of the school and much of the school vision and mission will be driven by them. If you don’t feel an affinity for him or her, then you are unlikely to like the way the school ends up being run.

Meet the teachers, what are their nationalities? This will have heavily affected their training and their own cultural beliefs and values, which will naturally be trickled down into the classroom.

Walk the school corridors and get a sense of whether this is a school celebrating internationalism or is it little England or little America dropped into the middle of China? Remember, though, that neither is better than the other and that at the end of the day, it’s all down to what is right for you and your child.

So in a sense, incoming parents to Shanghai are lucky, as the city is bursting with great schools, but at the same time this places a big burden on the parent, because it will mean there will be hard work, good research, and probably quite a lot of legwork to find the ‘right school’ for their child.

David Goodwin is the principal of the Britannica International School in Shanghai.

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