Like many other services for foreigners in Shanghai, the international school scene has developed at breakneck speed. The good news is that there are some decent schools in Shanghai. The bad news is that those schools are hard to get into and the rest of them are, generally, not all that hot.
In some – definitely, not all – cases, rapid expansion may have lead to sacrificing the quality of teaching and pupil welfare, in favour of getting bums on seats, to see a return on a hefty investment. Spectacular facilities can sometimes mask a whole host of problems. Try not to be dazzled into making a snap decision based only on a two-day look/see visit.
The school search used to be less stressful and more efficient if you altered your criteria and expectations from the outset and developed a chameleon-like ability to react to change that most practised expats acquire and, to a lesser extent, this is still true.
In the slightly unreal world of expat life in China, expectations have to be adjusted and the definition of "good" can become "the best available in the circumstances". So people say you can buy good imported cheese here but does it match up to that wonderful cheese shop in Covent Garden or even the local Waitrose cheese counter? Not a chance. However, well-known UK brands are now on sale here and you can send your child to the Chinese branch of Dulwich, Harrow or Wellington. Shanghai now has the largest number of international schools in China: Currently, there are around 40 schools offering either the IB programmes (around 20) or an English or American curriculum, with some of them favouring a combination.
If you have more than one child, don’t immediately dismiss putting them into different schools. It is obviously not ideal and may initially feel like an adjustment too far, but it is very, very common in Shanghai. Eventually siblings all tend to filter into one school as coveted sibling priority exists in most schools. In the meantime there is (sometimes comical) confusion about school holidays, bus and sporting schedules and who is wearing which uniform.
Most of the international schools are very good at managing transitions, and parents report that the children seem to cope just fine with a change of school. The majority of expat children in Shanghai do not rely solely on their classmates for friendships. Tightly-knit expat communities and the sociable nature of compound living result in an extensive and supportive network amongst the children across all age groups. This is consolidated through attendance at the various extra-curricular sporting activities.
Multisport, Sport for Life and many of the other sporting organizations use the international schools facilities for most of their programmes, so finding the loo on day one at the new school isn’t likely to pose a problem, if your child already does one of these, usually excellent, sports programmes. And if your child has to move schools, there is a good chance that several of his classmates will also be moving and that he (and you!) will see several familiar faces in the playground.
Shanghai was judged the most expensive city in the world for education costs in 2019. HR directors of multinationals must inwardly groan when they discover the company’s chosen “Man in China” has four school age children, and heaven help your bank balance if you have to stump up yourself.
Waiting lists for the popular schools are long, especially for earlier year groups. Put your child’s name down for the school of your choice regardless of what you are told about their chances of getting in. Shanghai is a very transient place and there is a huge turnover of people, especially at the end of the school year in June/July and at Christmas, which is when many Australians return home in time for the start of a new school year (southern hemisphere, remember). See the GSGI article 'Upside down or right way round'.
Withdrawal notices are often given late: companies usually pay the fees and, given the many last minute changes in the corporate world about who is moving where and when, it may not be clear until week one of a new term how many places are actually available.
Anecdotally, it would seem that being politely persistent pays off, at least for some, if not all, families. Whatever your preferred method of pressure – visits to the admin. office, emails, calls, tears and tantrums (it has been done!) – keep at it for as long as it takes. If you do nothing, your child’s name will eventually work its way up the waiting list, by which time you could be packing your bags to move on, with your child having twiddled his thumbs for a couple of years at a mediocre school.
Your aim is to make sure everyone relevant knows you are impressed by the school, think this is the best place for your child (who would, of course, fit right in) and that you will happily bake several hundred cup-cakes whenever required. You are on the right track if the admissions officer blanches when you stride purposefully into the admissions office or fumbles under the desk with phantom paperwork to avoid meeting that I-won’t-take-no-for-an-answer look in your eyes.
Make it clear that you will move your child from his current school, mid-term if necessary, and back up your pleas with reports from previous schools or teachers. One parent even presented a school with a mini-portfolio of work produced by their genius offspring, along with said offspring looking particularly genius-like.
If your child is on the cusp of the birthday cut-off date for year groups, ask if there are any spaces in the year below or above, provided, of course, that this is academically appropriate for your child. This can work quite well where the starting dates of the school year, for the school in question, do not match up with schools in your home country. If you have any contacts at the school or can exert any influence on the admissions process, go ahead. Don’t be shy about pulling strings or being pushy – it happens an awful lot here.
Pleading might be undignified, pulling strings unprincipled and you might feel slightly outraged by the apparent indifference of some schools to your child’s plight, but there are numerous stories of children being admitted to schools at the last minute. No school will admit to it and nobody knows for certain why some children seem to jump to the top of waiting lists, but the unspoken (and, it has to be made clear, usually unsubstantiated) presumption amongst the expat community is that admission was due to the efforts of persistent parents or some serious string-pulling. Some of that presumption might be down to sour grapes but maybe not….
Most international schools in Shanghai are melting pots of nationalities. Prospective parents are sometimes surprised that a school following a British or American system does not have a higher percentage of children from those countries enrolled at the school. That surprise can be a pleasant one or an unpleasant one depending on your view of diversity in education.
In many schools following a British curriculum, British passport holders do not form the majority of enrolled pupils. The same is true for schools following an American curriculum and American passport holders. View the schools as international, following a British or American curriculum, rather than British or American schools.
The nationality mix of each school is different but, by and large, international schools in Shanghai have a large Asian population (Taiwanese, South Korean, Hong Kong born Chinese, Indian) alongside the Brits, Americans, Aussies and non-English speaking Europeans.
Parents of native English speaking children sometimes complain that the standard of English in classrooms varies enormously and that non-native speakers are given extra help with getting their English up to scratch in preference to native speakers, who might need help with more routine educational issues.
It is not reported to be an issue in every school, or indeed every class, but if you think this will be an issue for your child, you would be wise to check school policy regarding admission of non-native English speakers, and additional ESL help once admitted. Admission to some schools is dependent on applicants having a good standard of English (spoken and written). Other schools have a more relaxed policy.
One thing you shouldn’t expect is that your children will be mixing with the locals at school. International schools within China are not open to Chinese passport holders unless they have special permission from the relevant education authorities. There are however, plenty of Chinese children with one foreign parent or Chinese children born abroad, thus holding foreign passports.
Foreign passport holders are eligible to attend local schools; although not all schools will accept them, it is quite common for expat children to attend local kindergartens, where classes are either totally in Chinese or more commonly a mix of Chinese and English.
All the international schools have a school bus service and a surprising number of people put their children on school buses for even a five-minute journey. Longer distances and therefore bus rides are more problematic as many parents feel uncomfortable about putting their children on the somewhat unreliable buses. Tales of doors falling off, accidents and, even a sleeping child being left on a bus all day, circulate around the community from time to time.
Cycle, walk or chauffeur
For obvious reasons, expat housing has sprung up around the international schools and in many areas it is possible (and enjoyable) to cycle or walk children to school until the extremes of weather strike in January/February (bracingly cold) and June/July (hot and wet).
A more decadent alternative is to have your driver take your children to school and pick them up at the end of the day, although it requires forward planning to fit in with your own need for his services. Older children will often just get dropped off with the driver acting as a glorified taxi driver; younger children usually go along with a parent or sometimes the ayi.
All in all, there is a lot to be said for living close to your school of choice and we have listed some of the options below.
Nearest popular housing compounds: Vizcaya, Greenhills, Willowbrook at Greenhills, Green Court, Green Villas, Dong Jiao State Guesthouse Villas, Thomson Golf, Shimao Lakeside, Seasons, Regency Park
Travelling time to schools from most of these compounds: 5 to 15 minutes
Nearest popular housing compounds: San Marino Bridge, Shanghai Links, all compounds in Jinqiao
Travelling time from these compounds: 5 – 45 minutes
Nord Anglia International School Shanghai Pudong (formerly, BISS)
Nearest popular housing compounds: Emerald, Tiziano, Bellewood
Travelling time from these compounds: 5 – 15 minutes
Nearest popular housing compounds: Shanghai Racquet Club, Forest Manor, Santa Fé, Westwood
Travelling time from these compounds 5-10 minutes
Forest Manor is also the home to British International School (BISS) Puxi, so just a short walk.
Yew Chung International School (also with a campus in Gubei)