Like many other services for expats in Shanghai, the international school scene here has developed at breakneck speed. The good news is that there are some decent schools in Shanghai. The bad news is those schools are hard to get into and the rest of the schools are generally considered fairly mediocre.
In some - not all – cases, rapid expansion has meant 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 will be less stressful and more efficient if you change your criteria and expectations from the outset. If you have lived overseas before, you are probably well-practised at this chameleon-like ability to adapt; if not, take a deep breath and open your mind! Adjust your criteria for what you define as a “good” school.
In the slightly unreal world of expat life (especially in China where expectations have to be adjusted so much), the definition of "good" becomes "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. People in Shanghai will say it was beautiful day yesterday, really meaning that you could sit by the pool and the haze only extended slightly above the horizon as opposed to obscuring the buildings at the end of the street.
Typical compromises you may have to consider are that your children might have a longer journey to school than you would like, the curriculum might differ from schools in your home country, there might be a higher religious content than you would prefer, you may never have envisaged your child being at a bilingual school and, most commonly, your child may have to sit it out at another school before you finally get them into your first choice.
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. In the meantime there is (sometimes comical) confusion about school holidays, bus and sporting schedules and who is wearing which uniform.
Having one of your children enrolled at a good school will secure the coveted sibling priority status on waiting lists at that school for your other children. Better that situation than having all your children under one educational roof and then deciding you want to move them all six months later. Wherever possible, base your decisions on which school you think is best.
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.
Fees are generally very high, almost shockingly so compared to some other countries. HR directors of multinationals must inwardly groan when they discover the companies chosen “Man in China” has four school age children. School fees, combined with the other usual benefits, make expat employees here very expensive indeed. If you are looking at paying your own fees, the annual total may make you think again about moving to Shanghai.
How to succeed
Waiting lists for the popular schools are long, especially for earlier year groups. Your initial enquiry about a place for your child may be met with a very pessimistic response from the all-powerful admissions officer. It’s difficult not to feel despondent – you are moving to China, undergoing huge upheaval and having your kids settled in school is one of the key issues in making the move successful.
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). 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.
Or, try being a bit creative with the admissions process. For example, Dulwich has recently launched a toddlers (2/3 year old) programme in the afternoons in addition to their popular morning programme. Several families were told that putting their toddlers into the awkwardly-timed afternoon programme would open up the chance of a spot in a higher year group for their older siblings, who had been sitting on the waiting list for over a year and deemed “borderline” for admission the following academic year.
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 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. [NB Look for a rough breakdown of those percentages in the individual GSGI write-ups; you can decide for yourself whether the mix in a particular school is too diverse for your taste, or not enough]
Feeling that it is part of the whole experience of living overseas, most parents like that their children mix with other children from all over the world, provided that diversity does not hamper their own children’s education.
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 plenty of Chinese children at the international schools here, but those that attend are either from mixed marriages so will probably hold a foreign passport from the non-Chinese parent, or have been born overseas and therefore hold a foreign passport.
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. It is much less common to find older expat children attending a local school and the general view, for a whole range of fairly obvious reasons, is that older expat kids are not going to thrive at a local school.
If you are very keen on your children learning Mandarin, you should consider Yew Chung, a bilingual international school following an adapted British curriculum with several campuses on Puxi and Pudong.
The school run
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 to school are more problematic and many parents feel uncomfortable about putting their children on a school bus for any journey outside their immediate neighbourhood. Tales of doors falling off buses, accidents and even a sleeping child being left on a bus all day circulate around the community from time to time. The result is that people tend to choose housing based on proximity to the school rather than the workplace.
Cycle, walk or chauffeur
For obvious reasons, expat housing has sprung up around the international schools and in many areas it is possible to cycle or walk children to school - something which feels comfortingly normal and can be very pleasant until the extremes of weather strike in January/February (bracingly cold) and June/July (hot and wet). Even then, by the time the novelty factor of wrapping up in cold weather gear or wearing shorts in the rain has worn off, you will be onto a more mellow phase of weather.
If walking or cycling is not an option, an alternative to the school bus is to have your driver take your children to school and pick them up at the end of the day. 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.
Logistically, using the car can be fraught with problems and doesn’t work well when the main earner needs the car to get to the airport or work at about the same time as school starts. Families work around it, but if you need to rely on your driver for the school run, be prepared for some forward planning. There is a lot to be said for living close to your school of choice.
List of Schools
Click here to find a snap shot overview of Shanghai Schools Expats Might Consider, and we stress the word might. Out of all schools English-speaking expats might hear about or consider, only those they actually choose for their own children and are consequently selected for a full GSGI review, have "A GSGI School" by their listing.