Choosing the right curriculum in China for your child

As China takes its stand on the global stage, more and more expatriate families are looking at ways to better immerse their children in a Chinese educational, linguistic and cultural experience. Sophie Loras reports.

Each day, in a small street in Beijing’s affluent Dong Cheng district, and a block from the Australian Embassy, hundreds of students arrive at the city’s renowned and progressive Beijing No. 55 Middle School. On arrival they walk under red slogans declaring “Develop International Education” and “Build a Better Dong Cheng District.”
From the outset, it looks like most other Chinese high schools, however, inside its doors, students from almost 60 nationalities are studying in the classrooms.
The school has been an IB (International Baccalaureate) World School since 1994 and offers the IB Middle Years Programme (MYP) and IB Diploma Programme and is one of the few schools in China to offer middle and high school programmes to both local Chinese and foreign passport holding children living in Beijing.
The school is bilingual, with middle school classes taught in Chinese. The school’s international department offers intensive Chinese training for non-native speakers. And despite its commitment to international education, the school still presents a very unique Chinese experience for expatriate students coming from places including Australia.


Kirsten Downes made the decision to send her 13-year-old daughter Hayley to Beijing No. 55 Middle School in an effort to get her daughter’s Chinese language skills up to date after feeling the international schools she had attended were not offering full bi-lingual programmes.
The family had arrived in China from Melbourne in January 2008, where Hayley had been attending Albert Park Primary.
*Pictured right: Beijing’s progressive Number 55 Middle School.
On arrival in Beijing, the family looked at various inner-city international schools, basing their decision on curriculums and courses offered as well as location. Having previously lived in Canada, where Hayley had studied under a French system, they were eager to find a school that also taught French.
Ultimately they chose BCIS (Beijing City International School) because it was smaller and they liked the overall feel of the school, its good location for the family at the time, “outstanding” facilities and staff and offering the programming the family was after.
However, in September last year, the family moved Hayley across to the Beijing No. 55 Middle School to begin Grade 7 in a Chinese class following the IB MYP curriculum.
“Our strongest motivation to move Hayley was the opportunity to fully immerse her in Mandarin,” says Kirsten. “The international schools teach Mandarin but it would have taken her 12 years to become fluent.”
Like other expatriate parents in China, Kirsten and her husband had become increasingly concerned that their daughter could well leave China after several years of schooling and still not be fluent in the language or have a deep understanding of the culture and they began to consider other factors in their decision to move Hayley across to a Chinese school.
“In addition to the language, [Beijing No. 55 Middle School] also offered a bit more culturally and because the international school is on the same grounds as a Chinese state high school, Hayley is better exposed to the real life in Beijing and not just the life of a cushy ex-pat,” says Kirsten.
All Hayley’s classes – including reading and writing, science and history – are in Mandarin. She also takes an English class. While the school offers an English stream through its international program, Hayley has proven she is up to the task of studying in the Chinese stream.
“She is loving it,” says Kirsten of the experience. “She has more freedom which sounds odd but through it she is getting more independent. Obviously, the first few months were a real struggle but she stuck it out and never complained.”
“We are incredibly proud of her,” says Kirsten.
“We both feel it is very important not to underestimate these kids. Their brains are amazing – not like ours!”
Some of the struggles for the family have included Kirsten and her husband not being in a position to help Hayley with her homework as neither is fluent in Chinese.
“We cannot help her at all, aside from math,” says Kirsten.
“Hayley and her friends spent lots of time on Skype helping each other in the beginning and her laptop has proved invaluable for translations.”
One of the big downsides of the Chinese experience has been the lack of extra curricular activities.
“Hayley has always been really sporty but there are not a lot a programs for her, and no pool.”
However, as far as the curriculum itself is concerned, Kirsten says the IB has been excellent, with the students undertaking some interesting activities including a recent excursion to Anhui province, which she notes, did not incur an additional fee from parents as it might have done at an international school.
Other significant differences between the Chinese school and international expatriate schools include the cost.
“All the international schools are incredibly expensive and for people living here, as more and more are, by their own choice, who are not on massive ex-pat packages, it can be very daunting,” says Kirsten of the international schools which can boast fees as high as US$20,000 – US$30,000 a year.
“Beijing 55 Middle School is very affordable and they don’t continually ask for extra money for additional things,” she says.
Kirsten says the family loved BCIS, “but we are happy also with Beijing 55.”
One of the founding figures behind Beijing No. 55 Middle School’s IB programme is Ms Wang Hong. Today Ms Wang is the Headmistress of another of the city’s progressive Chinese international schools – Beijing World Youth Academy. Ms Wang is also China’s representative for the International Baccalaureate.
She first became involved with this unique international programme in 1990 when she met with IB representatives for the first time as the head of No. 55 Middle School’s International Section.
“At that time, our school was unique in China in that we were a state school who accepted expatriate students,” says Ms Wang. “And in 1994, No. 55 became authorized to offer the IB Diploma Programme.”
Ms Wang says IB programmes are becoming increasingly popular in China, as more and more international schools open up with many of them choosing to offer IB programmes. She says Chinese state schools are also choosing to offer A-Levels or Advanced Placement (AP) courses, since they are not integrated programmes and therefore easier to implement.
Ms Wang says that in China today, there are 35 schools offering the IB Primary Years Programme (including one which can enroll local Chinese), 28 offering the Middle Years Programme (including nine which can enroll local Chinese), and 65 offering the Diploma Programme (including 14 which can enroll local Chinese).
“For foreign students, the IB Diploma is accepted at many Chinese universities provided the student has an HSK score of 6+,” says Ms Wang.
Chinese students however, are not able to attend university in China with an IB Diploma, she says, so most Chinese students who study in an IB programme, do so in the hope of attending universities overseas.
Ms Wang says the advantage of the IB programmes is that they have a holistic approach, seeking to develop the ‘whole person’.
“The IB Diploma Programme is also great preparation for university and is desired by many top universities around the world. Successful IB Diploma holders are granted credits when they enroll in university,” Ms Wang says.
Beijing World Youth Academy is one of a handful of schools in China which can offer the International Baccalaureate to both local Chinese and foreign expatriate children. Currently in China, regulatory restrictions mean most foreign-owned international schools cannot accept local Chinese students.
The school prides itself on its bilingual credentials as well as offering a strong Beijing and Chinese cultural link. The school’s close proximity to Beijing’s 798 Art district means students can study first hand global, historical and cultural trends in the burgeoning Chinese art sector.
Beijing World Youth Academy offers bilingual programmes in both a Chinese middle school curriculum and IB MYP and an IB Diploma for senior school students.
*Pictured right: Beijing World Youth Academy prides itself on its proximity to the city’s 798 Art Precinct – here BJWYA students enjoy an excursion to the UCCA gallery and pose in front of a Liu Wei painting.
Many international schools in Beijing are following suite – combining the curriculum of their home countries with the IB MYP and IB Diploma, enhancing the opportunities for international students when applying for their home country universities or acceptance at universities just about anywhere in the world.
Dulwich College’s Shanghai, Beijing and Suzhou campuses offer a mix of curriculum commencing with the National Curriculum of England between years 7 to 9, the International General Certificate of Education (IGCSE) in years 10 and 11 and the IB Diploma Programme in years 12 and 13.
While schools such as the Western Academy of Beijing (WAB) offers IB programmes from PYP (Primary Years Program) to MYP (Middle Years Programme) to a full IB Diploma Programme (IBDP) in years 11 and 12 or a combination of its WAB high school diploma and IB certificates.
Alternative courses offered in Beijing by international schools include the English A- Levels (for students wanting to apply for UK universities); the AP tests (for students applying for US universities); and various secondary school diplomas based on a curriculum specific to a particular school. Some of these diplomas may not be recognised by universities worldwide.
In praise of the IB Diploma Programme is Yew Chung International School Beijing Co-Principal Wayne Richardson who says the IB’s greatest advantage is its universal acceptance.
“The IB Diploma is a comprehensive, universally accepted worldwide, (including in the UK and US), programme that has a solid and demanding curriculum, mission statement, and holistic approach,” says Mr Richardson.
At an IB Asia-Pacific Administrators Conference held in Beijing 2009, delegates were shown figures collected between 1997 to 2006 that demonstrated the number of international schools offering the IB diploma had increased from 15.5 percent to 27.7 percent while schools offering a British ‘A’ level education had decreased from 13 percent to 6.4 percent.
The IB diploma is now offered by more than 2,420 schools in 131 countries.
Yew Chung International Schools, which have more than 5,000 students across six locations worldwide including Beijing, Shanghai, Chongqing, Qingdao, Hong Kong and the US, has prided itself on offering its students pioneering education opportunities.
“At YCIS Beijing we encourage our students to be thoughtful and committed to their work. We promote goal setting, independent learning and encourage our students to have a global perspective,” says Mr Richardson.
“The IB Diploma encourages these values and helps with focusing the students on their future whilst at the same time providing thought- provoking situations that only an international academic programme can achieve.”
Parents of Australian students studying in China who then hope to integrate back to an Australian school year as well as an Australian curriculum, face a daunting task.
Australian mother, Prue Morris, whose two sons recently restarted school in Melbourne after several years of primary and middle school following the IB programme at Beijing City International School, says the IB curriculum has allowed the boys to readjust easily to their Australian curriculums.
“The IB at a primary level encourages lots of inquiry with as much detail and research as the children want – it’s such a good programme for a wide range of kids with varying levels of intelligence and inquiry,” says Ms Morris.
Ms Morris has also insisted the boys keep up their Chinese, with weekly tutoring and selecting schools in Melbourne based on whether they offered Mandarin Chinese classes. Her eldest son Charlie is in Year 7 at Melbourne Grammar and recently won an academic prize for his Mandarin after just six months in his new school.
The opportunities to immerse children in Chinese language and culture are increasingly playing a part in the decisions foreign parents make about their children’s education in China.
“Our greatest reason and motivation for the move to a Chinese school was not the cost, far from it,” says Kirsten Downes. “It was  language – we have a huge opportunity living in Beijing to give our daughter the gift of being fluent not only in speech but reading and writing in the world’s most used language, and all that that may offer her in the future as Mandarin becomes more and more important globally.” 

Melbourne student, Erica Zhang, shares her Shanghai schooling experience at Yew Chung International School with readers of Australia China Connections. To read more, click here.
To read more about Ms Wang Hong’s IB experience, click here.


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