Known for its rigid, exam-driven public system and an educational philosophy that emphasises results and discipline, China is serious about schooling. Expat parents are faced with a difficult decision when choosing a school in China, with language and cultural barriers being two big considerations.
There is a variety of options when it comes to education in China, and expats can choose to send their children to a public, private or international school. Homeschooling is another popular choice for expats, as well as some locals.
Public schools in China
Foreigners occasionally choose to send their children to public schools in China, particularly in the early preschool years. Western families are becoming more comfortable with the idea of permanence in the Far East, and some want their children to become as well assimilated as possible.
Pre-school in China is not compulsory, but generally lasts three years. Primary education covers six years of schooling, and children start at the age of six. Secondary school also lasts six years. Children can attend either an academic high school or a vocational high school.
As is often the case, some state schools in China are better than others. Overall, the best schools offer a high standard of education and, in many cases, are more competitive and more rigorous than the public options in an expat’s home country.
Foreigners who choose this option should be aware that Chinese schools don't have second language programmes. All lessons and coursework are in Chinese, with few concessions made for foreign students. School days are also long, and the teaching style tends to centre less around critical thinking and more on teaching by rote.
Private schools in China
Some Chinese private schools are better-funded equivalents of state-sponsored education, while others integrate aspects of international curricula and may offer instruction in English as well as Chinese. Alternative learning schools, such as Montessori and Waldorf, also fall into this category.
They often boast better infrastructure, state-of-the-art facilities and a larger selection of extra-curricular activities than state alternatives. Tuition costs more than in public schools, but a lot less than international schools.
Private schools in China tend to attract students from diverse but well-to-do backgrounds.
International schools in China
Most expats in China send their children to an international school. In no short supply, these institutions are often the obvious choice for parents that want a smooth and quick transition for their children.
Shanghai, Beijing and Guangzhou boast the largest concentrations of international schools, but many medium-sized cities will have at least two or three in close proximity. Most follow the International Baccalaureate (IB) curriculum or the curriculum from the country they represent. That said, standard coursework often features local culture and many schools teach Mandarin or Cantonese. Classes are usually in English or the primary language of the school's home country.
International schools in China come in different forms and cater to all kinds of students. Admission to these schools is competitive and the most popular often have long waiting lists. Admission can be a long process involving forms, interviews, placement tests and application fees, and it's often best for parents to start corresponding from their home country.
One thing that connects all of these schools is the high cost of tuition. Costs at some schools rival international university tuition. Expats moving to China should try to negotiate an education allowance into their package if one isn't already included.
Homeschooling in China
Homeschooling has been growing in popularity among foreigners and locals alike in recent years and larger cities often have homeschooling support groups for parents and students, which provide opportunities for families to interact with one another.
However, homeschooling is frowned upon by the government, and is essentially illegal. Chinese law stipulates that all children are to receive nine years of compulsory education at a registered school. However, the government has not yet fully implemented this law, nor does it seem to apply to expat children as they hold foreign citizenship. Nevertheless, the government has become increasingly vocal about its disapproval of the practice in recent years and has reiterated in numerous statements that homeschooling is not acceptable in the People's Republic of China.
Expat parents intending to homeschool their children should consider their options carefully.
Special needs education in China
Special needs education has historically been provided separately to mainstream schools. There have been recent moves to inclusive education, including greater admission of students with disabilities into mainstream schools as well as teacher training programmes. However, progress has been limited: children may not receive all the necessary support, while early detection of learning difficulties is not common.
Parents of children with disabilities, physical, psychological or behavioural, should look to the services available in private and international schools. While the level of support varies between international schools, they are more likely to offer support facilities, including learning support teachers, counsellors and assistive devices.
Tutors in China
Education is highly valued in China, and as such, children who need extra support outside of the classroom may very well look for tutors. Tutoring is common in China and can be done in person or online. Parents can find tutors for their children who specialise in a specific curriculum or particular subjects and subject areas.
Resources available seem endless, and there are many online platforms and portals to network and search for tutors, including TeacherOn and Preply, as well as tutoring companies such as Shanghai Expat Tutors.
►Safety in China provides information on safety concerns in the country
►Get the most out of your package with Expat Contract Negotiation
"There are many different types of schools available to you. It all depends on how much you are looking to pay. I would suggest setting aside at least a week to look at schools. There are so many schools that it is difficult to look at them all in a couple days." Read this interview with Paz for more on schooling in Guangzhou.
"Don’t base where you send your children to school on where you’re living, but do keep in mind that there can be long commutes for those who live further away." For more advice on school searches, read this interview with Jordan.
Are you an expat living in China?
Expat Arrivals is looking for locals to contribute to this guide, and answer forum questions from others planning their move to China. Please contact us if you'd like to contribute.
Expat Health Insurance
With 86 million customer relationships in over 200 countries, Cigna Global has unrivalled experience in dealing with varied and unique medical situations and delivering high standards of service wherever you live in the world.
GeoBlue is one of the best international health insurance plans for US expats abroad or internationals residing in the USA. The GeoBlue Xplorer plan includes worldwide coverage and great customer service with access to a premium international network of hospitals and doctors including the Blue Cross Blue Shield network in the USA.
Sirelo has a network of more than 500 international removal companies that can move your furniture and possessions to your new home. By filling in a form, you’ll get up to 5 quotes from recommended movers. This service is free of charge and will help you select an international moving company that suits your needs and budget.