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October 22, 2012

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City's education landscape changing for the better

NICOLA, 16, born in Venice of a Chinese father and Italian mother, moved to Shanghai about five years ago when his parents came to work here. He is now enrolled in the Shanghai High School's International Division after graduating from a local Chinese middle school.

His parents chose the Chinese elementary school system because of its reputation for solid, core education, but shied away from sending him on to a regular Chinese high school because that tier in the system is perceived to be big on rote memorization and short on teaching creative thinking.

His classmates are now exclusively expats. His parents believe the international focus of the curriculum will give Nicola a well-rounded education that will better prepare him for university. "I didn't have any trouble making the transition," Nicola said of his new school. "I think Chinese middle schools lay a very solid foundation for further academic studies."

Education was once the bugaboo of families moving to China. Most expats didn't want to send children to local Chinese schools, given the language barrier and difficulties transferring education credentials to schools back home. The alternative was international schools, but they have always been very expensive, with sometimes limited enrollment.

The education landscape for expats in Shanghai has improved dramatically over the years. There are now 32 international schools in Shanghai that offer global curricula, multi-lingual teaching and multicultural experiences.

More than 30,000 overseas students from nearly 40 countries and regions are now studying in international schools and local elementary and secondary schools. That's almost a six-fold increase in the last decade.

International schools, which catered exclusively to foreign students, started to appear in the city in the 1980s as China's economic reforms welcomed expats to make a living here.

"Our students are from all over the world," said Daniel Jubert, head of the Shanghai Community International School's Pudong campus "We are preparing them to be part of a global workforce."

Cost, however, remains a concern for parents. An international school can charge anything between 100,000 yuan (US$15,994) and 200,000 yuan for a school year. By comparison, the tuition at a local public school costs 12,000 yuan a year if the student's parents are working in the city.

In 2002, as a complement to international schools, the Shanghai Education Commission opened 70 local elementary and secondary schools to foreign students. The number of local schools now admitting foreigners has grown to 150.

"We will encourage more local schools to admit foreign children and let them study with their Chinese counterparts in the same classroom," said Yang Weiren, director of international cooperation and exchange at the commission.

Shanghai's efforts to transform itself into an Asian education hub don't stop at the secondary level. Local universities have witnessed an explosion in overseas student enrollment. An estimated 47,000 foreign students were registered on local campuses last year, a seven-fold increase from 2000.

Many older students see education in Shanghai as a ticket to a successful career.

"I love Chinese culture," said Maria Kuznetsova, 19, who studied Chinese for three years in her Russian homeland before coming to major in international trade at Shanghai International Studies University. "Moreover, China has lots of job opportunities."

Emre Glirbuz, 20, who studied Chinese for more than a year at a Turkish University back home, said he seized an opportunity to come to China on a one-year academic exchange program at Shanghai University. "I want to secure a job in China, and I want stay in the country after my graduation," he said.

Yet despite all the incentives, problems in the city's international educational services still need ironing out.

One remains cost. Many expat families just can't afford the tuition at international schools and are afraid to send mono-lingual children to Chinese local schools.

Nisha M., from India, said she was forced to return home with her children while her husband stayed in Shanghai to work.

"I would like to return if we could only find a suitable school that is affordable," she said.

Questions have also arisen about the quality of education and supervision at international schools run for profit by education companies.

"The teachers change so quickly," said Sophie Yu, whose son used to study at a local international school. "I found some teachers who had neither teaching qualifications nor classroom experience."

The school charged her about 20,000 yuan a month. In Grade 11, she said her son was barred from taking an international qualifying examination because the school worried his poor score would pull down the school average.

Many local public schools in Shanghai haven't been all that keen on education commission directives on accepting foreign children as students.

For one thing, the local schools are prohibited from charging foreign students more than 6,000 yuan a semester. The foreign students are not covered by the city's 18,000-yuan disbursement to schools for each student they admit.

"Our principal said we lost 6,000 yuan for every foreign student we admitted," said a Shanghai Jianping high school teacher, who declined to be identified.

She said a school admitting foreign students is often required to upgrade its facilities and hire specialist teachers.


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