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What’s the Deal with Early Education in Shanghai?

With application season in full swing, here’s at the heart of what to consider when selecting the right preschool or kindergarten for your youngest learner.
Last updated: 2018-05-08

"Inside Education" is a semi-regular column examining issues relating to education in Shanghai and China, discussed with teachers, school leaders, and the experts.


Application season for the best Shanghai preschools and kindergartens is on, but what exactly should you be looking for? Early education in Shanghai brings just as many (if not more) options and complications as secondary does. From what educators think matters most, to the different types of schools, to a peek inside international classrooms around the city, we’re doing our part to make the hunt a little easier. These early years are crucial to setting kids up for success, and spending them in China brings nuances as well as opportunities for your child to gain life-long perks (just look at Yeezy).

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The Big Things to Consider

We asked everyone from pre-k teachers to principals to actual real-life parents the same question: when choosing a school, what is the most important thing to consider for a student in early education? They all had slightly different takes, but all answers essentially boiled down to this:

Curriculum: Which one is the school following and from what country? Think ahead to the track you want your child to follow (check here for major high school curricula). Does the school/class have clear standards and goals? How are students held accountable and how are they reminded of their goals? Classroom Culture: Culture is driven by the belief system of the larger school community and its curriculum. To measure it, it's best to zoom in and observe: how is the teacher interacting with students, what questions are they asking? What structures and routines are in place, what responsibilities are given to students? And how does it feel when you step into a classroom? Teacher to Student Ratio: This is important to keep in mind for early years, when small group support is crucial. It’s also wise to ask who’s in the classroom (and for how long in the school day); it's often a lead teacher and a teaching assistant, and an ayi, but in some cases there are two lead teachers, or no TA. The ideal ratio for pre-k is 16:3 students to adults.

It's also worth noting the practical stuff. How long is the commute to school? What's your budget? Have you been offered an expat package? If not, early years schooling here can get college tuition level pricey. Consider too, what is important for your child. Do you want them to be immersed and hone mandarin skills, or do you want them to learn though a play-based approach that an international or private Montessori school could offer? Maybe a bit of both? Armed with this info, Shanghai is your child's educational oyster. Shanghai

Types of Schools For Early Education

International Schools must be a member of the Shanghai International School Association (SISA) and are only open to students who hold a foreign passport. These schools will be influenced by their country of origin in terms of curriculum and teaching style, learn more. Bilingual Schools are private schools which offer a fusion of Chinese and Western education and can accept both foreign and Chinese students. It’s an option for parents who want to expose their kids to more Chinese language learning, but something to keep in mind is how much time the foreign teacher is spending in the classroom. Private Schools can decide what curriculum they teach, who they hire , and who they accept. While there are more than a handful of quality private pre-k/kindergartens in Shanghai, the pitfall here is some are run like a business instead of a school. Be mindful of the teacher-student ratio and if teachers hold a degree in education. There are also "local" private schools if you want your child to have a fully immersive experience and these can also be more affordable (like 7,000rmb a semester); keep in mind that if you don't speak Chinese, communication can be a hurdle. Public Schools adhere to a government issued curriculum and it's not common (some say impossible) for a foreign student to attend; these schools are competitive to get into and foreigners fall to the bottom of the list. You need connects and a residence permit in Shanghai. If you're interested in learning more, American reporter Lenora Chu wrote a whole book about sending her son to public school in Shanghai. Shanghai

What’s Out There?

We spoke with several school leaders and educators, and even sat in on a few classes in order to figure out the finer points of what’s on offer in Shanghai, and boy, there's a big difference just between international schools. Shanghai Community International School (ECE Campus) uses the International Baccalaureate (IB) as their guiding curriculum, with teaching strategies pulled from the U.S., such as Common Core Standards and the Reading and Writing Workshop out of Columbia Teacher's College. Everything is an intentional teaching tool, from the walls of classroom to the cafeteria (where students pick up after themselves). Ratio: Pre-K 18:2, Kindergarten 20:2. Tuition ranges from 119,000-262,50rmb per year.

Pro-Tip: SCIS Principal Melanie McClure suggests parents bring their child with them when visiting a school, to see how they interact with the environment.

Western International School of Shanghai's Pre-Nursery lays the foundation for entry into the International Baccalaureate (IB) program from nursery to grade 12, so there are very clear long term goals here. There's also an exploratory nature to IB which works well in early years; the ratio here also helps, in a Pre-K class it's 16-18 students to 3 adults (2 co-teachers and a classroom helper), so they can support a lot of small group work. Early Years tuition ranges from 148,000-180,000rmb per year.

Pro-Tip: WISS Pre-K teacher Ruth Schlotman suggests if you're looking for something exploratory (less like spoon feeding) make sure to listen to the questions a teacher is asking their students.

Harrow International School Shanghai follows the British National Curriculum, which eventually leads to IGCSEs and A Levels in secondary (again, clear long term goals for students and continuity). Parent communication is prioritized, and students are kept accountable for individual goals in multiple ways; a unique feature here is early years teachers keep a scrapbook for each student called a 'Learning Journal', completing one page per week to show individual progress throughout the year. Student-Adult ratio is 16:3 with a lead teacher, a teaching assistant, and a classroom helper. Tuition starts at 214,000rmb per year.

Pro-Tip: Harrow Early Years Teacher Micaela Tur points out that every school claims to treat each child as an individual; however, you can see if this is really the case by looking at student work (i.e. the artwork--is it all the same, or is it different?).

claim to tailor their learning based on children’s individual needs. Also: Tiny Tots International Pre-School and Kindergarten is a private international school which just offers early years with their own internal curriculum. They've got two campuses including one on Fuxing Lu, that's real convenient for expats. Ratio is 12:2, 12:3 and tuition is about 132,800rmb per year. Shanghai

What Else?

Yew Chung International School of Shanghai is one of the best-known bilingual schools in the city that offer pre-k and kindergarten (with the bulk of early years in Chinese for immersion). Tuition ranges from 142,600-228,00rmb per year. Montessori School of Shanghai is a popular private-bilingual school that has several campuses around Shanghai. Along with the Montessori model, they boast a small class size, 8:1. Tuition ranges from 130,000-162,000rmb per year. Julia Gabriel Centre For Learning is popular Singaporean private school with 3 campuses. Their tuition ranges from 126,000- 168,000rmb per year. You can browse all Early Education options in Shanghai on SmSh's Education Directory *

Key Questions to Ask:

- What is the student to teacher ratio? Is it consistent all day? - What languages are spoken? Is there an English Teacher in the classroom? For how many hours in the day? - What curriculum is used? What are the major end-of-year goals? - What is “classroom culture” like (remember: observe teacher-student interactions)? - Is everything included in tuition (what are uniform, transportation fees, etc)?