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What You Need To Know About International Schools In Shanghai

Education 101: SmSh outlines the lay of the land of Shanghai's international education system -- here are the basics on getting your kids schooled in the city.
Last updated: 2016-11-22

In tandem with the launching of SmartShanghai Education, we take a deep dive into the world of international education, showing you where it's headed and what to look out for as a parent.

You probably know this story -- China opened the doors for foreign investments in 1979, and Shanghai, along with the rest of the country, saw a great influx of foreign business. This trend grew stronger in the ‘90s and ‘00s. The executives spearheading these businesses brought their families with them on “expat packages” that paid for a house, a car, and the tuition of the international schools their children went to.

International schools emerged out of the specific necessity to accommodate the children of these executives and other foreigner workers. The schools provided Western educations and ensured that when the family eventually moved back to their home country, the children could continue where they left off.

You probably also know that those big expat packages aren’t so common anymore in 2016. After having built the foundation of their businesses, the first wave of executives left. Their companies then sent managers, then supervisors. Soon enough the need for expat workers reduced as their Chinese counterparts, often educated overseas themselves, could take over their roles.

Foreigners are still coming to Shanghai, but the number of foreigners on expansive expat packages is declining. Despite this, there are more “international schools” than ever before, and each has different educational principles, teaching practices, and communities.

What kinds of institutions are these? Why are there so many international schools, and what is the future of international education in Shanghai? And if you’ve just arrived with your family, or if you’re planning to start a family here, where should you send your children?

SmartShanghai interviewed teachers, parents, and several heads of schools to find out. This is the essential guide to navigating international schools in Shanghai.

The Three Categories Of International Education Today

Pre-kindergarten through high school international education has greatly expanded in the past decade. In additional to the first “international schools”, two new types of systems have sprung up and are growing. These newer systems follow different regulations and serve different populations and needs. But first, let’s take a closer look at the original type.

Category I: School for Children of Foreign Nationals

“International school”, when used properly in the Chinese educational system, denotes the schools that, by law, can only accept foreign nationals. Although there are a few exceptions to this rule, it is rare for a Chinese mainland passport holder to attend an international school. As such, their curriculum is not supervised by the Ministry of Education.

“In essence, the Chinese government says you are here to educate the expat population of Shanghai, not to educate our population,” says Shanghai American School's (SAS) Head of School, Marcel Gauthier.

Often the pedagogy of international schools is based on the standards, teaching practices, and educational ethos of a specific country. For example, Shanghai American School pedagogy is American, Dulwich is British, and German School Shanghai is German. Other schools have a more integrated approach with a mix of curriculums, such as Shanghai Community International School and Yew Chung International School.

Older international schools were established and run by foreign organizations, individuals, embassies, and consulates. This has changed somewhat with newer schools, where it is a mix of local and foreign stakeholders and administrators. Generally, international schools have the highest tuition of the three categories, often surpassing 250,000rmb a year, depending on the grade level. They are also the most diverse in cultural, ethnic, and national backgrounds.

Category II: Chinese Private Schools

Chinese private schools offering international programs (also known as bilingual schools) are a relatively new phenomenon. Unlike international schools, Chinese private schools can accept both foreign and Chinese nationals. They are privately run institutions, not sponsored by the government, offering a fusion of Chinese and Western education. The rationale behind this being that they aim to offer the best of both worlds, where students learn Chinese language and culture as well as English and internationalism, to better prepare children for futures both in China and overseas.

The most well known example of a Chinese private school in Shanghai is YK Pao School, founded in honor of, and named after, the famous Hong Kong shipping tycoon and philanthropist. But several newer schools are also opening -- it is becoming increasingly common for Chinese companies to form joint ventures with brand-name private schools in the West.

Chinese nationals dominate student demographics at Chinese private schools, although top schools may have an even split between Chinese and foreign students. The private schools tend to have a strong Chinese language and math requirement. Although top schools will command a higher price, tuition is generally cheaper than international schools, costing around 100,000rmb to 150,000rmb per year. That’s still more expensive than the third category, the international divisions of public schools.

Category III: International Divisions Of Public Schools

Some "international schools" are actually international divisions of a public school. These public schools are government-sponsored institutions who then open a foreign department that can accept foreign nationals. They are strong in math, science, and Mandarin. Homework loads are typically far higher than Western international schools.

Top public schools like Shanghai High School International Division (SHSID) are world famous for their academics. Admission to such schools is often more competitive than many international schools and Chinese private schools. This is in part due to high language and math requirements.

Retention rates for Western teachers at international divisions are typically lower than the other two categories. Tuition is cheaper because much of their resources and costs are subsidized by the government. They range from 70,000rmb to 120,000rmb a year

The Future of International Education in Shanghai

Opened in 2016, Harrow School, an acclaimed private boarding school in London, is the newest international school to open in Shanghai, and although there are others looking to come, they are likely late to the game. Simply put, there are now far more seats in the city than there are international students to fill them. Thus, the true expansion in international education is happening in Chinese private schools.

“The growing market is for local Chinese families who want the best high quality overseas experience for their children, but in Shanghai. So, I think the development in the coming years will much more be [in the form of] bilingual schools,” says Gerard MacMahon, the Master of Wellington College International Shanghai, an international school that was formed from a partnership between the renowned private school Wellington College in England and Shanghai Lujiazui Group, which owns the property the school is situated on.

Wellington College and Shanghai Lujiazui Group also have a private school, opening in 2018, that offers a bilingual education specifically designed for Chinese families. These bilingual private schools (Category II) will continue to grow in Shanghai to meet the rising demand for high quality Western education by local affluent families. However that growth was recently stunted by new government rulings, announced earlier this month, that banned for-profit private schools for grades 1-9. This law doesn't affect international schools, but it does mean that Chinese families will have limited options for giving their children a Western education until they reach high school.

So what about international schools? Does the decrease of foreigners coming to Shanghai on expat packages mean the decline of international schools?

Daniel Eschtruth, Shanghai Community International School’s Director of Schools, doesn’t think so, at least not anytime soon. “More companies have expanded. There’s [also] entrepreneurs, a lot of restaurateurs -- that group is making up for some of the loss of the larger companies. Shanghai is going to always be an appealing place for expatriates.”

This is largely true. Expat packages haven’t ended, there are still foreigners here working for big companies. And although there are less wealthy foreigners arriving in Shanghai, there are more generating their own wealth in the city than ever before. In a sense, it appears some sort of equilibrium has been reached.

The Best Shanghai International School for Your Child

Now that you know what the options are, where should you send your child? The answer to this question was the same for nearly every educator that SmartShanghai interviewed: It depends on what kind of future you want for your child.

If you’re from the UK, and you want your child to grow up with a British accent and European values, then you’ll probably want to send them to a British school such as Wellington, Dulwich, Britannica, or another British school. If you want big sports fields and a strong American ethos of individualism, then Shanghai American School, Concordia, and other American schools are good choices. For a more international curriculum and strong student population diversity, Western International School is a good choice, in addition to it being the only full continuum IB school that also offers the unique Career Programmes (IB CP) in all of China.

If you see China playing a major role in your child's future, then consider sending them to a Chinese private school or an international division. A good bilingual education is more than just building a strong foundation in Mandarin. “It’s not about learning the language, it’s about learning how things are done,” says Li Jing, Deputy Head and Secretary-General of YK Pao School. A strong understanding of Chinese culture, perspective, and mindsets is essential to succeeding in China.

Some parents have their own strategies for taking advantage of Shanghai’s diverse educational options. Vincent Wang, a business executive in the tech industry, has witnessed all three categories of schools with his children. Currently, they are enrolled in a private bilingual school and an international division at a public school, but he plans to change that later down the line.

“When they get older, my wife and I would prefer international schools. I think it’s a good recipe to get your kids’ learning habits set on a solid foundation in a Chinese school, benefiting from higher academic requirements,” Wang says. “Then in high school you send them to an international school where they have more free time for their personal development -- for their reading, social development, and sports.”

What to Look Out for When Choosing a School

There are obvious factors when choosing a school, such as academic performance, university acceptance rates, and location. Then there are the less obvious factors that can be just as important. Let's take a closer look at those here.

Teacher Retention

Low teacher retention is one of the most common complaints among parents that enroll their children in international education. Inherently, international education draws a population of teachers who work abroad for the very purpose of moving around every few years and seeing the world. However, if you’re paying top dollar, the school shouldn’t have an average retention rate of only 2-3 years as your money should be going to quality teachers, incentivized to stick around.

Profit versus Non-profit

Non-profit doesn’t automatically mean better, especially in China. Although some schools are extremely transparent with their financials, others are murky at best. For-profits can also have problems. Some for-profit schools spend their money on after school programs and high teacher salaries to stay competitive, while others squeeze their budgets to drain every penny possible from the school. In the end, qualified teachers, strong academic performance, well-kept facilities, and extracurricular and community programs are the best indicators that your money is being well spent.


Not only should you consider student demographics but also parent demographics. For one, you’re going to be seeing them a lot both in and out of school. In addition, parents play a significant role in school politics. They can have an effect on which textbooks are being taught and where money is being spent. If the school you are considering has a big group of loud-mouthed, uninformed show-offs, it’s probably best that you know about them before you send your child there. Try to get to know the parents of children that go to the school you are looking at to learn more about the parent community.

The Mecca for Education

SAS' Marcel Gauthier calls Shanghai “a mecca for education”, and he’s right. Shanghai as a city has consistently topped international rankings for compulsory education in math, reading, and sciences. Aside from test scores, Shanghai’s educational system is also strongly internationally minded.

“Deep down at the heart of all the educators, no matter if they are international schools, Chinese private schools, or public schools, I do think they believe in internationalism,” says YK Pao School's Li Jing. “They want our students to develop global competency and international perspectives, but on different tracks, with different approaches, to achieve the same goals.”

Shanghai’s educational system is unlike any other in both educational quality and availability of options. From an educational perspective, there are few better places for parents to raise their children.


SmartShanghai has launched an international education directory to better help the community find and discover schools. Please contact us here to get your school listed.

Cover image by Lucélia Ribeiro.