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What do changes to China’s private education law mean for British schools?

by Tom Clayburn
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Recent modifications to the laws governing the promotion of private education in China have been seen as a cause for concern by some in the industry, but the international education market in China remains strong

On 14 May 2021, China issued a revision to the Regulations on the Implementation of the Law of the People’s Republic of China on the Promotion of Privately-run Schools. The modifications come into effect on 1 September 2021. While seeking to improve and regulate the growth of the private education sector in China, the modifications also stipulate that private educational institutions must strictly support the public welfare nature of education.

What is the current landscape of international private education in China?

International schools in China can be roughly divided into three types: 1) pure international schools that only accept foreign passport holders (some of which have been renamed in their license as ‘expat family children schools’); 2) private bilingual schools operating an international programme; and 3) public schools that operate an international division.

According to The Development Report of International Schools in China, as of 2020, there were 535 private bilingual schools in China, a number that has demonstrated steady growth for the past 5 years. Conversely, the number of private expat-only schools declined to 113 from a peak of 126 in 2017.

British-style education retains a strong reputation in China. The number of British-style schools has been growing significantly in recent years, with over 60 campuses in China. In 2020 alone, cities like Haikou, Dongguan, Xiamen, Changsha, Shijiazhuang, and Changchun celebrated the launch of their first British-style schools.

Any strategy for an education group looking at Asia is incomplete unless we have presence in China — Gwen Byrom, Director of Education Strategy, NLCS International

What does the new Private Education Promotion Law say?

The revisions to the law mainly target private schools carrying out compulsory education (the nine years starting from age six) for Chinese nationals. In principle, schools that only admit the children of foreign nationals are not affected by these revisions.

One of the key strategies behind the revisions is preventing public schools from turning into private schools, as seen in Articles 7 and 8 (read the full text of the law in Chinese here), as well as making access to schools more equitable by prohibiting entrance exams and cross-district enrolment.

The law also touches on school leadership. Article 25 states that members of decision-making bodies such as the board of directors should be Chinese nationals. However, this does not mean that schools cannot have foreign principals or management staff, for example.

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According to Article 29, private schools offering compulsory education should not use foreign teaching materials, and that any foreign teaching materials used in other schools should comply with relevant laws and regulations.

It was noted during a recent DIT-CBBC webinar on the outlook of UK-China collaborations in school education that no foreign materials does not necessarily mean that curriculum materials from the UK or other countries cannot be used as supplementary materials to widen student learning. This is particularly true for subjects such as English, ICT, PE and art, although schools should still carefully review all materials to ensure that they do not include sensitive content.

Why have these changes come about?

The changes to the law come as China attempts to standardise education and make access to education more equal, as suggested by the definition of education as “public welfare.”

China has taken aim at educational costs as part of measures aimed at reversing the country’s declining birthrate. Despite a relaxation of the one-child policy in 2016 (recently revised to a “three-child policy”), some young urban Chinese are deciding not to have children due to the high costs of childcare and early childhood education. Some statistics even show that urban Chinese families spend up to a quarter of their family income on education.

As a result, other recent measures include tightening regulations around off-campus private tutoring services, which have been able to charge parents concerned about the child’s academic achievement increasingly high fees. On 15 June, the Ministry of Education established the Off-Campus Education and Training Department to oversee the curricula, operations, qualifications, and capital sources of tutoring organisations.

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The next step for school ventures in China

The new regulations governing private education are complex, but the outlook remains optimistic for British education companies looking to enter the Chinese market.

Michelle Liang, COO of Wellington College China noted during the aforementioned webinar that the regulations underscore the importance of working with a trustworthy local partner who can help you to understand the local regulatory environment, especially for new school brands.

During the same webinar, Maxine Lu, general principal of Xiehe Education Group, suggested that schools think about how to develop a more holistic approach to education that runs from K-12 (Key Stages 1-5 in British National Curriculum terms) and beyond, and an approach that helps children develop into well-rounded individuals, rather than just preparing them to take international examinations such as iGCSEs.

She also stressed the importance of offering professional development for teachers and leveraging the advantages of a combination of expats, local Chinese and overseas return Chinese teachers. This focus on teacher training could also be an opportunity for companies in the professional development field.

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