New ‘patriotic’ law brings new challenges for British schools in China

A forthcoming education law emphasizing patriotism is poised to exert pressure on British schools in China, reflecting Beijing’s intensified control over classroom content. Just under five years ago, there was widespread coverage in Chinese and British media about the thriving period of British education in China.

Elite British schools capitalized on the commercial opportunity by establishing campuses to cater to affluent Chinese families and expatriates’ children, rapidly expanding their presence. However, the COVID-19 pandemic, which significantly diminished China’s appeal to foreign educators, coupled with the government’s renewed emphasis on patriotism and national security in the curriculum for private schools, has presented considerable challenges to internationally recognized education brands.

A recent report from Venture Education, a consultancy, noted that the once-rapid growth of British-partnered schools and school brands in China has now stagnated. Over the past two years, several international private schools, including Dulwich’s preschool in Shenzhen, have closed.

Julian Fisher, co-founder of Venture Education, suggested caution in interpreting reports of a terminal decline in British education brands in China. Nevertheless, as schools adjust to recent regulations dictating the content and location of instruction, clarity is emerging on the boundaries set by the authorities.

Starting on January 1, China’s new patriotic education law will take effect, further constricting Western-style teaching in classrooms. The law mandates that all levels and types of schools infuse patriotic education throughout the entire educational curriculum, integrate it into all subjects, and emphasize ideology and political theory courses.

China has around 180,000 private educational institutions with over 55.6 million enrolled students. Approximately 13% of students at the school and university level attend private institutions. Some schools have already incorporated the requirement for patriotic education into their curricula.

In response to these changes, collaboration with international entities in China has become more challenging across various sectors. The passing of an anti-espionage law and a private education law in 2021, regulating the previously unregulated industry, has increased pressure on international schools.

On GlassDoor, a former head of department at Harrow Beijing expressed that the institution has become heavily state-regulated, losing its international school status in practice. The new private education law prohibits Chinese nationals from being included in the names of private schools accepting them and bans the use of terms like “international” or “world.”

The law also mandates that board members at private schools must be Chinese nationals and prohibits the use of foreign teaching materials at the compulsory education level. As a result, schools are shifting focus to British-style pastoral and extracurricular offerings for wealthy Chinese students rather than promoting a Western-style education.

This shift may be unappealing to both teachers and students, with recruiting foreign teachers becoming increasingly challenging, and morale among educators remaining relatively low, particularly due to the demanding conditions exacerbated by the zero-COVID era in Chinese cities.

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