The battle for the China International School narrative – which one are you backing?
Yes, we know.
It’s only been a few days since we sent out a regular EDDi and here we are with an EDDi Extra.
Well, we guess that’s the point of an EDDi Extra. We send them out when something topical or important strikes us. And this weekend two contradictory, contrasting and confusing narratives certainly struck us.
One argues the now familiar story of British independent schools opening outposts in China, and doing so at pace. The other suggests that:
Private schools with branches in China are retreating for fear their brands may be damaged by tighter restrictions on international education in the country.
Can both be true? Read below for EDDi’s take on this intriguing saga - one we suspect is just the first salvo in what promises to be a long running debate.
Enjoy your week.
The battle for the China International School narrative:
Which one are you backing?
For international school China watchers like myself, this past weekend (17th/18th April) has been quite an intriguing one. I am used to having a variety of articles on international schooling land in my inbox, but rarely have I had such starkly contrasting articles as those just received. And they arrived more or less simultaneously, which given their contradictory messages suggests to me a bit of a media battle for a dominant narrative.
First off, there was the SCMP piece by Peggy Sito, titled:
Nothing especially unusual about the title, after all, we’re now well aware that international schooling in China has been on a roll for at least a decade. Indeed, I discussed this very trend in my EDDi article of 5th March in which I stated that ‘International Schools in China could be about to hit the dance floor.’
Ms Sito’s article on the ‘strong market for international and private schools in the bay area’ doesn’t tell us anything new. What it does is stress the determination of the owners of Harrow and Wycombe Abbey, two of the prestigious British independent school brands in China, to expand into the Greater Bay Area:
“We are planning another K-12 school for local students in Longgang in Shenzhen in 2023. By that time, we will have four Harrow schools in the city” (Eric Lueng, CEO of Asia International School, part of the Harrow IS group).
Not to be outdone in declaring enthusiasm for (British-branded) international schooling in China we get the following comment from Jeremy Young Chit-on, bursar of BE Education (the China company behind the expansion of the Wycombe Abbey franchise):
“The [Greater Bay Area] market is so big it can accommodate many international schools…I will be very disappointed if Wycombe Abbey has not yet opened a campus in Shenzhen within five years.”
Rolling up in support is Julian Fisher, a senior partner in Venture Education, who inserts some compelling stats into the narrative: ‘16 British schools currently scheduled to be opened, or at least at the planning stage, in the bay area. Of these, nearly 40% have bet their future on Shenzhen.’ And according to ISC Research, the UK-based provider of data and market intelligence on the world’s K-12 international schools, most of these new schools are “connected with UK independent schools”.
I’m now imagining gold-platted jolly hockey sticks for all these privileged six-formers.
Though I do wonder why Ms Sita’s article needs to remind us of some less pleasant trends:
“Beijing encourages Chinese-foreign cooperation in running international schools, but there are restrictions…For example, they are not allowed to offer any special education services such as military, police or political education services, according to China’s rules.”
Let’s hope the growing Beijing control of international schools in China doesn’t extend to teaching students the new ‘Chinese-style, goose step’.
But perhaps I am being a little mean.
After all, with a population of 13 million, increasing at the rate of 500,000 new residents a year, Shenzhen looks a very big honey pot for international school operators. And anyway, if your little Chen or dear Lim is going to be instructed into ‘national pride and security behaviour’ anyway, then why not alongside a British brand?
Certainly, that must be the thinking of the next big international school operator to throw their (very considerable) weight into the battle for the dominant narrative – New World Developments.
Different article, different company, but same newspaper and same author, Ms Peggy Sito:
There are so many ways to interpret the different messages in this article that I’m spoilt for choice, but let’s stick with the main narrative:
“The group [NWD] will invest more than HK$3 billion [US$385.8 million] over the next few years in the five schools, as well as other upcoming education projects.”
And who is behind this drive?
Adrian Cheng (the third-generation scion of the HK family that controls NWD) and his wife, Jennifer Yu Cheng (Deputy Vice Chairman of Chow Tai Fook Education).
‘The plan aligns with husband Adrian Cheng’s ambition to disrupt the conglomerate’s old business model and create an empire that touches everything from education and health care to property and insurance.’
Of course, Mr and Mrs Cheng could quite easily decide to plough loads of their money into China’s burgeoning education system (in the hope of profit) and do so by calling their new international schools any name they choose.
But they haven’t.
What they’ve done is call them Benenden International Schools.
Those of you familiar with UK independent schools will be aware that Benenden School was attended by a very young Princess Anne, this being its primary claim to fame. Though only last month is hit the headlines for a less endearing reason:
‘A former pupil [Zan Moon] of Benenden, a private girl’s school in Kent, has put together a dossier of allegations of sexual abuse, harassment and rape culture at top private schools”
So here we have in one corner, lining up to present the China narrative of expanding world-class (Best of British) education in China: Harrow, Wycombe and Benenden, all UK independent schools but backed by seriously wealthy Chinese investors.
Harrow has been around for a while, so no doubt they’ll be ready for what happens next. Wycombe Abbey, maybe. But Benenden? They’re about to hit the ground running. From one school in rural Kent to ‘five Benenden China campuses within five years’, that is going some by any measure.
Let’s hope they are braced for it. Lots to look forward to – it seems.
So where is the opposing narrative?
Published in The Times, and written by Emma Yeomans, this article on the growth of UK independent school franchises in China presents an intriguing contrast to the gung-ho narrative offered by Harrow, BE Education and NWD.
And indeed, Ms Yeomans pulls no punches:
“Private schools with branches in China are retreating for fear their brands may be damaged by tighter restrictions on international education in the country.”
“Retreating?” Have you told Harrow, Wycombe Abbey and, especially, Benenden?
This counter-narrative is given strong backing by some British experts:
“Quite a few schools don’t even want to admit they have schools in China. It’s so reputationally risky, and they don’t have a lot of control over some franchises.” (Juliet Fairclough, an editor at the Good Schools Guide).
“I have a lot of sympathy for schools which, five, ten, fifteen years ago got themselves into China either by running schools or licensing the name. But a school that will decide now to invest afresh in mainland China, given that it’s impossible to know what has been going on, it seems to me not only questionable but risky from a business standpoint…Asking why schools had Chinese branches could become like asking “why you had a school in South Africa in 1975”. (Andrew Lewer, MP for Northampton South and chairman of the all-party group on independent schools).
Heavy stuff. And now it all starts to make sense (I think).
Allow me to speculate.
Harrow, BE Education and NWD got wind of the upcoming article in The Times and decided some damage limitation was required. And the two SCMP articles by Ms Sito were it. (Of course, there may be other such articles circulating this past few days which have passed me by).
We now have a full-on battle for the dominant narrative of British international schooling in China and I suspect this is just the opening rounds.
There is more to be written and discussed on this battle of the China international school narrative, that’s for sure.
Two contradictory, contrasting and confusing messages - they both cannot be right.
But what we do know is that all is not as well in the world of British international school franchises in China as some people would like us to believe.
A new, and pretty critical narrative is now emerging, backed no less by the UK government.
With so much money (and reputations) at stake, it is going to be fascinating watching this battle play out.
Just glad I’m a spectator, not a participant.
By Dr Stephen Whitehead (views are author’s own)
Interested in international school recruitment?
For those interested in international school recruitment, the latest ‘state of the market’ summary by Edvectus caught our eye. You can read the (short) piece here. EDDi’s interview with Edvectus is also still available. You can access the FULL hour-long recording and, because we know your time is precious, mini-slices of the individual questions - we know, awesome right? You can thank us by grabbing a copy of the book. :)