Children wait to perform at a ceremony for the new French International School in Beijing, 19 October. Photo: Getty
Show Hide image

Letter from Beijing: Inside the private schools educating China’s elite

In recent years the number of private schools catering to Chinese nationals has grown rapidly. A Chinese-owned chain offering a Canadian curriculum dominates, with more than 30 schools across the country.

A few exits north of Beijing Airport, it seems a village has been torn down with no particular plan in mind. Beyond a half-collapsed brick wall lies a rubble-strewn patchwork of foundations – the footprints of traditional single-storey courtyard houses – that stretches on for several hundred yards. At the far corner of the abandoned village is a surprising sight: a tidy quadrangle of red-brick buildings stands behind a wrought-iron fence, looking like the Hollywood set of a school. Against the relentless grey of suburban Beijing, the grass lawns are so green they appear lit from within.

This is Keystone Academy, whose website boasts that the school will nurture the emergence of “the Bill Gates or Mark Zuckerberg of China”, tapping in to the ambitions of the country’s new elite. Such schools are wary of journalists, so I posed as a prospective parent to take a look inside. Keystone Academy is modelled on a New England boarding school, and says it uses the same curriculum as Sidwell Friends, where Barack Obama’s daughters study. It is the brainchild of well-connected private investors, and it charges fees of up to £25,000 a year, roughly six times the per-capita income in China.

Standing in front of a conference table strewn with candy-coloured luxury bags and tablets, the head of admissions explained the benefits of Keystone’s extra-curricular activities, including a swimming programme taught by a pair of Olympic gold medallists. Fathers peered at smartphones; mothers in thick mascara, pressed jeans and rhinestone-encrusted platform Chuck Taylors snapped pictures of the PowerPoint presentation. A woman in a red leather jacket clutched my arm and earnestly told me how lucky I am not to be Chinese.

“You have other choices,” she said. “For us it is just this.”

The “us” she was referring to are wealthy Chinese passport-holders. Since 2005, UK public schools including Harrow and Dulwich College have opened satellite schools in China, but these are open only to students with a foreign passport. Chinese nationals can study an international curriculum at a private school, but only at the same time as they follow the Chinese programme.

In recent years the number of private schools catering to Chinese nationals has grown rapidly. A Chinese-owned chain offering a Canadian curriculum dominates, with more than 30 schools across the country. Schools offering British, Australian and US curriculums are also popular.

An educational arms race has developed. One school has outdoor fields shielded by a football-pitch-sized dome, intended to filter out the Beijing smog. Administrators from elite New England prep schools are installed at private Chinese academies with the kind of pomp usually reserved for the pandas the government donates to zoos overseas.

The people I met at the Keystone Academy open day are in many ways privileged. State schools are so crowded that parents will pay hundreds of dollars to secure front-row seats for their children, in the hope that teachers will notice them. For the children of migrant workers, substandard illegal schools are often the only option.

Yet wealthy Chinese still face a stark choice. They can send their kids to local schools, where young lives are consumed by days and nights memorising enough information to compete with the ten million candidates who sit each year for the gaokao, the gruelling national college entrance exam that a third of all students fail. Or they can send them to one of the new crop of schools, such as Keystone.

Despite the apparent emphasis the private schools place on encouraging free thinking, there will be many questions that students cannot answer, and that teachers won’t ask. Under law, discussion will veer around certain topics. School libraries will not stock history books that mention events that shaped the lives of parents and grandparents: Tiananmen Square, the Great Leap Forward, the famine that ensued. If topics of equality and justice arise, there will be no mention of the wealth accumulated by the families of the most powerful men in the Communist Party. Students will learn subjects such as Chinese handicrafts and dance, but this will not be enough to bind them to their national culture and heritage.

Although the population of school graduates grows each year, the number of pupils sitting the gaokao has remained steady as ever more students opt out. Few private-school students will take their gaokao, knowing that they are unlikely to pass. They will have no choice but to study abroad and return as outsiders. There will be so much they know, yet they will never be allowed to say. 

This article first appeared in the 22 October 2014 issue of the New Statesman, Why Britain and Germany aren't natural enemies

Photo: Getty
Show Hide image

After Richmond Park, Labour MPs are haunted by a familiar ghost

Labour MPs in big cities fear the Liberal Democrats, while in the north, they fear Ukip. 

The Liberal Democrats’ victory in Richmond Park has Conservatives nervous, and rightly so. Not only did Sarah Olney take the votes of soft Conservatives who backed a Remain vote on 23 June, she also benefited from tactical voting from Labour voters.

Although Richmond Park is the fifth most pro-Remain constituency won by a Conservative at the 2015 election, the more significant number – for the Liberal Democrats at least – is 15: that’s the number of Tory-held seats they could win if they reduced the Labour vote by the same amount they managed in Richmond Park.

The Tories have two Brexit headaches, electorally speaking. The first is the direct loss of voters who backed David Cameron in 2015 and a Remain vote in 2016 to the Liberal Democrats. The second is that Brexit appears to have made Liberal Democrat candidates palatable to Labour voters who backed the party as the anti-Conservative option in seats where Labour is generally weak from 1992 to 2010, but stayed at home or voted Labour in 2015.

Although local council by-elections are not as dramatic as parliamentary ones, they offer clues as to how national elections may play out, and it’s worth noting that Richmond Park wasn’t the only place where the Liberal Democrats saw a dramatic surge in the party’s fortunes. They also made a dramatic gain in Chichester, which voted to leave.

(That’s the other factor to remember in the “Leave/Remain” divide. In Liberal-Conservative battlegrounds where the majority of voters opted to leave, the third-placed Labour and Green vote tends to be heavily pro-Remain.)

But it’s not just Conservatives with the Liberal Democrats in second who have cause to be nervous.  Labour MPs outside of England's big cities have long been nervous that Ukip will do to them what the SNP did to their Scottish colleagues in 2015. That Ukip is now in second place in many seats that Labour once considered safe only adds to the sense of unease.

In a lot of seats, the closeness of Ukip is overstated. As one MP, who has the Conservatives in second place observed, “All that’s happened is you used to have five or six no-hopers, and all of that vote has gone to Ukip, so colleagues are nervous”. That’s true, to an extent. But it’s worth noting that the same thing could be said for the Liberal Democrats in Conservative seats in 1992. All they had done was to coagulate most of the “anyone but the Conservative” vote under their banner. In 1997, they took Conservative votes – and with it, picked up 28 formerly Tory seats.

Also nervous are the party’s London MPs, albeit for different reasons. They fear that Remain voters will desert them for the Liberal Democrats. (It’s worth noting that Catherine West, who sits for the most pro-Remain seat in the country, has already told constituents that she will vote against Article 50, as has David Lammy, another North London MP.)

A particular cause for alarm is that most of the party’s high command – Jeremy Corbyn, Emily Thornberry, Diane Abbott, and Keir Starmer – all sit for seats that were heavily pro-Remain. Thornberry, in particular, has the particularly dangerous combination of a seat that voted Remain in June but has flirted with the Liberal Democrats in the past, with the shadow foreign secretary finishing just 484 votes ahead of Bridget Fox, the Liberal Democrat candidate, in 2005.

Are they right to be worried? That the referendum allowed the Liberal Democrats to reconfigure the politics of Richmond Park adds credence to a YouGov poll that showed a pro-Brexit Labour party finishing third behind a pro-second referendum Liberal Democrat party, should Labour go into the next election backing Brexit and the Liberal Democrats opt to oppose it.

The difficulty for Labour is the calculation for the Liberal Democrats is easy. They are an unabashedly pro-European party, from their activists to their MPs, and the 22 per cent of voters who back a referendum re-run are a significantly larger group than the eight per cent of the vote that Nick Clegg’s Liberal Democrats got in 2015.

The calculus is more fraught for Labour. In terms of the straight Conservative battle, their best hope is to put the referendum question to bed and focus on issues which don’t divide their coalition in two, as immigration does. But for separate reasons, neither Ukip nor the Liberal Democrats will be keen to let them.

At every point, the referendum question poses difficulties for Labour. Even when neither Ukip nor the Liberal Democrats take seats from them directly, they can hurt them badly, allowing the Conservatives to come through the middle.

The big problem is that the stance that makes sense in terms of maintaining party unity is to try to run on a ticket of moving past the referendum and focussing on the party’s core issues of social justice, better public services and redistribution.

But the trouble with that approach is that it’s alarmingly similar to the one favoured by Kezia Dugdale and Scottish Labour in 2016, who tried to make the election about public services, not the constitution. They came third, behind a Conservative party that ran on an explicitly pro-Union platform. The possibility of an English sequel should not be ruled out.  

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.