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

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The tale of Battersea power station shows how affordable housing is lost

Initially, the developers promised 636 affordable homes. Now, they have reduced the number to 386. 

It’s the most predictable trick in the big book of property development. A developer signs an agreement with a local council promising to provide a barely acceptable level of barely affordable housing, then slashes these commitments at the first, second and third signs of trouble. It’s happened all over the country, from Hastings to Cumbria. But it happens most often in London, and most recently of all at Battersea power station, the Thames landmark and long-time London ruin which I wrote about in my 2016 book, Up In Smoke: The Failed Dreams of Battersea Power Station. For decades, the power station was one of London’s most popular buildings but now it represents some of the most depressing aspects of the capital’s attempts at regeneration. Almost in shame, the building itself has started to disappear from view behind a curtain of ugly gold-and-glass apartments aimed squarely at the international rich. The Battersea power station development is costing around £9bn. There will be around 4,200 flats, an office for Apple and a new Tube station. But only 386 of the new flats will be considered affordable

What makes the Battersea power station development worse is the developer’s argument for why there are so few affordable homes, which runs something like this. The bottom is falling out of the luxury homes market because too many are being built, which means developers can no longer afford to build the sort of homes that people actually want. It’s yet another sign of the failure of the housing market to provide what is most needed. But it also highlights the delusion of politicians who still seem to believe that property developers are going to provide the answers to one of the most pressing problems in politics.

A Malaysian consortium acquired the power station in 2012 and initially promised to build 517 affordable units, which then rose to 636. This was pretty meagre, but with four developers having already failed to develop the site, it was enough to satisfy Wandsworth council. By the time I wrote Up In Smoke, this had been reduced back to 565 units – around 15 per cent of the total number of new flats. Now the developers want to build only 386 affordable homes – around 9 per cent of the final residential offering, which includes expensive flats bought by the likes of Sting and Bear Grylls. 

The developers say this is because of escalating costs and the technical challenges of restoring the power station – but it’s also the case that the entire Nine Elms area between Battersea and Vauxhall is experiencing a glut of similar property, which is driving down prices. They want to focus instead on paying for the new Northern Line extension that joins the power station to Kennington. The slashing of affordable housing can be done without need for a new planning application or public consultation by using a “deed of variation”. It also means Mayor Sadiq Khan can’t do much more than write to Wandsworth urging the council to reject the new scheme. There’s little chance of that. Conservative Wandsworth has been committed to a developer-led solution to the power station for three decades and in that time has perfected the art of rolling over, despite several excruciating, and occasionally hilarious, disappointments.

The Battersea power station situation also highlights the sophistry developers will use to excuse any decision. When I interviewed Rob Tincknell, the developer’s chief executive, in 2014, he boasted it was the developer’s commitment to paying for the Northern Line extension (NLE) that was allowing the already limited amount of affordable housing to be built in the first place. Without the NLE, he insisted, they would never be able to build this number of affordable units. “The important point to note is that the NLE project allows the development density in the district of Nine Elms to nearly double,” he said. “Therefore, without the NLE the density at Battersea would be about half and even if there was a higher level of affordable, say 30 per cent, it would be a percentage of a lower figure and therefore the city wouldn’t get any more affordable than they do now.”

Now the argument is reversed. Because the developer has to pay for the transport infrastructure, they can’t afford to build as much affordable housing. Smart hey?

It’s not entirely hopeless. Wandsworth may yet reject the plan, while the developers say they hope to restore the missing 250 units at the end of the build.

But I wouldn’t hold your breath.

This is a version of a blog post which originally appeared here.

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