What is it like to lead an international school in China?

A recent report from RSAcademics reveals the challenges of leading an international school in China

China is now the country with the largest and fastest-growing number of international schools, with perhaps greater opportunities in terms of educational careers, investments and partnerships than anywhere else in the world.  

New research by RSAcademics explores the features of international schools in China, and the range and challenges of headship roles. Author Barry Speirs visited China last year as part of the research and reveals his findings…

Why focus on China?

At RSAcademics, we had heard how leadership challenges and short tenure of heads, which is a feature of many international schools, is an even greater issue in China.

Also, nearly every week we hear of a new school setting up in China or a leadership vacancy there, so RSAcademics wanted to better understand the environment, challenges and rewards of working there. 

What’s different about China?

Most people I spoke to had led schools in different countries but several described their experience in China as their most challenging or most different. Whilst every country has unique features it would seem that China’s are particularly marked. The research with school leaders in China indicates to what extent, for example:

“Whatever you know and wherever you have worked, China will surprise you and challenge you in every way possible.”

“What’s different about China? In my experience it’s issues to do with regulations, foreign passport Chinese, the role of the Chinese Principal, dual curriculum and support staff outside your control.”

What’s it like leading an international school in China? 

It depends! A key conclusion from our research is the huge variety of situations that leaders find themselves in.  

Most information on China refers to three different types of schools:

Expat schools: These schools can teach 100% international curriculum, and account for about a quarter of international school students in China. 

Chinese private schools: Aimed at Chinese children, these follow a bilingual curriculum to cover the compulsory national curriculum in Years 1–9 whilst meeting the desire for international qualifications. These include joint ventures between a Chinese owner and a foreign school and are the fastest growing sector with over half the international school student population.

Chinese state schools: International streams teaching a bilingual curriculum as a branch or programme within a state school – about a quarter of the international school student population.

I  found, however, significant differences beyond these distinctions. One school leader commented: “I have visited about 50 international schools in China and I don’t know that I have ever seen two that are the same.” 

What factors influence a leader’s role?

In addition to the type of school, there are several other factors that contribute to differences in leadership roles in China. 

Regulation: The extent of influence of the provincial or national education ministry in the operation of the school. This may vary depending on the type of school, its history, location and connections within the government.

Single or join venture and how this operates: Joint ventures are typically between a Chinese owner and a foreign education company or school. The foreign organisation typically provides the teaching and learning expertise, while the Chinese partner provides the land and financial investment. 

Type of Chinese investor: There is a wide range, such as: construction companies wishing to establish a school as a magnet for real-estate buyers; government-sponsored companies seeking to develop a region; or benefactors with a long-established interest in education and nation building. Who the investor is and how s/he runs their organisation are absolutely key to the role of the school leader.

Dual leadership: In many (but not all) schools with an international head, there is a requirement to have a dual leader who is a Chinese national. Their role varies greatly, for example, from just managing government relations to running the school.

International or bilingual curriculum – and how this applies: All schools in Years 1-9 except expat schools should be bilingual. However, there are variations in how integrated the Chinese and international curricula are.

For-profit or not-for-profit: For-profit includes Chinese investors and foreign joint ventures, franchises or other licensing arrangements. Not-for-profit includes Chinese benefactors or certain international organisations and trusts.

Position of support staff and Chinese academic staff: In some schools these staff report to the expat leader; in other schools, support services are centralised, provided by an affiliated Chinese organisation, or the investor’s organisation. Similarly, Chinese academic staff may be managed separately, either by design or in practice. This could mean that half, or even the majority, of staff are not within the head’s scope of responsibility. 

For more information and to download the free report ‛Leading an international school in China’, visit RSAcademic’s website. For more, visit: rsacademics.co.uk/publications 

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