Written by Guido Santevecchi.
Beanstalk International Bilingual School (BIBS) is an unconventional international school in Beijing. Scattered in the garden in front of the building, one can see lines of tables covered by tents, providing shade from the daylight (being suntanned is not in keeping with Chinese culture). What is peculiar about these lines of tables is that at lunchtime, pupils and teachers sit at them together, in a familiar way arguably unknown to the education system in the People’s Republic of China, where a barrier of deference is apparent.
Beanstalk counts around two thousand students in its seven branches, starting from kindergarten up to International Baccalaureate. “73 per cent of our pupils are Chinese, but we pay attention to having at least six foreigners per classroom so as to assure the bilingual, multi-cultural and globally-minded character that is required nowadays”, stated Enrique Eddy, the PR manager at the school.
Beanstalk and a growing number of other such international schools in China serve the aspirations of the emerging ‘Mandarin middle-class’. “Chinese parents send their children here because they want them to get ready to attend universities abroad, preferably in English-speaking nations such as the US, Great Britain, Australia, Canada,” said director of courses Craig Boyce.
Last year alone, 459,800 students went overseas to study, according to China’s Ministry of Education (up 11 percent from 2013). According to a recent survey by market research company Mintel, nearly 87% of Chinese parents said they were willing to fund study abroad. This summer, more than 500,000 Chinese high school students will take part in expensive overseas study tours: these types of trips are costing the middle-class family an average of 47,900 yuan (around 6,000 euros). It’s big business: revenue for the entire industry is estimated to hit 12 billion yuan.
This education fever also puts pressure on family spending: a Euromonitor survey reported by the BBC found that per capita annual disposable income in China rose by 63.3% in the five years up to 2012, and yet consumer expenditure on education rose by almost 94%. This massive increase is not confined to the upper and middle classes (which represent around 300 million people) – according to the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, a third of Chinese students abroad in 2010 were from working-class families; the burden on families is huge. There have been reports in the Chinese media about cases of rural parents neglecting to buy the necessary healthcare in order to spare money to spend on their children’s education. Many families buy expensive homes close to good schools with a national reputation. Yet parents keep sending their children overseas to broaden their horizons, and to improve their English-speaking skills and develop their cultural adaptability.
But there is a problem – a very political one. Earlier this year, Education Minister Yuan Guiren ordered education departments to, “Firmly keep universities away from textbooks that spread wrong Western ideas.”
On the one hand, an increasing number of Chinese families hope to send their children abroad; on the other, the Communist Party plays a rearguard battle in order to preserve the integrity of Chinese culture (mainly in order to serve the sacred principle of keeping political orthodoxy and to maintain social stability: “weiwen” in colloquial Mandarin).
Beanstalk has an answer to this issue. On the walls of its classrooms stand portraits of Chinese ancient philosophers and thinkers with catchwords both in Mandarin and English, such as ‘kindness’, ‘learning’ and ‘achievement’.
“Chinese parents tend to be more open and are trying to shelter their children from the pressure of the school system in the People’s Republic, that is very strict and demanding, but they do not want their sons and daughters to lose contact and their cultural roots,” said Mr Boyce. This is the reason that at Beanstalk, classes are in English, but Mandarin is the common language around the playground both for Chinese and international pupils, with one important exception: mathematics is taught in Mandarin and with Chinese rules, which are arguably the best around the world, according to the OCSE PISA ranking.
The annual fee for Beanstalk is placed at 168,000 yuan, plus 15,000 yuan for other services such as school buses and meals, plus 2,500 yuan for uniforms (totalling around 30,000 euros). Beanstalk prides itself on excellence – and this is expensive.
I recently visited the Evergrande International Football School in Guangdong: it provides normal classes from primary school up to preparation for ‘Gaokao’ (the Chinese national examination that gives those who succeed access to university) in addition to football lessons which serve the central government’s aspirations to become a football powerhouse in the world arena. I spoke to some of the pupils at the school; one of them told me, in Mandarin, “Of course [I] study English, otherwise I wouldn’t be able to understand my European coach, and I’m one of the best in my class, but I must confess that I’m much better at reading than speaking it.”