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Foreign schools venturing into smaller cities By Ho Ai Li17 December 2011BEIJING: Harrow. Dulwich. Wellington. These brand-name British public schools have all set up shop in China, with one of them venturing beyond the big cities of Beijing and Shanghai.The 152-year-old Wellington College just opened a branch in the northern port city of Tianjin this August, one of a growing number of international schools bullish about growth prospects in China's rapidly developing second-tier cities.Wellington College Tianjin now has more than 200 students from about 20 nationalities, including several Singaporeans, said headmaster David Cook. It is planning to attract even more students by offering boarding facilities.'It is the city of growth and imagination, and a more promising city for a great school than Beijing or Shanghai,' Mr Cook said on what drew Wellington to Tianjin. In the first half of this year, the city's economy, driven by a strong manufacturing sector, grew faster than that of any other city in China.Meanwhile, other second-tier cities such as Suzhou, Wuxi and Dalian are also pulling in operators like Singapore's EtonHouse and Gems Education, a Dubai-based group.EtonHouse plans to open a school in another port city, Dalian, in 2013, to add to existing multi-level schools in Suzhou and Wuxi, both in coastal Jiangsu province. Gems Education, which runs more than 60 international schools in places such as India and the Middle East, will open its first school in China next year, also in Tianjin.Although foreign schools are sprouting in second-tier cities, the key driver is not so much an existing huge demand as the anticipation of it in the coming years, as these cities grow and the workforce becomes even more cosmopolitan.At the moment, there is generally no lack of vacancies in international schools in Chinese mainland cities, unlike the case in Hong Kong or Singapore.One reason is that China does not have a huge number of foreigners: Only 590,000 of its 1.3 billion population are foreigners, according to last year's census. In contrast, foreigners make up 27 per cent - 1.39 million - of Singapore's population of 5.18 million.Beijing has 107,000 foreigners, a mere 0.005 per cent of its population, while Shanghai has 208,000, or 0.01 per cent of its population.The two top Chinese cities, however, have about 40 schools catering to at least 40,000 foreign students from primary to pre-university levels.'The first-tier cities are already well served,' said Mrs Ng Gim Choo, EtonHouse's group managing director. It is now very difficult to find good premises in these cities, she added.However, local governments of second-tier cities such as Dalian are very welcoming, said Mrs Ng, seeing the presence of international schools like EtonHouse as a plus point in their efforts to attract foreign companies.Mr Antonio Teijeiro, 42, a Tianjin-based hotel executive with two young children, agrees. 'It is good thing for smaller cities like Tianjin to have more international schools. If there are no such schools, foreigners will not come.'There is also growing demand from Chinese parents who have moved back to China and want to put their foreign-born children into these cosmopolitan schools.Ms Charlotte Qu is one of them. The 43-year-old housewife returned from the United States in 2006 after studying and working there. She enrolled her 15-year-old son in a local school thinking it would help him improve his Chinese and maths.But the culture shock he experienced prompted her to put him in an international school in Beijing instead.A place in an international school does not come cheap though, with annual fees ranging from 150,000 yuan (S$30,800) to 204,000 yuan, and established ones like the Western Academy of Beijing (WAB) charging more.Teachers are generally recruited from Australia, Canada or Britain, where English is a native language.
Unsurprisingly, demand for places exceeds supply at the better-known, established schools like WAB or the International School of Beijing, which are already among the biggest in the capital with nearly 2,000 students each.As Mr Jack Hsu, the Beijing-based chief executive officer of the Ivy Group, which runs premium kindergartens, put it: 'There's no lack of educational resources in China but a lack of good-quality ones.'
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