International Schools Respond to Tougher Market

THE GROWING trend amongst MNCs towards localising their recruitment in China, and hiring Chinese mana-gers, is one that is often noted. As the quantity of talented local staff increases, there is much less need for international companies to import expensive expatriate senior ma-nagement. At the same time, this trend does present something of a challenge for those who offer services to this senior expatriate community. In last December’s SBR, Wing Dean, director of expatriate mobility at CBRE, described how firms in the relocation industry were struggling for business, adding that “Panic was setting in among international schools”.

Over the last decade and a half, many international schools in Shanghai have become accustomed to senior expats’ lavish salary packages, which have often included an education allowance for children. However, as Dean notes, these packages are shrinking, and as she also remarked, “MNCs are sending fewer expatriates to China, and the ones they send often don’t have children.”

Facing the challenge

The schools are certainly aware of the challenge. “This is the reality that every international school in China, without exception, is facing,” says Michael S. Dougherty, one of the founders of the Shanghai Community International School (SCIS), who currently sits on the school’s board of directors. “We are entering a time of increased competition, fewer expatriates, and more cost-consciousness,” Dougherty says, but adds, “Our response has been to take the initiative and make the investment to continue improving.”

The decline in expatriates is not the only problem for international schools. Lesley-Ann Wallace, principal of the British International School Shanghai in Pudong, agrees that Shanghai is a very competitive market, and notes further causes for this. “As well as the declining number of expatriates in the city, the international schools sector has grown enormously over the past five years to include many more schools, all of whom are seeking enrolments from a limited pool of students,” she says. Wallace adds that this pool is limited by the fact that international schools are only allowed to accept students who hold foreign passports.

Shelley Bragg, director of marketing at the Western International School Shanghai (WISS), is another who has seen this development coming. “The decline in expatriate families moving to China is not yet at a point where it has affected the overall growth of our school, but it does mean that we need to be at the top our game in all areas,” she says. “The climate is going to create more pressure on schools to be their best, and to be well-known in expat circles.” Bragg adds that “An obvious response would be to explore new avenues to market yourself, but also to ensure that you are differentiating yourself in some way.”

Emphasising the differences

This need for schools to differentiate themselves is crucial for them to survive as businesses. This is something of a challenge for schools; as many of them are gracious enough to admit, good schools are all alike it is only the bad ones that are unhappy in their own ways. Dougherty notes that “SCIS is not that different from other good schools. We are not unique there are many good schools in the world and in Shanghai.” Nonetheless, he adds that “We are at least a little bit special, as we have a very closely-knit and engaged school community, where people look after one another.”

Some schools in Shanghai have a particular founding principle, and this can be a key differentiator. Concordia International School has a religious aspect, and Gregg Pinick, head of school at Concordia Shanghai, notes that “Shanghai has many good international schools that seek to meet the needs of students academically, socially, emotionally, and physically, but at Concordia we take this a step further by also providing spiritual nurturing to truly address the needs of the whole child.”

Concordia are not the only school in Shanghai that claims a philosophical underpinning to its education provision. YCIS’s Superintendent, Nanci L. Shaw, states that “YCIS as a foundation is philanthropically committed to bringing together East and West through alignment with science and technology, culture and arts, and love and charity, thus preparing our students to become bilingual and compassionate global citizens of the world.”

The different curricula that international schools offer is another way which they can differentiate themselves. Away from the restrictions of education authorities, international schools have a degree of freedom with regard to what they teach, and many often choose to follow the International Baccalaureate Programme (IB). This is growing in popularity worldwide. “From December 2009 to December 2014, the number of IB programmes being offered at schools glo-bally rose by 46.35 per cent, covering over 3,968 schools,” says Bragg. She states that this is of benefit to WISS, which offers the IB Primary and Middle Years Programmes, as well as the IB Diploma Programme for older students. “Many families moving to Shanghai, who have been at IB schools in the past, seek out IB schools again, and that drives much of our intake,” Bragg adds.

The international factor

Other schools, however, attempt to do more than offer overseas curricula. YCIS, which follows the UK curriculum at lower grades and then offers international GCSEs and the IB, uses its position as an international school in China to influence its curriculum. “The concept of ‘East meets West’ at YCIS suggests a major shift in mindset and state of being. It is an actual process of ‘inner transformation’ that results in our students developing language skills in both English and Chinese, as well as in a mel-ding of altruistic and collective Confucian thought with Western individualism and innovation,” says Shaw.

One extra academic difficulty for international schools in Shanghai is that while many of their students will be wholly educated at the school, others will only be there for a few years. Integrating students from different educational backgrounds can be a challenge, particularly if they are unaccustomed to studying in the school’s common language. As perhaps with many other aspects, success in integrating new students depends on a school’s teachers. “A great international school has great teachers who, among other things, work with students as individuals, taking the time to understand a student’s previous education experience and working with them to set and achieve personal goals,” says Wallace. She also points to BISS’ English as an Additional Language (EAL) provision as something of which she is particularly proud.

Outside the classroom

Extracurricular activities are an additional means by which schools can attempt to differentiate themselves. In terms of sport, there now seem to be an abundance of football academies in Shanghai, with a number of former professionals offering their services. Bragg, for example, points to WISS’s Stoke City FC Football Academy. British schools offer cricket and rugby, while those from North America provide baseball and American football. Then there are equally diverse offerings in the arts, and Wallace mentions BISS’s Global Orchestra, which will see some of their students travel to New York to perform. For international students in China who have less access to such activities in their Shanghai community than they would back home, the role of schools in providing such things is crucial.

Another way in which extracurricular activities in international schools in China differ from those elsewhere is noted by Dougherty: “International schools have a real advantage compared to so many ‘normal’ national schools. We truly celebrate achievements, all kinds –both academic and sporting, but also being on a winning Model United Nations team, following an interest in robotics, and other extracurricular pursuits.” It is the students’ own willingness and desire to take up increasingly diverse extracurricular opportunities in China’s international schools that drives much of the schools’ developments in these areas. Nevertheless, for the schools themselves, keeping up with their competitors in this area is a challenge.

Targeting talented teachers

Of course, a school’s ability to offer a range of different activities, and live up to its self-declared principles, depends to a great extent on its staff. “The best thing I can do as a head of school to meet the needs of my students is to hire great teachers,” says Pinick. However, it is not always easy, and he adds that “Shanghai is a city that is constantly in flux, and one of our biggest challenges is attracting the best teachers to an area that many do not so readily understand.”

Furthermore, Dougherty states that the challenge of recruitment is one that has become more difficult in recent years. “Requirements for work permits and residence visas have grown quite challenging for us, then there are the issues of air pollution, currency fluctuations, and national staff asking for the same benefits we use to induce foreign teachers to move to China, among others,” he says. He adds that SCIS increases its faculty’s compensation every year, as this is necessary “to remain competitive with other international schools around the world, and to ensure that when we recruit (really, ‘compete for’) teachers in the international school arena, we remain an attractive option.” 

Further strategies

As costs rise and competition for students increases, managing the business side of an international school in China is becoming increasingly difficult. Like other businesses in China, schools too are looking at ways to manage their expenditures. Dougherty says that SCIS, which has a number of campuses around the Yangzte Delta, is able to take advantage of certain economies of scale. “Because we can centralise processes such as teacher recruitment and the procurement of books and mate-rials across our five campuses, we realise significant advantages.”

The challenges for the business of running an international school remain significant. That being said, all the schools with whom we spoke said that being focused on the wellbeing and development of their students differentiated them from other businesses – even if they face similar challenges with recruitment and rising costs. Shaw says that this basis must be a school’s philosophy. “An international school cannot be all things to all people,” she says, “but rather it should identify and be true to its own identity and mission. Then, as it should be, the decision is left to Mom and Dad.”

Others schools, meanwhile, focus on the practicalities. “First and foremost, a good international school should have an interesting and eclectic mix of highly-qualified teachers who like kids and love teaching. After student safety, nothing is more important than this,” says Dougherty. Pinick makes a similar point. “I learned a long time ago, that if students feel loved and cared for they will never want to go anywhere else,” he says. “The same holds true for faculty, staff, and parents. That is the foundation.”

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