With pupils dressed in blazers and striped ties rushing past imposing red brick buildings, Huili School Hangzhou is a slice of British boarding school life in eastern China.
Partnered with Wellington College, one of Britain’s top independent schools, Huili shares teachers, education materials and fee income with the Berkshire institution, whose foundation stone was laid by Queen Victoria in 1856 and which has a Chinese branch on the same campus as Huili.
Wellington College Hangzhou, which caters to expatriates, and Huili, which educates Chinese pupils, even share a motto: Virtutis Fortuna Comes — fortune favours the brave.
But some activities at Huili would surprise Wellington’s founders. Teachers can join the school’s branch of China’s ruling Communist party, while students are recruited to the Young Pioneers of China, the party’s organisation for children aged six to 14. Once a week Huili school rings out with the strains of March of the Volunteers, China’s national anthem, as hundreds of pupils gather for a flag-raising ceremony.
“My singing of the national anthem is not perfect. But the fact that I’m making an effort is important for the parents and students as well,” said Paul Rogers, executive master of Wellington College Hangzhou.
“[Huili does] have a Communist party committee. They meet regularly and we are happy that they do. We need to respect Chinese culture,” he said, adding that influence over school decisions happened via “staff” rather than Communist party meetings.
The British began opening schools in China in the early 2000s, catering to expatriates. With Chinese nationals barred from admission, the schools enjoy a degree of freedom from Beijing’s education regulators. But demand from expatriates has dwindled as multinational companies increasingly hire overseas-educated Chinese staff and Beijing cracks down on Chinese nationals with dual passports.
Official data show the number of registered long-term foreign residents in Shanghai fell from 178,000 in 2015 to 163,000 in 2017, the most recent figures available.
As a result, British schools are increasingly lending their brand and expertise to Chinese businesses that run schools offering bilingual education to Chinese pupils, in return for an annual “consulting” fee.
Wellington’s affiliated schools are part of a wave of similar projects. More than 30 Chinese schools have partnered with British boarding schools, including Dulwich College, which has three such schools in China, Malvern College, Wycombe Abbey and King’s College, according to education consultancy ISC Research.
Wellington received £1.4m in income from schools in China last year, while Dulwich earned £1m from branches in China and other overseas locations, according to school filings with the UK Charity Commission.
“There is definitely a rising interest among British independent schools to develop in China where the British education brand is so much in demand,” ISC said.
The majority of the British school partnerships in China are with real estate companies, which include new schools in development schemes to make them more attractive to buyers. Huili Hangzhou was built by local property group Transfar for a reported cost of Rmb800m ($114m).
The schools serve the wealthy, with Huili Shanghai charging students up to Rmb186,000 ($26,500) per year, more than double the median Chinese household income of Rmb68,000.
As a condition of accepting Chinese students, the British-affiliated schools are regulated in the same way as state-run Chinese schools, including teaching the local curriculum.
At a ceremony opening Wellington’s Shanghai school last year, senior city official Li Guohua said the institution would “carry out the spirit of the 19th party congress, to guide and raise youth to warmly love the party and country”.
But to distinguish themselves from state schools, the British-partnered institutions emphasise extracurricular activities such as sport, music and theatre, while hiring foreign nationals as teachers to provide a bilingual education.
“We keep to the basic requirements of Zhejiang provincial teaching materials, but of course we take the best British teaching methods,” said Guoqiang Shen, Huili Hangzhou’s headmaster.
Sutton Valence School in Kent has collaborated with Hopeland International Kindergarten, a Chinese company, to open a primary school in the eastern city of Tianjin.
“The holy grail is to incubate a generation which can do well in the domestic curriculum and the British curriculum,” said Karl Yin, the son of a Chinese real estate developer who attended Sutton Valence in Britain and is heading the Tianjin project.
The rapid opening of British affiliated boarding schools has led to a rush to recruit teachers from Britain, who are in short supply. Headlines about Chinese pollution and political repression have discouraged recruits, several headteachers said.
“There is crazy demand in China for foreign teachers. And [the supply] is insufficient to meet the demand,” said Mr Yin.
British partnerships are spreading at a time when the ruling Communist party is tightening ideological control of education at all levels: in 2017 the education ministry called on primary schools to increase “affection” for the party among students, while children of middle-school age and older are expected to cultivate “love” for the party.
Most of the bilingual institutions are primary schools, where the explicitly political component of Chinese education is less pronounced.
Some teachers said they had greater flexibility than in state schools. “The government come for inspections but there are a lot of grey areas. What we do and what we present to the government can be slightly different,” said one who asked not to be named.
Hurtwood House, a boarding school in Surrey in southern England, has four partner schools in China and last year opened a bilingual campus in the coastal city of Qingdao.
“This school is aimed at parents like us who want to send their children overseas eventually and give them a better quality of education,” said Jin Xia, a parent picking up an eight-year-old from the school gates.
While pupils know more about Mr Men books than Communist history, that could change as the school develops, said Jamie Macnamara, international primary principal at the school, adding: “History might be something that the local board of education might have a say on.”