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Understanding the Chinese high school system

September 10, 2020 |   Ada Wang

Though Chinese international students are the biggest international student cohort in several countries, including the US, the UK, Australia and New Zealand, surprisingly little is known about the high school system from which they have come. Understanding this, however, can provide insight into possible opportunities that may be available to education institutions to connect and build relationships with this valuable demographic.

So let’s take a closer look at the Chinese high school system: 

Public high schools

In China’s largely state-run education system, it is compulsory for students to complete at least 9 years of schooling, from Grades 1 to 9. Tuition is also free during these years.

Upon completing Grade 6, students move on to junior high school for their final 3 compulsory years of school, after which students must undertake the public exam called Zhongkao, which determines whether they will continue on a vocational or academic track in senior high school. Only about 10% of junior high school students opt not to continue to senior high school.

Senior high school also lasts for 3 years, and is intensely focused on preparation for the Gaokao, a gruelling 9-hour final exam (completed over two days), which takes place every year on 7th and 8th of June. Indeed, almost the entire education system is geared towards this end-of-school exam.

With around 46.5 million junior high school students and 23.7 million secondary high school students enrolled in 2018, it is no surprise that public high schools can be fiercely competitive. Students face enormous stress particularly during their preparations for the Gaokao, as their performance on this exam will determine which universities they will be admitted to, which can in turn affect their careers beyond university. The schools themselves are also measured by the number of students they send off to university, so students don’t just feel the pressure from their parents but from their teachers as well. The pressure can be so immense that stories of students committing suicide around the Gaokao are sadly not uncommon.

This unwavering focus on a single exam throughout school has meant the education system has been criticised for focusing too heavily on rote learning while doing little to cultivate creativity, critical and analytical thinking, and social and problem-solving skills – skills often necessary for success at university and in students’ future careers.

“The education system today ignores personality development, values, and social responsibilities. This is [the] cause of great problems for our country,” said Yang Dongping, an education expert at the Beijing Institute of Technology and the dean of the 21st Century Education Research Institute.

“It’s very difficult to move mindsets from an exam-orientated education, to one where personality is also accounted for,” Yang said.

Private high schools

In order to protect their children from the “pressure-cooker effect” of the public education system, and give them a broader education that may potentially prepare them better for life beyond high school, many parents are opting to send their children to private high schools.

As a result, the private sector is flourishing. A wide variety of classroom options are available for parents able to pay, from private classes once a week to full-time boarding-school education. Some schools cater for three-year-old kindergarteners all the way through to 18-year-olds, many offering after-school activities and tutoring in English, art or music.

Research published by McKinsey in January 2015 revealed that at the secondary level, the percentage of private schools in China has risen to 10% from 3% less than a decade ago.

In terms of private international schools, the type of most interest to overseas educational institutions is international Chinese-owned private schools (ICPS). These are where both foreign and mainland Chinese students can obtain a bilingual education (usually in Chinese and English) and follow a more Western-style of pedagogy.

There are, however, certain restrictions – from Grades 1 to 9, some subjects (such as history, geography and mathematics) must follow the Chinese national curriculum, and be delivered in Chinese by Chinese nationals. Students must also sit the Zhongkao at the end of Grade 9. However, the way learning can be delivered can be quite different from Chinese public schools, and the chance to develop English language skills, the ethos of the school, extra-curricular activities, uniform, house system, and other aspects of school life can be significantly influenced by Western approaches, even during the compulsory years. ICPSs, therefore, can offer more diverse and flexible curricula in comparison to public schools.

After Grade 9, students are able to take on a full Western curriculum and are given the chance to sit well-recognised international examinations such as A-Levels or the International Baccalaureate. They can thus avoid the stresses of the Gaokao, while at the same time paving the way to international university degrees and careers.

These schools are often viewed as better quality than public schools, as they tend to have smaller class sizes so students are given more direct attention, and they are highly motivated to continuously improve in order to attract high-quality students and charge higher tuition fees. Private schools also enjoy some operational advantages enabling them to react quickly to market dynamics and improve course offerings. 

And these schools are fast gaining in popularity. According to 2018/19 academic year data from ISC Research, over 245,500 students (primarily Chinese nationals) are enrolled in the 563 ICPSs already established in China. ISC Research projections suggest that by 2028 this number will have increased to well over 800,000 Chinese children.

Because of this blend of Chinese and Western curricula, there’s ample opportunity for international education institutions to partner with ICPSs – and indeed some of the most successful ICPSs have partnered with foreign independent schools, British schools in particular. Not only do these partnerships bring essential Western skills and pedagogy to the ICPSs, but they also bring with them their academic heritage, reputation and brand prestige, which appeals greatly to aspirational Chinese families who want the best for their children.

There are now 31 independent school brands which have established agreements with Chinese schools and investors in order to deliver teaching expertise and an international style of education. Several of these schools opened their doors for the first time in September 2018, including Adcote School and Lucton School in Shanghai; Nanwai King’s College in Wuxi; RDFZ King’s College in Hangzhou; Rong Qiao Sedbergh School in Fuzhou; Huili Schools in Shanghai and Hangzhou which have service agreements with Wellington College; and Wycombe Abbey International in Hangzhou.

It’s also worth noting a growing trend (at least before the coronavirus pandemic) of families sending students overseas for high school. According to a recent report by Sina Education and the Chinese study abroad agency Jinjilie Study, 23% of China’s international students studied at the upper-secondary level in 2017. And according to a study by the Institute of International Education in 2016, the number of Chinese international high school students in the US had risen 48% since 2013, with Chinese students making up 42% of all international students in US high schools.

Cultivating partnerships with ICPSs could therefore potentially also help facilitate high-school exchange programs, encouraging Chinese families and students to begin their study abroad experience even before university, thus easing the transition into the international tertiary environment.

Preparing for the future

In this particularly challenging environment, educational institutions have to think outside the box in terms of ways to bolster future Chinese student recruitment. While many universities have developed partnerships with Chinese universities, cultivating partnerships with ICPSs in particular can be a good way to build relationships with potential students and their families, promote your reputation within China and gain the benefit of a mutual cultural exchange.

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