British-branded private schools in China will be forced to abandon their curricula and teach only lessons approved by Beijing as part of a broader push led by president Xi Jinping to ensure the ‘right’ thinking. 

International schools – some linked to institutions such as Harrow and Dulwich – must now teach the same lessons as China’s state-run public schools from kindergarten to grade nine.

Private schools must “uphold the leadership of the Communist Party of China,” according to the new regulations. 

The decision to steamroller curricula comes as China gives itself greater oversight on what children learn. 

The “government [is] saying, from the age of six through to 15…‘we want to be able to control what they are learning, their views on, particularly, politics, history and geography,’” said Julian Fisher, co-founder of Venture Education, a Beijing-based consultancy.

“I don’t think it should come as a surprise to anyone that the government wants to have control over young people,” said Mr Fisher. “It’s kind of more surprising it’s been so unregulated in the past.” 

The new rules take effect in September, and also limit foreign control and participation in the running of private schools, mandate that school board members are Chinese, and seek to regulate expensive tuition fees. 

These changes underscore President Xi’s emphasis on “ideological correctness,” said Willy Lam, a professor of Chinese politics at the Chinese University of Hong Kong, especially as Chinese students have surged into foreign-branded private schools.

Enrollment jumped 64 per cent to 245,500 pupils in the five years to 2019, according to ISC Research, an education data provider.

British schools have been busily expanding into countries including China, Sinagpore and Thailand, where those who can afford the fees are keen to give their children a British-style education, which is prized for teaching critical thinking. 

“The Communist Party has always been nervous about the infiltration of Western values…thereby weakening people’s faith in socialism, and in the Party,” Mr Lam said. “Patriotic education has been raised to the level of national security.”

Chinese state schools have always been tightly restricted.

Teaching about controversial events is banned, such as the 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre when the Chinese military killed thousands of peaceful student protestors.

Dulwhich College in Beijing

Credit: Xiaolu Chu/Getty Images

The newly built Harrow International School in Haikou was unveiled earlier this year

Credit: Xinhua/Guo Cheng

Ideological education begins early – first grade textbooks show colourful illustrations of children happily singing: “Without the Communist Party, there would be no new China.” 

Eighth grade geography books dive into the thorny issue of Taiwan – an island with its own democratic government, currency, foreign policy and military that China has long regarded as a runaway province. 

Students learn instead that the island is called “Taiwan province” and a “sacred territory of the motherland.”

Incorporating such lessons presents a challenge for British schools with partnerships in China seeking to maintain their hallmark – a high-calibre education.  

Some have before tried to “blend the curriculum – the British and the national Chinese – but now it looks like that’s not even a good idea,” said Arlo Kipfer, an attorney at US law firm Harris Bricken who has advised international schools in China.

Schools need “to have an honest review of their China programmes,” he said. Institutions ought to review all their agreements and ask, ‘does this accomplish our mission or charter?’ …if it’s not they probably need to try to get out of it.”

Dulwich said it “has and will continue to comply fully with all aspects of relevant laws and regulations in China,” said a spokesperson from Dulwich College International.

But pulling out of China is a tough call, where some estimates value the education sector at more than £400 billion by 2025.

Unwinding legal agreements could be tricky as existing regulations mean British schools are barred from direct ownership of the China schools. 

Harrow-branded institutions in China, for instance, are owned and operated by a company “wholly separate” from those of Harrow School in the UK, it said in a statement. 

The agreements require the schools in China “to reflect Harrow School’s educational purpose, practice, strategy and philosophy in a way that is tailored to their local contexts.” 

“There can be a perception that these are British schools,” said Mr Fisher. “The truth is, these are Chinese schools with a British brand.” 

Curriculum changes may also mean that parents are less inclined to send their children to these institutions, where fees can be prohibitively expensive. 

“If these foreign private schools teach exactly what Chinese public schools teach, then I will choose the latter for my son,” said Ruby Feng, 33.

Li Haoran, 38, thinks “students who receive a Chinese public school education will have greater opportunities at home.”

For now, experts say the changes don’t affect private schools approved by the government to accept foreign students, which often cater to the children of diplomats and company executives.

But “it wouldn’t surprise me” if more restrictions are introduced,” said Mr Kipfer. “The current leadership is less and less tolerant of foreign influences on its citizens inside China.” 

Additional reporting by Ila Banerji