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A Guide to Education & International Schools in China

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  • David Thyne

    At the first Shanghai Get-Together I met several American expats. I am very grateful that they shared their experience with me.

Rigorous and fiercely competitive, the Chinese education system has worked hard to develop an international reputation for excellence, particularly in math.

Schooling in China consists of three years of kindergarten, six years of primary school, three years of junior middle school (also known as secondary school), and senior middle school (high school). After completing these years of schooling, students then have the opportunity to continue to higher education.

A limited amount of university spots puts a lot of pressure on students to ace the Gaokao, the nine-hour national higher education entrance exam, which only 40% of students pass the first time. This pressure combined with the language barrier often leads to expats choosing private rather than public schools where the teaching methods and curriculum may be more similar to what they have back home.

Getting into the best international schools in Beijing or Shanghai can be equally competitive, requiring transcripts, health records, and even recommendations on top of hefty tuition fees.  However, don’t start worrying too early –– you have options. Our extensive guide on China’s education system provides you with a better notion of what you can choose from.

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The Education System in China

China is one of the most progressive countries in terms of economic and business development, with an education system that offers children many opportunities to thrive in the future. The Chinese school system is often perceived as a breeding ground for highly educated future professionals.

However, while schools in major metropolises seem to offer great quality education, schools in rural areas aren’t as developed. They are often terribly understaffed, and the student’s opportunities and the educational environment are radically different from that in the big cities.

Another good insight into what the schools are like in China is the infamous National Exam. The pressure is so high, many students burn out, and stories of depression and suicide are not unheard of. Therefore, you should make sure that the Chinese school system is the right choice for your child.

Facts About Education in China

The Chinese education system is divided into three years of kindergarten, five or six years of primary school, and three to six years of middle school, often followed by several years of higher education. Primary school education as well as the first three years of middle school are mandatory and are mostly funded by the government. However, schools still may charge minimal fees (about 300 CNY) for each semester and add charges for food or extra-curricular activities as well.

Chinese School System Ages

Pre-Primary Education 2 to 6-7 Primary Education* 6-7 to 12 Junior Middle School* 12 to 15 Senior Middle School 15 to 18

*Mandatory education

School Hours

Children attend school five days a week. The school hours depend on the grade and the area, but, usually, kids start their days at 7:30 or 8:00 and finish at about 17:00. The school year in China typically starts in September and ends in late June or July.

Grading System in China

High schools, colleges, and universities in China usually have their own grading system that follows either five (A, B, C, D, and F) or four (A, B, C, and F) scale standard classifications:

A 100 – 85% Excellent B 84 – 75% Good C 74 – 61% Average D 60% Pass F 59%> Fail

The main difference between public and private education in China is that private schools tend to use bilingual teaching. Still, whether you decide to send your child to a state school or an international school, you should get ready for a very competitive admission process, an ambitious education system in general, and tuition fees that might seriously impact your cost of living.

Daycare and Kindergarten

Childcare in China is considered an essential part of a child’s overall education. Thus, pre-primary education (nurseries, kindergartens, and pre-schools)already offer various educational and training classes which are designed to give the little ones a head start and prepare them for a successful academic future. For some children, the pressure is just a little too much though.

Is Kindergarten or Daycare Mandatory in China?

As pre-primary education is not mandatory, every nursery, kindergarten, and pre-school will require you to pay tuition fees. In some cases, if the center has a very good reputation, the cost for the school can be rather high, in other cases, if the center is run by your own employer, for instance, it can be on the lower end. The difference can be quite significant, and you should keep an eye on your overall cost of living in China before sending your toddler to the best pre-school in town. Moreover, some childcare facilities might charge an additional fee for foreigners.

The Chinese are ready to invest a lot of money in their child’s education, which is why spots in popular pre-schools fill up quickly. Thus, even if you do have the money to afford a kindergarten with a very good reputation, you should make sure to enroll your child as early as possible.

What is Kindergarten, Preschool, or Daycare like in China?

The educational approach in Chinese kindergartens might be very different as well. Teachers are a lot more strict, and discipline is highly valued (more so than creative expression). Parents from Western countries may be shocked by this or even perceive these methods as cruel. Also note, that kindergarten is the time when ideological education is introduced to the curricula.

It makes sense to communicate with the school beforehand, learn all about their teaching methods and let them know what is acceptable to you and what is not. If you are worried that your child might not adjust well to the new situation, finding a kindergarten that does not follow a typical Chinese teaching style might be the best option.

Nannies (Ayis)

Many families choose to hire an ayi (literally “auntie”) to take care of their children. An ayi can also help with the household chores on a part-time basis or as live-in help.

If you’re thinking about hiring an ayi, make sure to talk to their last employer and ask detailed questions. You should also ask to see their ID and maybe run a background check on them.

Pre-Primary Education

Pre-primary education is available for children from the age of two onwards. It serves two functions: early education and childcare. The various institutions offering pre-primary education aim to foster children’s intellectual, physical, artistic, and moral development.

At what age do kids start kindergarten?

Nursery 2-3 years old Lower (junior) Kindergarten 3-4 years old Upper (senior) Kindergarten 4-5 years old Pre-School 5-6 years old

In the big expat centers, you will have no problem finding an international or bilingual kindergarten for your child. Some of them will gladly admit children who are under two years old. They may also be more relaxed and liberal than other kindergartens.

In China, it is common for two-year-old children to already be potty-trained. If your toddler is still wearing diapers, you should talk to their pre-school teacher about it, to make sure they are aware of it.

Talk to other international parents with young children in China

Talk to other international parents with young children in China

Primary and Secondary Schools

When it comes to best primary and secondary schools in China, the global community tends to attribute those titles to the international schools of the country. That is mostly because the curriculum in Chinese schools differs from the typical Western standards. Strict rules, the emphasis of discipline, endless homework and tests, and constant pressure from peers and teachers – that seems to be the daily life of a Chinese student.

Primary (Elementary) Schools in China

At the age of seven or six, children begin primary school education. All in all, 60% of the allocated time of instruction is dedicated to Chinese and math, also called “The Big Two”. Additionally, children are instructed in music, art, morals and society, and nature, and also take practical work classes.

Some schools also start to teach foreign languages towards the end of primary school and add extra-curricular activities to the mix. In fact, the competitiveness of the educational system in China starts very early on so parents often sign their kids up to a variety of extra-curricular activities in order for them to have better prospects in the future.

Usually, the school year starts in September and last about 9 months. Summer vacation is in July and August while the winter holiday is around January or February. The school days usually last a whole day (from around 8:00 until 17:00) with 45-minutes-long classes, with a little more flexible schedules in more rural areas. In China’s metropolises, where lunch breaks are shorter, kids might finish school around 15:00 as well.

Primary education lasts five years in most of the country, except for the major cities like Beijing or Shanghai, where a six-year-long primary school system is more common. There, children start school at the age of six, while in the rest of the country they don’t attend schools until they’re seven.

After completing primary education, the students have to take mandatory exams that test their knowledge of Chinese and math.

Middle School in China

Between the ages of 12 and 18, children attend middle school in China. Public schools are often divided into junior middle schools (secondary school equivalent) and senior middle schools (high school equivalent), each of them three-years-long.

After completing junior middle school students can choose whether they want to attend a regular senior middle school, a vocational school, or a professional school. And while the school costs for junior middle school are usually minimal, the fees for later education increases significantly.

For many students, being able to afford higher education is not the only challenge they’re facing. Wherever they choose to continue their education, students have to take Zhongkao–– senior high school entrance examination. Then, according to their score, they are able to choose the next educational institution they wish to apply to. Usually, there’s not much competition at this stage, unless a student decides to apply for more prestigious schools of the country.

The schedules in the above-mentioned schools are similar to primary schools (8:00 to 17:00), however, the days are usually longer.

Gaokao: The Toughest High School Graduation Exam

The main goal of most senior middle schools or high schools is to prepare their students for higher education. In fact, the quality of a high school is often measured by the number of students they send off to college. This has a lot to do with the limited number of spots at China’s universities and the high number of applicants.

Thus, it is not surprising that secondary school students are under a lot of pressure. Aside from their regular workload, they also have to prepare for the Gaokao, the National Higher Education Entrance Examination, which is the basis for recruiting students for institutions of higher education.

This nine-hour exam taken in three days is very challenging and only 40% of students pass it the first time. The exam tests the students’ skills and knowledge in Chinese, math, a foreign language, and a few other optional subjects. According to their results, they will then be admitted to top universities, regular universities, or institutions which operate on a provincial level.

International Schools

China has a wide range of best international schools with an excellent reputation, mostly in urban centers such as Shanghai, Beijing, and other popular expat destinations in China. Expats can choose from different curricula such as British or American schooling system, or, in rare cases, German, French, or other national school programs. On top of that, many international schools in China offer the International Baccalaureate (IB). This is a good choice for expats who move their children around a lot or who value an international atmosphere.

If you move to a smaller town, not all of these options might be available to you. But no matter which type of curriculum you decide on, you need to keep the financial aspects in mind. After all, international schools in China are rather expensive, with tuition easily reaching up to 18,000 CNY per month or more. Some expats are able to negotiate their children’s schooling provisions as part of their expat packages, but not everyone is so lucky.

Prepare for Waiting Lists

Even though the tuition fees for international schools in China is high and makes up a big part of your cost of living, both international and Chinese students are flocking to these schools.

And even though the number of international schools in mainland China is on the rise, the demand is so high that the spots fill up quickly and many schools have their own set of requirements as well as long waiting lists. Hence, try to apply for a spot as early as possible and provide your child’s transcripts, health records, and, if necessary, recommendations. Keep in mind that an entrance exam and a personal interview might be part of the admission process.

Top International Schools in China’s Biggest Cities






Higher Education

Students in China can choose between a great variety of the best universities in the country that offer various degree programs such as bachelor’s, master’s and doctoral degrees, as well as non-degree programs. Foreign students are welcome to enter all institutions of higher education in China.

Since the mid-1980s, higher education in China is no longer funded by the state, which is why the competition for scholarships is high. Thus, international students have to prove themselves in this competitive environment, especially because more and more foreigners are enrolling at Chinese universities.

Students spend two or three years on an undergraduate level program if they attend a junior college (also known as short-cycle college). Other regular universities, however, usually offer three-year and four-year programs on the undergraduate level. Many also offer graduate programs leading to masters or doctoral degrees.

Aside from the usual undergraduate and graduate programs, scientific research is also an essential part of Chinese higher education. Various key laboratories, open research labs, and engineer research centers have been established by Chinese universities, and function as a driving force behind innovative new science and technology.

How to Get into a Chinese University

Higher education admission requirements can, of course, vary depending on the university you plan on applying to. Some universities only allow attendance if the visiting students pass a standardized Chinese language proficiency exam HSK (Hanyu shuiping kaoshi) or their own equivalent of it.

Moreover, every program might have its own requirements. Some of the documents you might need to submit include a completed application form, certified copies of your diploma in English or Chinese, certified copies of your official transcripts, and a photocopy of your valid passport. Often an entrance examination and an interview will be conducted as well. Please inquire with the university of your choice regarding the exact admission requirements, application deadlines, and visa requirements.

How much does it cost to study in China for an international student? (CNY) University Undergraduate**(Bachelors)** Postgraduate**(Masters)** Peking University 26,000 – 30,000 29,000 – 95,000 Fudan University 23,000 – 75,000 8,000 – 134,900 Zhejiang University 20,000 – 48,000 25,000 – 99,000 Tsinghua University 24,000 – 40,000 30,000 – 238,000 University of Science and Technology in China 23,300 31,600 – 37,600

Most universities will charge you an admission fee that might cost you from 600 to 1,400 CNY, depending on the university of your choosing. Submitting your application to more prestigious higher education schools usually means you will have to spend more. University rankings might also help you decide which higher education institution is right for you. The most prestigious universities belong to C9 League that is an equivalent to Ivy League in the US. Best universities from this prestigious league that offer many programs for international students are:

  • Peking University– offers undergrad programs in science, languages and linguistics, business and management, art and design, and many more.
  • Fudan University– a very international school with many programs taught in English. Excels in both humanities (philosophy, history, and literature) and science (engineering, science, and medical science).
  • Zhejiang University– another C9 member with faculties in arts and humanities, social sciences, engineering, medicine, IT, science, and agriculture and environment.
  • Tsinghua University– offers various programs in science, engineering, business, humanities, law, and medicine.
  • University of Science and Technology of China– best known for its programs in sciences (physical, computer, life, and engineering science, mathematics, and chemistry)

Note that while these universities are considered prestigious in general, other, less popular graduate schools might have excellent programs for the field of your choice. If you know what exactly you want to study, make sure to research your specific options.

If you are interested to find out more about other universities’ tuition and application fees, requirements and admission procedures, as well as course comparisons, the Chinese government provides a coherent list of country’s universities with all the necessary information.

Ask other international parents already living in China

Join one of our many local parent groups and get advice on which schools to choose.

Language Schools

You might have heard that Chinese is one of the most common languages in the world and speaking it is a valuable asset, especially in the business world. However, this statement is somewhat misleading, as the “Chinese language” is actually comprised of almost 300 dialects.

These dialects are so distinct from one another, calling them dialects is a bit of an understatement. The differences between them are more comparable to differences between Spanish and Italian than, for example, British and American English. Much of the pronunciation, grammar, and sentence structure is different from one dialect to another and it is common that locals from different parts of the country might have a hard time understanding each other. That is why people sometimes refer to them as “Chinese languages”.

The Chinese dialects belong to the Sino-Tibetan language family. Modern Standard Mandarin is considered the official language of mainland China. However, it shouldn’t be confused with the Mandarin dialect group which includes a range of different dialects spoken in the Northern part of the country.

Mandarin: The Official Language of the Mainland

Modern Standard Mandarin is the official language of mainland China, which is used in media, education, and formal communication. It is also known as Standard Chinese, Guoyu, Huayu, Hanyu, or Putonghua. It is based on the Chinese dialect spoken in Beijing and the vocabulary of Mandarin dialects. Moreover, it is considered one of the official languages of the United Nations.

A little over 50% of the Chinese population speaks one of the Mandarin dialects as their mother tongue and can understand the Modern Standard Mandarin. many have learned it as their second language. Outside of the Chinese mainland, Mandarin is also spoken in Taiwan and Singapore. This is one of the reasons why most foreigners decide to learn Standard Chinese as opposed to other dialects.

Cantonese: The Language of China’s South

If Mandarin is the most commonly known Chinese language, then Cantonese comes second, with around 60 million speakers in the country. Cantonese is the dialect of Yue and is mostly spoken in China’s Guangdong Province, as well as Hong Kong and Macau. Moreover, Cantonese is common in a lot of Chinese communities in Southeast Asia and Western countries. In fact, it is a language you will hear in many Chinatowns around the world.

Other Dialects and Official Languages

Although Mandarin (Putonghua) and Cantonese (Yue) are the most common Chinese dialects, there are a huge variety of other dialects and languages spoken throughout the country. Other dialect groups include including Gan, Hakka, Fujianese (Min), Shanghainese (Wu), and Xiang.

While Modern Standard Mandarin is the only official language in most parts of China, there are some exceptions. In Guangdong, for instance, Cantonese is used as an official language. In Mongolia, the official language is Mongolian, whereas Tibetan is accepted as an official language in Tibet. The autonomous region Xinjiang even recognizes two official languages: Uighur and Kyrgyz.

Written Chinese

The many different languages and dialects spoken throughout China can make communication rather difficult, even for the locals. The only saving grace is the fact that they all share the same written language. Chinese has about 56,000 characters in total, although most of them are rarely used. You need to know about 3,000 characters to be able to read a newspaper, and college graduates generally know about 5,000 to 6,000 characters.

Chinese characters, also known as “Han characters” are among the oldest continuously used writing systems in the world, dating back to the Shang Dynasty (1600 BC to 1046 BC). Unlike the Latin alphabet, Chinese writing is largely logo-syllabic: each character represents one syllable and is made up of two parts. One part indicates the meaning, the other pronunciation.

However, Taiwan and Hong Kong again present an exception. While mainland China introduced simplified characters in 1959 to increase literacy, both Hong Kong and Taiwan still stick to the “traditional” characters.


Those who cannot write or read Chinese often use Pinyin, a method of transcribing the Chinese language into the Latin alphabet. It is an officially recognized method which was introduced by the Chinese government. The system includes so-called tone markers to hint at the correct pronunciation. However, on Chinese signs and in textbooks, Pinyin is not commonly used, which is part of the reason why only few can read it.

Learning Chinese as a foreigner

If you plan to live, work, or study in China, learning at least a few words of one of the Chinese dialects is essential. As the vast majority of China’s population speaks Modern Standard Mandarin (Putonghua), it makes sense to focus on this dialect. It will increase your chances of understanding the locals (and being understood) in most parts of the country.

If you wish to study one of the Chinese languages, you can do so by attending one of the many Chinese language courses at a local university. The language school fees for a year-long course is around 10,000 CNY depending on the university you choose. Some of them offer shorter, more intensive courses as well.

Another option is attending a specialized Chinese language school. There you will be able to choose the intensity of your course and the number of weeks you’d like to attend the classes. The prices depend on the aforementioned criteria and can range from around 500 to 2,500 CHY or more per week.

If you choose to hire a private language teacher, make sure they actually speak Putonghua and don’t have a strong accent. Especially if you are living in China’s south where Mandarin is only the second language, you will meet many locals who know the dialect that is considered standard Chinese but don’t speak it very well. Private teachers can cost you from 150 to 450 CNY per lesson.

Try to decide early on if you want to learn spoken Chinese only, or if you also want to understand the written form. It should not take too long to pick up enough Chinese for basic communication. Learning the written language, however, is a lot more challenging.

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