With intensifying internationalization of education at the K-12 level, schools that are identified as ‘international’ have proliferated, especially in Asia. Compared with the traditional kind of international schools for the globally mobile expatriates, newly emerged international schools are characterized by a more localized student body, more pragmatic-oriented schooling purposes, and more commercialized and corporatized forms of operation. These profound, qualitative transformations have made international schools more complex than previously understood, and have opened up significant terrains for new research agendas.
Situated in this context, this study focuses on the recent surge of international schools in China. As these schools become more visibly positioned in China’s education system, the conditions and processes of their development deserve a closer inspection. In this paper, I will begin with an analysis of the changing definitions of international schools in the Chinese context and present a contemporary profile of China’s international schools. Then, by analyzing their development against the changing patterns in the global international schooling landscape, I will highlight the market interest as a central feature of international schools in China today, with a consideration of what becomes questionable during this process.
By reviewing both international and Chinese literature on international schooling, analyzing industry and media reports surrounding international schools in China, and by adding context with my own experience as a former practitioner in an international school, I will discuss various contradictions facing China’s international schooling vis-à-vis the market economy, the solidifying social classes, and different policy contexts between nations at the providing and receiving ends of international education.
I will argue that, first, the Anglo-American-led monopoly of global quality standards in international education programs has forced international schools in China to become franchised in an established chain of exogenously-originated accreditation, assessment, and university admission systems. This scenario has induced utilitarian consumer behavior in education, thus limiting opportunities for innovation and negotiation for knowledge construction at national and community levels.
Second, international schools in China have acted as sifting machines that select students with not only the economic capital but also the economically valued cultural and intellectual capital. These privileged forms of capital have generated imbalances of power among schools, educators, students and their families through the production and normalization of specific cultural scripts or imaginaries in education.
Third, the strong market potential of international schools in China is about to expand the arena where culturally dominant countries in the world promote and transmit established brands of knowledge as a means to maintain competitiveness at both political and economic points of vantage. This vantage will, in turn, sustain the continuous morphing of the global international school market while deepening the asymmetry between export and import of educational products and human resources.
I will conclude with a call for more critically engaged research and policy initiatives that serve to properly guide and support international schools in China and other countries facing this new wave of international schooling movement.
Wenxi Wu is a doctoral student at the Department of Educational Administration and Policy at The Chinese University of Hong Kong.
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