How one Scottish private school set up shop in China

More and more private schools are launching in China – but what are the challenges involved, asks Emma Seith
18th October 2019, 12:03am
What Are The Challenges Involved In Expanding A Uk School Into China?
Emma Seith


How one Scottish private school set up shop in China

Edinburgh's Merchiston Castle School (MIC) dates back to 1828 (although not the current building) and is set in 100 acres of land, which is home to one of the largest tree collections in Scotland and the ruins of 13th-century Colinton Castle.

However, almost 6,000 miles away in China, a new version of this Scottish institution has sprung up: the Merchiston International School (MIS) in Shenzhen. MIS, though, is just one year old, having opened in September last year, and the building - a former fashion school - is more shimmering high-rise than ancient turreted pile. There is a running track outside MIS, but Shenzhen is a relatively new city that has seen huge growth - going from a population of 30,000 in the 1970s to around 20 million today - and space is at a premium, so the school's tennis and basketball courts are housed on the roof.

Already, this tells you something about the difficulty of trying to recreate a traditional Scottish private school education on the other side of the world. But with an increasing number of Chinese families willing and able to afford to pay for education, UK private schools are seeing the potential for spin-offs to thrive overseas.

The charitable status of many such schools means they cannot stump up large quantities of cash but what they can do is sell their expert advice and, of course, their brand to the right investors. A common model, according to the Independent Schools Council (ISC) research team - which supplies data on the world's international schools - sees an investor or management company pay the school a fixed amount each year to use its name, brand or expertise. The British school is often paid a percentage of the school fees each year, on top of the franchise fee.

The ISC has said in the past that opening an overseas school is a good source of income for institutions that want to raise more cash to fund places for disadvantaged pupils. According to Merchiston Castle School - which points out that any money it raises has to be spent on charitable purposes - it plans to use its new income stream "to build on our means-tested financial assistance scheme and to expand our outstanding facilities".

The school refuses to say how much it will eventually make but does reveal that it has not made any money yet, and does not expect to until this time next year, as the MIS roll rises.

MIS opened with 160 pupils and started the current academic year with 305, some 155 of whom are boarders. The expectation is that the school will end the year with closer to 400 - which is roughly equivalent to the roll of its sister school, Merchiston Castle, with 440 pupils. However, while Merchiston Castle is a boys' school, MIS is co-educational and has capacity for 1,200 pupils. It is also compulsory for pupils to board at MIS when they reach Year 7 - around 11 or 12 years old.

When the school opened, it accepted children of all ages, barring those in the examination years, so it has pupils from the age of 4 up. The cohort sitting exams at the end of this year - international GCSEs and A levels - will be the first to do so.

An odd time to open?

To some, it might seem an odd time to open a school overseas when there is a sense that private schools are battening down the hatches because of Brexit and, in Scotland, the government's plans to scrap the rates relief independent schools benefit from as charities (something that it is estimated will cost the sector around £7 million a year).

But Merchiston points out that its expansion has been five years in the planning and argues that this kind of diversification of income should make it more secure.

Jonathan Anderson, who took over as headteacher of Merchiston Castle School last September, says: "It's fair to say the independent sector is experiencing headwinds. You've got the potential loss of charitable rates relief; there is an increase in employer pensions as well. Those are significant considerations because that's money the schools have to find. But when you have those uncertainties, being able to have things that are certainties and are reliable puts you in a stronger position.

"So, if there are some ups and downs ahead, we know that we will still be able to support the bursary pot that allows us to create access for boys from a variety of backgrounds."

And, of course, Merchiston is not alone in looking to establish a version of itself overseas. According to ISC research, at the end of the 2018-19 academic year, there were 92 international schools that were independent school spin-offs. The vast majority - 76 of 92 schools - were linked to British independent schools, with the first set up in Bangkok by Harrow some 20 years ago.

Today, China is the leading country for British independent school presence, followed by the United Arab Emirates. The independent school "brands" with the greatest presence overseas include Dulwich College, which has eight full international schools and two international high schools in Asia; Wellington College, which has six international schools in China and Thailand; and Malvern College, which has two international schools in China, one in Hong Kong and one in Egypt. Merchiston - as the school puts it - provides the "Scottish pioneers", although Fettes College, also in Edinburgh, is destined to become the second Scottish independent school to open a branch in China, when Fettes Guangzhou opens in September 2020.

For all of them, the journey will undoubtedly be a bumpy one given the distance involved - not just geographically, but culturally.

MIS, for example, lost about 200 pupils when it opened because renovations overran. As large-scale projects go, the delay was not too bad - just a few weeks - but such is the concern about air quality in China, where severe air pollution has been estimated to cause an average of 1.1 million premature deaths each year, that the fumes from a freshly painted building are not viewed as attractive.

Families have an expectation that a new building will have been aired for several months before it is occupied, says Andrew Hunter, who retired as headteacher of Merchiston Castle in July 2018 after 20 years at the helm, and who continues to support MIS as an education consultant.

Hunter says: "In China, if you renovate your home you don't live in it for two months because of the paint odours - they regard those as carcinogenic. And neither do you move into a house that's brand new for two months because of the wood glue, which they regard as carcinogenic. But we didn't know that at the time and, because of that, we lost some students."

David Rider, the school's director of development, who spent 10 months in China helping set up MIS, adds: "We see a new building and freshly painted rooms as a positive - they say that the Queen thinks the world smells of fresh paint - but if that was President Xi Jinping [of China], he would be the first one to run out the door."

Different expectations

The Chinese expectation of education can also be quite different, say Rider and Hunter. Chinese pupils and their families are used to 8am to 8pm days and learning by rote. Subjects such as music, art and PE are not necessarily compulsory aspects of the school curriculum, although these are often pursued outside of school hours.

Hunter, who spoke about the possibility of opening a sister school overseas when he interviewed successfully for the headteacher post at Merchiston back in the mid 1990s, says that one of the challenges for MIS in China has been "articulating the British liberal curriculum" and persuading parents that school should be about more than "maths, more maths and more maths".

In an interview with Tes earlier this year, the Chinese conceptual artist and political dissident Ai Weiwei said pupils in China were "brainwashed" and that the education they received was "censored and imbalanced".

But he also expressed concern that his 10-year-old son's education in Germany was "basically play-oriented or game-oriented", and he never got any homework. He contrasted this with Chinese children who, by the age of four, "can read newspapers" and "can reflect on so many things".

"They call it liberal; I call it lazy," he joked.

"Chinese youngsters don't just go to school," says Hunter. "When they finish school, they go to a different kind of school for a few more hours - in other words, [a] tutorial. So they are in school quite often from 8am until 8pm.

"For sure, one of the challenges for MIS has been trying to articulate to the audience that going to school and going to classes is but one part of going to school."

It has also been a challenge to articulate what it is to be a British boarding school, he says. It is reasonably common for Chinese pupils to live in a residency and attend school but pastoral care is minimal and there is not the emphasis on "growing the person" that there would be at Merchiston, he says.

Yong Zhao is a professor in the School of Education at the University of Kansas, who was educated in the Chinese system but is now one of its most vocal critics (see box, page 16).

He left China for the US in 1992 after teaching English there for six years. Chinese pupils work very long days, spending a lot of their time on very intensive academic work in large classes of between 50 and 60 pupils, he says. There is a lot of direct instruction and group recitation and memorising, and pupils spend a lot of time going through tests to prepare for exams.

He believes Chinese parents today are looking for a more relaxed, enjoyable learning experience for their children: "They want their children to do well but they don't want them tortured in order to get there."

Introducing more choice into the system will allow some pupils to "escape", says Zhao, provided the UK private schools setting up in China are not among those keen to adopt Chinese teaching methods owing to Shanghai's strong performance in the Programme for International Student Assessment (Pisa) survey (see box, right).

However, this new variety of school is available only to those who can pay, which, Zhao points out, increases inequality and takes out of the public school system the very parents and families who might have been able to most effectively push for change.

He also warns against simply importing a brand of education that has proven successful in another country - be it Scotland, England or elsewhere. The new schools need to take account of where they are based or they are in danger of "colonising the mind", he argues.

"Many of these international schools don't offer Chinese culture or courses," says Zhao. "They don't have a local identity and Chinese educators are questioning that now."

Although lessons are taught in English at MIS and the vast majority of teachers come from the UK, Chinese language and culture is compulsory up until Year 9, when pupils are aged 13 to 14, says headteacher Chris Lynn.

Sinology - the study of Chinese language, history, customs and politics - is also woven through the humanities programme at the school, says Lynn, a former pupil of another private school, the Edinburgh Academy, who was head of secondary at Nexus International School, Malaysia before joining MIS.

He adds: "One thing a number of international schools assume is that a liberal, Western approach is what everyone wants, but some Asian parents are worried that if they send their children to an international school, they will lose that deep-seated cultural learning about ancient texts and thinkers - things that Westerners don't necessarily know about. We are very conscious of that."

Chinese influence

The school certainly is far from devoid of Chinese influence. The key investor in the

£30 million project, and chair of the board of governors, is multimillionaire businessman Jianjun Lyu, whose son, Alex, spent four years at Merchiston Castle School in Edinburgh.

For most of his time at the school, Alex was a boarder but, for six months, Lyu relocated the family from Chengde, in the north of China, to Edinburgh so that he could experience life as a day pupil. This was, says Rider, when the relationship between school and future investor was "cemented".

Lyu describes Merchiston as a school that discovers the potential of its pupils and "awakens and ignites" their "confidence and courage". He recalls seeing Hunter welcoming "every child into school every day" and calling each of them by name. He talks about the "MCS family" and says he felt that Hunter and his wife Barbara - an art teacher - loved the pupils "from the bottom of their hearts".

"This is the most important part of the DNA of MCS - love for students and love for education are the core values that run through the MCS education process," he says.

According to Lyu, who has a younger son attending MIS, public education in China is improving and the overall education of the general population has also "greatly improved". But he adds: "Chinese public schools do not pay enough attention to the cultivation of holistic education for students, and ignore the cultivation of physical and mental health, and the artistic spirit."

However, like Lynn, he also sees the need to "appropriately integrate splendid Chinese culture" into the MIS curriculum, as well as importing the Merchiston brand.

Hunter also acknowledges this: "You cannot say to another culture that you know what is best," he says. "You have got to mix and match the best of MCS with the best of Chinese culture at MIS."

He also has high hopes for the benefits a family of international schools might bring to Merchiston pupils in Scotland so they can begin "to understand the world beyond Scotland and beyond the UK". The schools are very much at the beginning of building these connections, but 10 Merchiston Castle School pupils travelled to China for the official opening of MIS in October last year and three MIS pupils visited Edinburgh this month. In May, a further 15 MIS pupils will come to Scotland.

Hunter adds: "Shenzhen [has a population of] 23 million people and this city has just celebrated its 40th anniversary. Originally it was a small fishing village. I don't think we should do ourselves down but our young people are entering a fiercely competitive world. I worry about our British youngsters, hence Merchiston boys going to MIS and vice versa - let's open their eyes."

Rider adds that Merchiston pupils are not in competition with the students from George Watson's College or the Edinburgh Academy, or other Edinburgh private schools. "Our competition is global now," he says.

Emma Seith is a reporter for Tes Scotland. She tweets @Emma_Seith

This article originally appeared in the 18 OCTOBER 2019 issue under the headline "Full of eastern promise"


The year the first Scottish independent school, Merchiston Castle School in Edinburgh, opened an overseas school carrying its name



The year Harrow opened the first overseas British independent school spin-off, in Bangkok



English-medium international schools around the world



International schools or campuses linked to British independent schools



Schools and campuses in China with links to British independent schools



Typical class sizes in Chinese public schools



Maximum class size at Merchiston International School in Shenzhen



The roll of Merchiston International School when it opened in September 2018 (projected to rise to 400 by the end of this academic year)



The capacity of Merchiston International School



The cost of setting up Merchiston International School


the year the first Scottish independent school, Merchiston Castle School in Edinburgh, opened an overseas school carrying its name


the year Harrow opened the first overseas British independent school spin-off, in Bangkok


English-medium international schools around the world


international schools or campuses linked to British independent schools


schools and campuses in China with links to British independents schools


typical class sizes in Chinese public schools


maximum class size at Merchiston International School in Shenzhen


the roll of Merchiston International School when it opened in September 2018 (projected to rise to 400 by the end of this academic year)


the capacity of Merchiston International School


the cost of setting up Merchiston International School


You’ve reached your limit of free articles this month

Register for free to read more

You can read two more articles on Tes for free this month if you register using the button below.

Alternatively, you can subscribe for just £1 per month for the next three months and get:

  • Unlimited access to all Tes magazine content
  • Exclusive subscriber-only articles 
  • Email newsletters

Already registered? Log in

You’ve reached your limit of free articles this month

Subscribe to read more

You can subscribe for just £1 per month for the next three months and get:

  • Unlimited access to all Tes magazine content
  • Exclusive subscriber-only articles 
  • Email newsletters