After 10 years of headship in the UK, I arrived in Beijing in 2012 as headmaster of a leading British international school for foreign passport holders.
Subsequently, I moved on to become executive headmaster of YK Pao School, a pathfinding bilingual school in Shanghai that taps into the desire in China for international, whole-person education.
International schools: The benefits of reduced teacher contact time
Founded in 2007, Pao is one of the first of a new style of international schooling aiming at the China market, and deliberately catering for the evolving needs of the expanding China.
Seeking to produce bilingual, bicultural graduates ready to study overseas, these schools offer the Chinese National Curriculum alongside international qualifications, in Pao’s case IGCSE and the International Baccalaureate Diploma.
Pretty much all international schools founded in the past five years are of this bilingual model and are a magnet for both ex-pat families and especially for Chinese families returning from overseas, as well as locals seeking international education.
These clients demand excellence and are prepared to pay for it. Of course, it does not hurt that parents and pupils at these schools have an extraordinary work ethic and motivation.
Expectations of success
Yet this must be channelled, and successful schools capture this prevailing culture and instil a profound expectation of success in such a way that drives up standards.
New staff arriving from the UK witness an environment that is friendly, but which insistently expects and then plans for each child to thrive. "Culture," as Peter Drucker famously said, "eats strategy for breakfast."
Merely entering these schools is transformative for both teachers and students. Target grades become less significant when most students have an A* mindset.
On a more practical level, there is one major contributory factor to these cultural shifts. It takes its lead from the Chinese public schools: contact time.
Less time teaching
As a former head of an East London comprehensive, I was shocked at the low teacher contact time.
In the Chinese public sector, it is sometimes as low as 40 per cent. Chinese teachers are also specialists, even in primary, focusing on one subject delivered to one, or at most two, year groups.
In schools like YK Pao, contact time will not be that low – 60 per cent is more realistic – but the principle is preserved: teaching well requires necessary PPA time. Hence Chinese (and ex-pat) teachers have comparatively low teaching loads, which inevitably focuses their planning and enhances their delivery.
Furthermore, bilingual schools, often supported by the local education bureaus, provide particularly good quality professional development aligned to the Chinese National Curriculum.
They insist that individual departments have an in-built regime of observation, and designated time for joint planning is provided, again ensuring high quality. The low contact time allows a fast turnaround on marking and assessment, and hence more responsive teaching.
Lower contact time also allows feedback to be more personalised. It is common to see small groups of students meeting their teachers out of formal lesson time in breakout groups or individually to review material and ensure mastery.
This was a major insight for me.
Tackling teacher workload
Staff who had been overwhelmed by workload in Western contexts found their love of teaching rekindled in the environment of the international sector.
They have creative space to think and plan properly, and time for extracurricular extensions and to engage with the students is the norm.
Time in the classroom is appreciated and looked forward to, rather than being seen as the endless slog caused by inflated timetables in the UK.
Since the post-financial-collapse age of austerity, UK schools have seen class sizes rise, and so, too, has contact time, as efficiencies became essential. It is no wonder that there has been such a teaching exodus overseas in the past decade.
China provides a powerful example that less can often be more – a challenge for schools everywhere to consider.
An idea under threat
Yet, even in China, this arrangement is under threat.
As always, economics are shaping the educational agenda.
The proliferation of international schools opening in China is skewing the market. Competition for the best teachers, both ex-pat and especially Chinese, is driving salaries and hence STRs up, at a time when the market is holding fee levels down. As such, efficiencies similar to those inspired by the Coalition post-2010 are par for the course.
International bilingual schools cannot afford the low contact time they once had. But as the numbers move north, the truth of what educational excellence requires remains. The equation of cost versus quality seems impossible to balance.
But one controversial solution may be right in front of us. The past year of closures due to Covid revealed what can be taught online.
If technology and creative timetabling can be used to keep teacher contact time lower, then, as schools like Pao School in Shanghai have shown, the quality and experience of all staff and students will be considerably enhanced.
David Mansfield is a former headmaster of Dulwich College Beijing, and former executive head of YK Pao School. He is currently dean of Buckingham International School of Education