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Asia closes ranks

The restrictions on who can attend international schools – and when – in a number of Asian countries are tightening, says Melanie Butler

A new Harrow International School is due to open in Japan in April next year. The school, which like the other Harrow-branded schools in Asia, is part of the AISL chain that operates under license from the historic British school, will be fully residential, as indeed the original Harrow school has always been. It hopes to welcome 960 students from across the region to its new home in the Japanese mountains.

It cannot, however, legally welcome local Japanese children until they reach the age of 15. Under Japanese law, children of citizens must attend ‘Article 1’ schools until they finish compulsory school education, with a very few exceptions, such as the children of families with dual citizenship. International schools are not covered by Article 1, as they operate under license from the local Prefecture and are classified as ‘miscellaneous schools’, a category that includes driving instruction centres.

From the age of 15, Japanese children can be enrolled in private high schools, including international ones. A growing number of Japanese parents are opting their children out of the Japanese system at an earlier age, though, and sending them to English medium schools, often unlicensed, according to an article on the Nikkei Asian website. However, this involves the parents getting ‘approval from public elementary and junior high schools to treat them as truants’, a process which can leave the children in legal limbo.

The spread of Asian international schools enrolling local children has continued apace since AISL opened its first overseas branch of Harrow in Bangkok in 1998, at the suggestion of the Thai royal family, which has long sent many of its princes to the British school.

Increasing numbers of children are enrolling in such schools in Vietnam, Cambodia and Malaysia.

Many of the new schools are branded affiliates of British schools: Dulwich International, another early entrant in the market, now has branches in Singapore, Korea and Myanmar; Marlborough College has opened in Malaysia, as has Repton in Dubai.

All is not plain sailing, because Japan is not the only Asian government that bans its citizens from sending their children to international schools. Since it became an independent state, Singapore has insisted that all children of citizens attend a local state primary school, although they may enrol in a private secondary school within the Singapore system, some of which also own branches for expatriate children. This means Singaporeans cannot attend a local international school until the age of 16.

“A growing number of Japanese parents are opting their children out of 
the Japanese system”

Korea’s laws are particularly strict on international schools, only allowing enrolment by children with at least one foreign parent, Korean children who have been educated for at least three years and children of a person of foreign birth who has become a naturalised Korean citizen. As in Japan, Korean parents often opt to send their children to unlicensed international schools operating under the guise of language schools. The government has been cracking down. In 2017, it deported a number of Canadian teachers who were working at a British Columbia syllabus school and in mid-June the owner of a ‘language school’ offering a US curriculum and accredited by a US body, was fined for running an unauthorised school.

In China, the Hong Kong region still allows local children to enrol in international schools, though following the recent introduction of the National Security Law there may be policy changes. Since February, children aged from six are expected to be taught the four offences under this law – subversion, secession, terrorism and collusion with foreign forces – while in April, curriculum changes were made in the core subjects of maths, liberal subject, and the Chinese and English languages.

On the Mainland, the government introduced a ‘high school only’ policy for local children in 2018. So, while children under the age of 15 may attend local private schools, many of which are branded affiliates of British public schools, they must be taught the Chinese national curriculum and take national exams in Chinese at age 16. Many British-affiliated chains reacted by launching bilingual schools, such as the AISLs Harrow Innovation and Leadership Academies launched in 2020.

This year, however, the Chinese government has gone further. From September, all private schools in the country will have to ‘adhere to the leadership of the Communist Party of China, adhere to the direction of socialist education, strengthen the education of socialist core values for the educated’, and must include Communist Party members on the board of governors.

Most onerous of all, private schools can ‘only be owned by Chinese nationals who live in the People’s Republic of China’ and who can be jailed ‘for violating the national education policy’.

Are the problems facing international schools in Asia about to get tougher?

Melanie Butler
Melanie Butler
Melanie started teaching EFL in Iran in 1975. She worked for the BBC World Service, Pearson/Longman and MET magazine before taking over at the Gazette in 1987 and also launching Study Travel magazine. Educated in ten schools in seven countries, she speaks fluent French and Spanish and rather rusty Italian.
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