Class struggle

Wellington College causes stir as it opens in Shanghai

Duke of Wellington w

The school was named after him

Is Rmb259,000 ($42,231) a year too much to spend on a child’s education? And is it right to build luxury schools in China when so many are still struggling to receive a basic education?

These were two of the questions creating a buzz online and in the print media after the opening of Wellington College’s Shanghai campus last month.

Situated on the banks of the Huangpu River in the city’s Pudong district, the British private school boasts state-of-the-art classrooms, a 25-metre indoor swimming pool and (naturally) a full-sized rugby pitch.

Promising to provide a “world class education”, the school’s promotional brochures are peppered with quotes from old boys such as the author Sebastian Faulks.

Wellington was inaugurated in 1859 by no less a figure than Queen Victoria, and named after the Duke of Wellington (the general who defeated Napoleon at Waterloo).

“One of the first things you will notice about Wellington College in Shanghai is that it looks just like its counterpart in England. This is a sign of intent. What you get in Wellington UK you will get here in Shanghai, whether you come as a senior or junior student,” David Cook, the Founding Master, writes in his introduction to the new college.

For the moment Chinese law restricts the school to taking foreign nationals or Chinese students with parents holding at least one foreign passport. However, in the long term the school likely hopes that its brand of elite British education will be opened to Chinese nationals too.

And that is what annoyed many of the more waspish commentators online.

“I thought the education system is meant to be equal in China,” wrote one netizen after reading about the new school.

Another, presumably older netizen, wrote: “I remember sharing a classroom with people from all backgrounds when I was at school.”

Others questioned why ­– in a city where many schools are overflowing with pupils and struggling for resources – such a large tract of of land was set aside for a school most most locals can’t attend.

The People’s Daily even warned that the school’s arrival in the city could “break the peace in Shanghai”. It added: “If we allow more elite schools like Wellington to appear and if they begin to accept local students, the government will face an imbalance of education resources and the problem of how to promote social justice and mobility.”

Adding to the furore are the stories about children at the other end of the spectrum, who are still fighting for access to much more basic education.

Last month, just as Wellington was opening its doors, three schools for the children of migrant workers in Beijing were bulldozed to make way for a new development. Situated in the humble village of Dongxiaokou just outside the North Fifth Ring Road, the small, privately-run schools provided an education for about 1,000 children aged up to 15. These children are usually prevented from getting places at government-funded schools because they don’t have the Beijing hukou residency permit.

The three community-run schools were registered with the local authorities, Century Weekly reported. But shortly before the new term was about to begin this month they were all told their campuses would be demolished, leaving most of the kids in educational limbo.

Many of the students may now be forced to return to their villages without their parents.

Sadly, educational standards at many of the rural schools leave at lot to be desired. And as a recent knife attack in Hubei province shows, they also lack the financial resources to implement other national directives in areas like classroom security. Four students died and five more were injured in the Hubei attack, which began as an argument over the school’s refusal to enrol the daughter of the alleged perpetrator (who later jumped to his death from a fifth-floor classroom window).

After a spate of fatal attacks in 2010 (see WiC61) the government passed laws to make it mandatory for schools to improve security.

But many budgets aren’t big enough to cover the additional expense and the police say they lack the manpower to provide the same service.

“Six or seven years ago, we called for a solution to fund campus security, but the public security departments, and schools are still passing the buck to each other. The price we have paid is already too big,” a researcher at the 21st Century Education Research Institute told

Of course, while plenty of Chinese claim to be upset by the divide in the education system, they still want the best for their own children. Thus many said they would be happy to pay the Rmb259,000 tuition fees for Wellington in Shanghai, if only their kids could get a place.

“So I can send my kid to the real Wellington in the UK but I can’t send him to the one in Shanghai? That’s crazy,” one parent moaned.

Others pointed out that getting an education in China is already an expensive undertaking. “Just getting into a normal school in a first-tier city costs thousand in ‘extra fees’ and the kids there aren’t learning great things,” complained another parent online.

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