A new “patriotic” education law is set to put a squeeze on British schools in China as Beijing steps up its efforts to tighten control of what is taught in its classrooms.

Less than five years ago, the Chinese and British media were full of reports about the “boom years” of British education in China. Elite British schools had seized the commercial opportunity of opening campuses to cater to wealthy Chinese families and the children of expats, and were opening new branches at a rapid clip.

But after the Covid pandemic severely battered China’s appeal to foreign teachers, and the country’s government began a renewed push, even for private schools, to focus on patriotism and national security in the curriculum, internationally recognised brands are starting to face significant challenges.

“The rapid growth in both the number of British-partnered schools and school brands is now over,” concluded a report from Venture Education, a consultancy, earlier this year.

In the past two years, several international private schools have closed, including Dulwich College International’s preschool in Shenzhen

Julian Fisher, Venture Education’s co-founder, cautioned that reports of British brands’ terminal decline in China might be overblown. But as schools adapt to recent rules governing what children can be taught, and where, “the dust is settling on the regulations and making it clear where the red lines really are”.

Dulwich College in London: its sister preschool in Shenzhen has closed.
Dulwich College in London: its sister preschool in Shenzhen has closed. Photograph: Henry Nicholls/Reuters

On 1 January, China’s new patriotic education law will come into effect, further tightening the screws on classrooms in which part of the appeal is supposed to be western-style teaching. The law requires that “all levels and types of school shall have patriotic education permeate the entire course of school education, doing a good job of ideology and political theory courses, and having patriotic education integrated into all subjects”.

China has about 180,000 private education institutions, with more than 55.6 million enrolled students, according to the British Council. At the school and university level, 13% of students go to private institutions. In practice, some schools have already been incorporating the requirement for patriotic education into their curriculums.

One teacher at a private international school in Beijing, which is linked to a prestigious British institution, said that almost the whole history department left after the school started teaching a Chinese curriculum rather than an international one two years ago.

In the past two years, international collaboration in China has become more difficult in a range of sectors. This year, Beijing passed an anti-espionage law that prohibits the transfer of information relating to national security out of the country, spooking foreign businesses, which worried about the vague wording of the law.

A dedicated private education law was passed in 2021 to regulate a previously freewheeling industry, and international schools – which are divided into those that accept foreign nationals and those who admit Chinese students – will now be subject to more pressure because of wider educational reforms such as the patriotic education law.

On GlassDoor, a job review platform, one former head of department at Harrow Beijing wrote: “It has changed since I worked there and is now heavily state regulated, not an international school in practice any more.”

Harrow Beijing did not respond to a request for comment. The school was previously known as Harrow International Beijing, but on 1 September 2021, a new private education law came into effect, banning private schools that accepted Chinese nationals from including the name of overseas educational institutions in their name, or words such as “international” or “world”.

So Harrow International School became known as LiDe, although it still refers to Harrow on marketing materials. Several other schools went through similar transformations, denting their appeal to wealthy Chinese parents. Nanwai King’s College School Wuxi in Jiangsu, for example, became Wuxi Dipont School of Arts and Science. It is run by a Chinese education provider, but still advertises its links to King’s College School Wimbledon.

The private education law also stated that board members at private schools must be Chinese nationals, and banned the use of foreign teaching materials at the compulsory education level.

“At the 6-15 compulsory education level, China wants complete control over what and how its young people are being taught,” said Fisher.

Schools are instead having to focus on the British-style pastoral and extracurricular opportunities that they can offer wealthy Chinese children, rather than the possibility of having a western-style education.

That may be a turn-off for teachers as well as students. Recruiting foreign teachers to live in China has become increasingly difficult, especially since the zero-Covid era demonstrated how quickly living conditions in Chinese cities could sour. That has left the remaining teachers overstretched. “Morale is relatively low,” said the teacher in Beijing. “Everyone is exhausted.”

This article was amended on 31 December 2023. An earlier version referred to “Dulwich’s pre-school in Shenzhen”, while a caption showing Dulwich College in London said it “has closed its pre-school”. To clarify: the pre-school is one of a group of schools run by Dulwich College International, which works in close partnership with Dulwich College in London but is owned by a separate company.