Westminster School said it was seeking to exercise ‘soft power’ through its operations in China

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One of the UK’s leading independent schools, Westminster, is to launch six schools teaching China’s national curriculum, including political education under Communist party direction, in a break with the way most other foreign schools operate in the country.

The school, the alma mater of many leading politicians including Nick Clegg, the former Liberal Democrat leader, and Dominic Grieve, the former attorney-general, will announce the plans at a formal signing ceremony on Thursday with HKMETG, a Hong Kong educational group. The pair plan to open schools in six big Chinese cities by 2028, starting with Chengdu in 2020.

Westminster says the aim for the schools is to “reflect elements of the Westminster ethos of teaching and learning”.

But in a departure from the practice of most other English public schools operating in China, the schools will teach pupils aged six to 15 China’s national curriculum rather than an international syllabus. Wellington College teaches both Chinese and British curricula.

Steve Tsang, director of the China Institute at School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS) in London, criticised Westminster’s move as “unwise”.

“I think they have no idea what they’re dealing with,” Prof Tsang said. “If you set up a school in China, they will have a party secretary superintending the whole school and the party secretary will be responsible for political education.”

A number of other independent schools have set up operations in China as they seek to exploit the prestige of British education in the fast-growing market. Two other leading London schools — Harrow and Dulwich College — both have outposts in Shanghai and Beijing, while Dulwich also operates in Suzhou.

But previous entrants to the market have avoided the challenges of grappling with China’s view of history and the ideology of its leaders by offering schools aimed at international students and teaching only international syllabuses.

Westminster said on Wednesday it was seeking to exercise “soft power” through its operations in China and pointed out that, for 16 to 18-year-olds it would offer International GCSE examinations based on the English curriculum, as well as English A-levels.

“The reason for opening the schools is that we’re quite excited about being able to influence education of Chinese pupils in China,” a spokeswoman for the school said.

The spokeswoman accepted that the school could not avoid the core of China’s national curriculum. But she said the school planned to “augment” the core curriculum by offering a more developed pastoral structure for guiding children’s development, extracurricular activities and boarding places.

Thursday’s signing ceremony will be part of a “People to People” forum bringing together Chinese and British delegates. Nick Gibb, minister of state for school standards, will be present.

Westminster said that under the deal HKMETG will offer one-tenth of the places at the Chinese schools free to pupils from families unable to afford the fees. The operation will pay Westminster a fee for its consultancy services that it will use to fund bursaries for poorer pupils in the UK.

The school’s push into China is part of a wider effort by UK educational institutions to sate Chinese people’s thirst for high-quality education. Many UK universities have opened campuses in China.

In the past, most British schools in China have operated as “international schools”, which limits enrolment to holders of foreign passport or their children. Schools seeking to expand rapidly may now register as “private schools”, which allows the enrolment of a much larger pool of Chinese nationals but requires the use of China-approved curriculums.

Additional reporting by Lucy Hornby in Beijing

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