An energetic hum fills the corridors at Dulwich International High School Suzhou (DHSZ). Students spill out of classrooms and stride purposefully on, a few stopping for a moment to catch up with friends before hurrying on to their next lesson. In some ways, the atmosphere is typical of an English school in the middle of a busy weekday. However, as a British international school in Suzhou, China, DHSZ is far from typical.
The Chinese government does not permit mainland Chinese students to attend international schools in China, but for the past two decades a rapidly growing number of sanctioned programmes have been allowed to cater specifically to the children of the country’s burgeoning middle class. “The parents of our students have chosen to opt out of the known Chinese system,” says Karen Moffat, Director of DHSZ. “They are seeking what they hope will be a better, less rigid and more creative educational experience for their children.”
DHSZ caters for day pupils and boarders, and offers an innovative education model designed to prepare students for entry to university overseas. Teachers, alongside students, are part of a “professional learning community” that seeks to establish an optimal environment for academic development and personal growth. “We have built on our experience as educators, shaping our approach to accommodate the learning styles and interests of our students,” says Moffat. “The result is a community where academic ability is nourished, critical thinking is valued, and creativity and inspiration are paramount.”
Breaking the language barrier
For Moffat, perhaps the greatest challenge is language. During the three- or four-year programmes, which cover IGCSEs and A levels to enable entry at universities in the UK, US, Europe and elsewhere, DHSZ pupils must master fluent English. In addition, they are required to adapt to a very different style of learning. “Critical thinking and creativity is not a high priority in local Chinese schools,” she says, “so we try to redress that imbalance.”
This includes the ability to flourish in a culturally diverse environment. As part of a network that includes eight schools, five of which are in China, DHSZ provides ample opportunity for its students to interact in China and abroad. “The close collaboration among our colleges stimulates innovation and encourages an international world-view,” says Moffat. “We believe this provides our students with a distinct advantage in the futures they will face.”
Raising the bar
Rigorous academic standards set the bar high for DHSZ pupils, most of whom achieve top grades and entry to leading international universities. Last year, 74 per cent of UK university offers to DHSZ students came from Russell Group institutions, while of the 147 offers from US universities, 93 were top-100 institutions. Students at DHSZ work hard – “being at this school is an intense experience,” says Moffat – but it is a far cry from the “test-taking factories” offered by some other programmes in China’s competitive international education market. At DHSZ, equal emphasis is placed on co-curricular activities, from the Duke of Edinburgh International Award to music, theatre and sports.
Healthy competition is fostered by a strong house system, which nurtures a sense of belonging in an atmosphere of encouragement and support. Drama is also a key part of the curriculum, which aims to improve students’ “communicative competence”.
“Students undergo a tremendous transformation during their time at our school,” says Moffat. “The difference in them from the day they arrived to the day they graduate is truly remarkable.”