The new cultural revolution

An independent school in Communist Shanghai? Unlikely as it sounds, Dulwich College is laying the foundations of its first Chinese academy - and planning more besides. Lucy Hodges reports
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The Independent Online

Rising from a former swamp on the edge of Shanghai is the first Chinese outpost of a British independent school, Dulwich College. The classrooms are going up at breakneck speed, as buildings do in the fastest-growing city in the world, in readiness for its opening in 2004.

So the school that educated PG Wodehouse and Raymond Chandler could, before not too long, be nurturing the next generation of Chinese comic and thriller writers.

Complete with gymnasium, dormitories, a bell tower and a theatre for Shakespeare plays, it is the start of Dulwich's expansion into China - the first independent school in Britain to tap into the biggest and most lucrative market in the world. More international Dulwich Colleges are expected to follow in China's capital Beijing and in Suzhou, a city famous for its gardens and silk.

"This is the template," says Colin Niven, the Shanghai school's headmaster, who taught Tony Blair French and German at Fettes College in Edinburgh. "The idea is that it should match as closely as possible Dulwich College in south London. By next year we shall have five Dulwich people on the staff, and other teachers from America and Australia."

It will be an international school taking pupils of different nationalities, and will teach the British national curriculum. Sixth-formers will take the International Baccalaureate rather than A-levels.

Research conducted by the college suggests that there is huge demand for British education in China, even for a school charging as much as £12,000 a year. The aim is to recruit up to 750 pupils within the next four to five years. All this has been done with the blessing of the local authority in the Pudong district of Shanghai. "The man in charge has fallen in love with Dulwich," Niven says.

Why is Dulwich expanding so far afield? According to Niven, the school is not trying simply to make money. Its main motivation is idealistic. "Any money we make will be ploughed into scholarships for deprived children in London," he says. "We want to spread the Dulwich ideals of respect, tolerance and enthusiasm around the world."

The school has won some important supporters. Tony Blair inaugurated it on an official visit to Shanghai last summer, and had pictures taken of him standing next to Niven. "He could see that what we were doing was good and would benefit the UK," Niven says. "When I told him who was behind it, he could not but be impressed."

That is a reference to members of Dulwich's governing body. Robin Butler, the former Whitehall mandarin, is the chair of governors, and Eddie George, the former governor of the Bank of England, is a member of the body. Both have been instrumental in supporting Dulwich's push into China.

Under the law, Chinese children are not allowed to attend foreign-run schools before the age of 16 (the end of the age of compulsory education), but after that they can. So Dulwich will not be able to tap directly into the Chinese market up to that age, but it will be able to recruit sixth-formers. "We are looking at the top level, the equivalent of the British sixth-form, for a joint-venture partnership with a top-level Chinese high school," says Graham Able, Dulwich's head in London. "This is very exciting."

Dulwich is hoping to establish a partnership with a top Chinese school and attract Chinese sixth-formers to do the IB, just as British universities are forming links with Chinese universities and attracting Chinese undergraduates (see Let One Hundred Alliances Bloom, page 8). When the senior school opens in August 2004 it will have close links with Ping He, a famous private Chinese secondary school nearby.

It is possible that one day, in the not too distant future, the Chinese government will relax the law and allow younger children to be educated in the company of their foreign contemporaries. Dulwich certainly hopes so. "My private hope is that the rules will relax," says Niven. "Things are beginning to move. China wants to maintain standards, yet at the same time become much closer to the West."

The Shanghai campus already has a kindergarten for 60 international children. It operates alongside a Chinese kindergarten called Golden Key, which shares the same building and facilities as well as the same activity time, physical education, art, lunch, music and break periods. The company that part-owns Dulwich College Shanghai and Golden Key is Global Education International, a Chinese company.

Another international Dulwich College opened on the Thai island of Phuket seven years ago. It is a successful school with an Olympic-size swimming pool and a mountain-bike track. Dulwich hopes the Shanghai experiment will mirror its success.

An added attraction will be the close links that the Shanghai college plans with Everton football club. Everton wants to boost its image in China and plans to hold tournaments and coaching on the Dulwich College site in Shanghai. Chinese children will be invited to take part in these events, gaining favourable publicity both for the school and the football club.

MUSIC, DRAMA AND SPORT: THE TEMPLATE FOR CHINA

Dulwich College in south London was founded by the Elizabethan actor-manager Edward Alleyn. It resembles a 19th-century stately home, with its spectacular frontage and grounds.

Its facilities are exceptional, particularly its four libraries and huge dining hall. It also has an enormous gym, used for international basketball matches and daily for martial arts, weightlifting and fencing. The Dulwich gym going up in Shanghai looks to be built on similar lines.

At the same time, the college is very strong in music and drama. "It is difficult to drag Dulwich boys off the stage," says the Good Schools Guide. Will one be able to say the same of Dulwich College Shanghai in a few years' time?

The London school has a strong work ethic and is sound academically, considering that it takes a wider ability range than Westminster or St Paul's. Its boys come from a wide ethnic mix, including Hong Kong Chinese and other Asians. Before long, we are likely to see that model spread around the most populous country on earth.

l.hodges@independent.co.uk

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