Lockdowns lead to international exam and staff disruptions

Schools in China that follow international curricula, such as the International Baccalaureate (IB) and International A levels, had hoped for a return to normal as exams take place this month, but with several major cities in China going into lockdown, exams have once again been cancelled in some areas.

Universities around the world are having to revert to systems put in place for foreign student applicants in 2020 when large parts of the world were in lockdown and school-leaving exams suspended.

The situation in China has been further compounded by reports that foreign teachers at international schools are leaving the country due to harsh lockdown measures and prolonged school closures during the country’s latest coronavirus wave in some major Chinese cities, according to education business experts.

Experts say many are leaving for good in what amounts to a major shift after years of breakneck expansion of such schools that are geared towards preparing students for higher education overseas.

In 2020 universities adapted their admissions processes as the IB, International A levels and other school leaving examinations were cancelled. Disruption continued in 2021.

In recent weeks, exam cancellations have been more piecemeal, affecting Shanghai last month and now Beijing where city schools are closing to contain the coronavirus wave in the capital.

A spokesperson for Cambridge International, which administers IGCSE and A level exams, told University World News that the organisation “plans for exams to go ahead in China in our June 2022 exam series, where it is permitted and safe”.

“In countries and regions where exams cannot take place, we will ask schools to submit a portfolio of three substantial pieces of evidence for each student. This will be marked by Cambridge International examiners.

“We are monitoring the situation in China very closely and working with schools to make sure students can progress with their education,” the spokesperson said.

School-based assessments

David Fitzgerald, Singapore-based global director of education at Education in Motion (EiM) told University World News that international schools in several cities in China have moved swiftly to school-based assessments, having learned from previous years.

“In Suzhou, schools have been teaching online for seven to eight weeks now. In Shanghai, it's been four weeks and in Shanghai, there's a hard lockdown, so you're not able to leave your compound or your condo [apartment].

“At this stage of the school year, with exams coming up, decisions have been made that there will be no exams in Shanghai or Suzhou. The IB, and the Cambridge (A levels) and Pearson Edexcel (A levels) have all made that decision,” Fitzgerald said.

EiM operates a large number of international curriculum schools across Asia, including the UK’s Dulwich College, with four schools in China including Shanghai and Suzhou in Eastern China, as well as South Korea and Singapore.

It was still unclear this week whether all international exam candidates in Beijing would be allowed to return to sit exams under strict conditions, as has been the case in the past with the gaokao, China’s school-leaving exam which went ahead, even in 2020, although after a month-long delay.

Lucien Giordano, EiM’s Suzhou-based director of international outreach and alumni engagement, said on Thursday 5 April that “Beijing is clear for IB as of now,” indicating that in-person exams which started on 28 April were going ahead.

The group’s schools in China have some 600 students sitting exams this month. Giordano noted that students with conditional offers to UK universities were anxious about last-minute exam cancellations and whether universities would be flexible. “But universities are listening to our school councillors and we haven’t seen a difference in our expected outcomes,” he said.

In the United States, the College Board which administers the Advanced Placement (AP) exams said in a statement this week it was “closely monitoring the situation in China with COVID restrictions and their impact on Advanced Placement testing.

“We are working with schools and test centres to explore options, given that online exams are not available this year. Just as we have in the past, we will call on colleges and universities to take COVID disruptions into account so that students are held harmless for a situation outside their control”.

Better prepared

Fitzgerald said the situation was different from the past two pandemic years when exams were scrapped around the world and untested assessment systems brought in at short notice.

“When the announcement was first of all made by the IB for Shanghai and Suzhou, our schools were prepared. They [students] have had all their coursework, they've got their predicted grades, students have been informed, so it didn't come as a shock this time like it did two years ago.”

While the transition has been easier this year, it has still come as a shock to some students. “Some students prefer the exam route,” he acknowledged.

This year, with the IB, the schools themselves are able to make the choice based on local COVID conditions rather than a blanket global examinations cancellation, as happened in 2020.

“Because schools have been in and out of lockdown around the world, schools have gone in and out of those decisions,” Fitzgerald said, adding that for universities he did not think it would make any difference to the quality of students “at the higher end”.

“With the teacher-assessed coursework, and the predicted grades, we’re confident in their accuracy.”

Giordano noted that the class of 2022 was the first to have had enough time within COVID to “make some choices a bit differently than they might have previously, but the university destinations don’t look all that different. Traditionally we’ve sent about 35% of our students to the US and just a couple of percentage points lower than that to the UK”.

Teacher exodus

International schools in China, which have increased exponentially in recent years, are now seeing an exodus of foreign teachers skilled in delivering IB, A level and AP curricula, a situation that could affect future exam-takers.

Forecasts for the upcoming 2022-23 school year indicate an expected turnover rate of at least 40% among teachers in international schools in China, according to survey results released on Wednesday in the latest British Business in China: COVID-19 Impact Report.

The departure of foreign teachers is part of the general exodus of foreign families working in China during the current pandemic wave which has seen harsh lockdown and containment policies imposed on populations in several cities including Shanghai.

More than 80% of companies surveyed by the American Chamber of Commerce last month said China's virus policies had hit their ability to attract or retain foreign staff.

“Up until the most recent lockdowns [in China], we hadn't seen a large exodus of students from our schools. The vast majority of our schools were growing enrolment wise. However, the lockdown in Shanghai recently has certainly got many expats questioning whether they want to stay in China short-term. We haven't seen them leave yet, because it's early days but certainly it is a concern for us,” Fitzgerald said.

“Teacher recruitment for this year in China was tough – tougher than in the past,” he acknowledged.

Some schools fear the situation could have a knock-on effect on their ability to deliver quality education as international school students are normally being prepared for top universities in the West.

For many foreign teachers in China, the harsh lockdown measures have been the last straw.

“So many teachers are leaving China, we cannot refill the positions. We are physically unable to find enough teachers who meet the qualification requirements to get a visa [for China], so I'm worried that the schools will open in September and not have foreign teachers with the knowledge and language needed to teach those students,” said Diane Jacoutot, managing director of Edvectus, which specialises in international teacher recruitment.

“We were facing a teacher shortage, before the pandemic, of qualified, highly adept, experienced international-bound teachers, but this has made teaching jobs in China almost impossible to sell,” she added, noting “a weariness” in many teachers in China as a result of the many restrictions.

Jacoutot estimated that before the Shanghai lockdown which started in March, around 30% to 40% of international school teachers in China were happy to keep looking for jobs in China because the salaries and quality of schools are very good.

“Maybe 70% had had enough and wanted to leave. But since the lockdown, it’s down to a very small handful who are happy to stay. Even those who had said they were happy to stay before are now looking to leave.

“It's a game changer. We don't know how it will end,” said Jacoutot. The international schools market has “come off the boil”.

“A lot of [international school] brands will think twice about expanding in China. In fact, I know they’re all looking at what else they could do,” she said.

Jacoutot said many British and American (school) brands “go into China making promises that they can provide a high-quality education, high-quality Western-influenced curriculum and language. But how can they do that if they cannot physically get the teachers that they need to deliver it?”

She said teachers who had worked in China are now moving to the United Arab Emirates and Southeast Asia – mainly Thailand, Malaysia and Vietnam, while Singapore is also a top choice.

“The top international schools in all of these areas have been flooded with applications,” she said.

Enormous demand

Anne Keeling, communications director for ISC Research in the UK, pointed to regulatory changes making it difficult for Chinese families, in which only one parent holds a foreign passport, to enrol their children in international schools in China, and the need for international and bilingual schools in China to comply with the government’s agenda which restricts the curriculum and textbooks used in schools that recruit Chinese nationals.

“But there is still enormous demand from Chinese families for an international education. What we're seeing is quite a bit of movement of Chinese children to board at international schools in Southeast Asia.

“There are so many parents now in China who have developed their careers overseas and then returned and want that for their children. They have global aspirations for their children,” Keeling said.

“For Chinese parents now looking for a solution beyond their own country, an international school in Japan and elsewhere in Southeast Asia is a favourable option, offering a similarity of culture and proximity to home.”

Keeling said several premium international schools that are expected to appeal to these families are scheduled to open in Japan, including Harrow International School in Appi opening in 2022, and Rugby School in Tokyo and Malvern College in Tokyo – both opening in 2023.