Overseas summer school is China’s new parenting trend

Overseas summer school is China’s new parenting trend
Chinese kindergarteners during a class. Photo: South China Morning Post
Published: 8:25 PM, July 14, 2017
Updated: 8:33 PM, July 14, 2017

SHANGHAI — Enter the little dragons. Zhang Feiyu may not even be five years old, but he is already one of the thousands of jet-setting pre-schoolers flown out by ambitious parents to experience kindergarten in English-speaking countries to help them to adjust to studying overseas in future.

A few days ago, the Shanghainese boy flew for more than 15 hours with his mother and younger sister to his aunt’s American home in Austin, Texas. His mother, Ms Jamie Chen, has planned for Feiyu to be immersed in an American kindergarten for five months near the home of her sister from August to December, while Ms Chen and Feiyu’s little sister enjoy an exotic holiday.

“I want him to go out and see the world … I wonder how he will play with others in an English-speaking environment,” said Ms Chen.

In a growing trend, hundreds of thousands of Chinese students are leaving for short-term overseas study tours each year. Among them are pre-schoolers as young as Feiyu.

Mr Zhang Jie, the director of study tour business at leading Chinese tour agency Ctrip, said that more and more pre-schoolers, or children aged between three and six, have taken part in overseas study tours in the past year.

Meanwhile, international kindergartens are expanding and introducing more bilingual courses in their curriculum in mainland China. Young children booking overseas study tours make up about 10 per cent of consumers, he said. This figure marks a considerable rise from the past year. According to a recent report by travel agent, pre-schoolers accounted for 6 per cent of Chinese students who went on study tours in the same period a year ago.

The United States is the most popular destination, followed by Britain, according to the report. The typical price range for such a tour is between 20,000 yuan (S$4,060) and 30,000 yuan per person, it said.

In reality, however, prices can differ sharply, depending on the destination.

For a one-week tour to Chiang Mai in Thailand, a child-and-parent pair would spend roughly 6,000 yuan on kindergarten classes and a hotel stay. For a 13-day tour to Reunion, a French island in the Indian Ocean, a package worth 37,800 yuan will cover everything for either a child or an adult.

Within the educational study tours segment, there are two types of target audiences, according to Ctrip. One is focused on summer camps organised by professional groups mainly in the US, Britain and Singapore. These are sometimes bundled with visits to places of cultural interest or lectures by education experts.

The other type is for children keen to join overseas kindergartens for short periods as transfer students. The most popular destinations for these kindergarten study tours are the United States, Britain, Australia and New Zealand.

Ms Maggie Xiao, a Shanghainese housewife with two daughters, said she decided to take her eldest girl aged six, Xie Lele, to a US camp last summer after a friend did the same.

“Her father and I have decided to let her study abroad when she’s older, so we wanted her to experience what it’s like in advance, she said. Lele, who attends Montessori School of Shanghai, joined a three-week summer camp in July last year. She went to the American camp at 9am and left at 3pm after a day of art-, science- and outdoors-themed activities.

Ms Xiao said she liked the camp because it was “very American” – she saw only three Asian faces on campus among the 100 students who were there. Lele also liked it, because it was “a lot of fun”.

Despite the high cost of US$400 (S$500) a week, Ms Xiao said the camp experience was worthwhile because her daughter felt great there.

“I was happy to see that she was totally comfortable in this new environment,” she said.

In addition to helping their children become future-ready, young mainland parents are using the tours as an opportunity for quality family time, said Ctrip’s Mr Zhang.

“Chinese parents are attaching greater importance to parent-child relations and learning to create high-quality time together with their kids, driving up the demand for parent-child travelling,” he said.

English First, an English-language training organisation, said it saw the demand and has responded with new study tour programmes this summer that target younger children.

For a two-week parent-child tour targeting children aged between five and nine, parents choose between Australia and Singapore.

On these tours, children practise speaking English with teachers who are native English speakers, while parents visit famous schools, learn about investment and immigration policies, participate in wine tastings or play golf, according to a statement from English First.

Despite offerings by large organisations such as English First and Ctrip, most of the business is transacted through smaller agents, usually mothers who run public accounts on WeChat, China’s most popular social media platform.

An example is Ms Deng Jing, who offers art activities for children via her “Mamimofa” WeChat account and hosts related shows on two Shanghainese children’s television channels. She has organised art-themed summer and winter camps in Japan and Europe for the past couple of years.

Her tour groups were usually kept small – for a dozen families at the most. The children were given activities such as working with ceramics or with local school children.

“This year we are going to Reunion. Our youngest student is aged five … Even parents of two-year-olds have called to consult about our tours,” said Ms Deng.

However, the new opportunities are not attractive to all industry players, due to the high cost of running these programmes.

Mr Andrew Chen, the chief learning officer of WholeRen Education, a consultancy for Chinese students in the US, said the industry is still in a preliminary stage. The revenue generated is still small because of the high costs and the logistical challenges involved in satisfying parents of young children, such as in providing accommodation and making local travel arrangements, he said.

The company has studied opportunities in this segment of the market, and it is taking a wait-and-see approach. “So, for the time being, we choose to give suggestions and charge a consultancy fee for (these) consumers, instead of arranging the tours for them and bearing the responsibility.”

Ms Xiao, the Shanghainese housewife, said her eldest daughter has asked if she could go to camp again this summer.

“We’re thinking about the United Kingdom, but maybe we’ll go after a year or two when my little girl gets older,” she said, referring to her second daughter who is now three years old. SOUTH CHINA MORNING POST