International schools and bilingual schools. What’s the difference?

In the eight years that I lived in China I have had the fortune of not only living in two great cities (Guangzhou and Shanghai) but also working in two amazing but very different schools. The first school I worked in was an English curriculum school catering to the expat community in Guangzhou, South China. The second school was a bilingual school which followed the Shanghai curriculum but used elements of other international curricula, namely the International Primary Curriculum and the IB program in the older years.

So what are the differences between international schools and bilingual schools? Is one better than the other? Would you be better suited to one? The differences are wide and varied and, in this post, I will try to outline the main differences I came to experience.


To go to an international school in China you must be a foreign passport holder, this in turn means that at international schools you will find a far more varied student population. Most students will be the children of expats who are working on short to mid length contracts of 2 to 5 years. However, this does not necessarily mean that all children are fluent English speakers! Most students will come from other Asian countries such as Korea and Japan or are children of Chinese heritage who were born overseas. Children are sent to international schools as they are unable to access the local system and prefer to be enrolled at a school offering a programme similar to that in their home country.

On the other hand, the majority of students attending bilingual schools are local Chinese children. These children will speak Chinese as their first language and parents of these children are looking for their children to experience a western style education whilst still keeping their Chinese heritage. These students are more likely to stay in one school for their entire school lives and move on to English speaking countries for university.

What do I teach?

Again, international schools will usually stick to one curriculum throughout, for example, British international schools will teach the English curriculum so expect to teach maths, English etc. just like you would in the UK (but with the consideration of EAL learners). If you work in an American school, then expect to teach the American curriculum and so on. One thing that may differ from teaching in your home country is the use of specialist teachers. Most schools, both international and bilingual, will use specialist teachers to teach art, P.E and music. This means that whilst working abroad you are given a lot more time for planning and preparation. One of the many plus points for working abroad!

Bilingual schools differ to international schools in that they are much less rigidly tied to one set curriculum. This gives teachers a lot more freedom to cater for the specific needs of their class, especially when teaching English. For example, in the bilingual school I worked in to teach English we used elements of the English curriculum as well as the Ontario curriculum and Cambridge English as we felt this would best help the progression of our children. Again, when teaching maths you have the ability to be very flexible in your teaching methods and as creative as you can in your teaching practice. One thing to remember is that you will have to meet the curriculum goals of the city you are working in. For example, when working in Shanghai we had to ensure that children were meeting the appropriate Shanghai National Curriculum (SNC) goals. However, we were able to be incredibly creative and innovative in our delivery.

Who do I work with?

This will always vary from school to school and there are of course very big differences between Primary and Secondary teaching departments. From a Primary perspective, there is one big difference. When working in an international school you will follow a more conventional approach to teaching, meaning that you will be the main teacher and potentially be assisted by a teaching assistant who will help you with day to day classroom organisation and teaching. Teaching Assistants (TAs) in China vary greatly in experience however they are usually very highly qualified individuals looking to work within an international environment.

Bilingual schools take a slightly different approach and once again this will vary on the school you are working at. You will usually have a Chinese national co-teacher and you may teach all subjects bilingually as a team, taking turns in who leads the lessons. Some schools may insist on the International teacher taking certain lessons such as English and thematic whilst the national (Chinese) teacher will take a lead in maths. In summary, once again bilingual schools are much more open to interpretation but expect to work much more closely with a national co-teacher.

So, which is best for me?

When considering what you will teach and how you will deliver your lessons you must think about what is best for you. If you want to continue teaching the national curriculum of your home country, then a traditional international school would be a better choice. However, you must remember that the majority of children attending schools in China will have English as a second language and abilities vary greatly, so lessons and curricula must still be adapted. To teach at a bilingual school you must be open-minded and looking to develop and broaden your knowledge of different curricula. A teacher at a bilingual school must be willing to respect different teaching styles and be respectful of their host country and it’s educational traditions.

To summarise, the decision is yours and depends greatly on how you want to develop your career. Both schools cater for children from different backgrounds, but the outcome is the same. Parents send their children to international and bilingual schools because they want their children to grow up to be internationally-minded, confident and knowledgeable individuals.

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