BEIJING (Reuters) - The website for a private school in Changzhou, one of China's smaller cities, features blue blazers and plaid skirts, music classes and an ivy-clad brick doorway -- all the trappings of the British school system designed to appeal to wealthy Chinese parents.
In choosing a smaller city, Oxford International College - no relation to the British university - is tapping into a growing market of upwardly-mobile Chinese willing to pay as much as 260,000 yuan ($41,700) a year for a Western-style education and a ticket to college overseas for their children.
"Changzhou is quite an affluent area and many people want to send their kids overseas, so the proportion of Chinese students is ticking up. The expat community is not enough to justify a school," said Frank Lu, the general manager of Oxford International Colleges of China.
"The market really is the Chinese - it's the Chinese who want their children to go abroad and are willing to pay the fees."
Some of the schools offer programs specifically tailored to British A-levels or the U.S. Advanced Placement tests; all promise the English proficiency needed to attend a foreign university.
In a sign of the eagerness to get the Changzhou school up and running, classes have already started even though the campus - complete with an artificial lake and boathouse - is under construction until September.
That international aura is key to persuading ambitious Chinese parents to pay steep tuition fees. Many schools feature foreign-looking children on their websites or name themselves after elite schools in Britain or North America.
Oxford International is one example. Then there is EtonHouse, a Singaporean company that operates schools in eight Chinese provincial cities.
Maple Leaf Educational Systems has expanded to seven cities in China from its original home in Dalian, a northeastern Chinese port city, by offering a curriculum endorsed by the British Columbia board of education in Canada.
Established British schools like Harrow and Dulwich are also expanding their branches in China.
"My dad wanted me to go abroad at an early age, but my mom did not support the idea," said Jiang Xin, the 17-year old son of a real estate developer, whose parents compromised by sending him to Maple Leaf's Chongqing campus at 50,000 yuan a year.
"In the future I want to study abroad. My experience here at Maple Leaf is helping me adapt to the Western learning style earlier."
Indeed, many wealthy Chinese parents see these schools as a way to get a foreign-style education while keeping their only children close to home.
"Later when she goes overseas to college we will have few chances to see her. We treasure the time we have with her now," said Zhuang Zhengyi, the head of the parents association for Oxford International in Changzhou, where his daughter is in tenth grade.
The number of international schools registered in mainland China has skyrocketed in the past 12 years, from 22 to 338, according to Nicholas Brummitt, managing director of the Britain-based International School Consultancy Group. Enrollment has risen by 25 times in the same period, to 184,073 students.
Overall, 28.8 million students attend state-run primary or middle schools in Chinese cities, which are officially free but in reality charge a number of fees.
Just under half the international schools in China are in provincial cities like Changzhou, well apart from the main expatriate centers of Beijing, Shanghai or Guangdong. The trend coincides with the increasing incomes of China's middle-classes, who are spread across the country, and their aspirations.
Parents who can afford it believe the international schools are the passport to a better life for their children, despite the steeply higher costs. They offer the chance for a university education overseas, avoiding the pressure cooker of the national college entrance exam, taken by more than 9 million Chinese students last June.
There are good state schools in every city, but the problem is their teaching is aimed entirely to the university entrance exams.
"This hurts students' confidence and the quality of the teaching," said Xu Jin, whose 16-year-daughter started at a branch of Dulwich College in Suzhou city in September.
"She was at the best public school but we were more and more dissatisfied. The teachers just taught the right answers and didn't want the students to ask why... We can already see the difference. She's happier and learning faster."
The international schools in Beijing or Shanghai generally are limited by law to foreign passport-holders. But that's not the case in many provincial cities, where growth in private education including bilingual schools is exploding.
For newly wealthy Chinese parents, the international schools offer an alternative to China's conformist, competitive exam-based state school system, and, some say, make for more well-rounded youngsters.
But other parents are not entirely ready to jettison the Chinese education system and want to retain both options - applying overseas and taking the national college exams.
For them, companies like Tianjin-based Compass Education and Australian education services provider Dipont Education offer joint-venture international sections within established public schools, with an average tuition fee of up to 100,000 yuan a year. That lowers costs and cultural barriers.
"International education is not mark-centric, which is a brand-new idea for parents from second-tier cities," said Compass board member Gavin Newton-Tanzer.
"For Chinese parents it's a totally different idea. Their children study only through memorizing things."
The joint-venture schools offer the best of both worlds, he added.
"Students can still be exposed to Chinese learning, which is more acceptable for local parents." ($1 = 6.2303 Chinese yuan)
Additional reporting by Beijing Newsroom; Editing by Raju Gopalakrishnan