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Even in China, one-size education does not fit all

FOUNDED BY A 76th-generation descendant of the sage, the Confucius International School at Anren, on the outskirts of Chengdu, mixes Chinese with Western tradition. “We offer a relatively liberal education here,” says Jill Cowie, the Scottish principal. In the art block, one class discusses a Dürer etching while another designs jewellery for superheroes. Boys dressed in tailcoats and girls in kilts share the grounds with peacocks, pheasants and white rabbits. The Harry Potteresque atmosphere sits oddly with the fact that the school is now owned by a firm backed by a state-owned-enterprise.

Around the world, government schools tend to be standardised, for a range of reasons. Uniformity is cheaper than variety; governments want to inculcate a shared understanding of history and citizenship; and equality of opportunity mandates equal treatment for all. But many parents want something different for their children. In some countries that means a more religious education. In China, though, three different varieties of private education are flourishing for other reasons.

Most of the private schools that now educate 10% of Chinese 6- to 18-year-olds are gaokao mills, which drill their students for the all-important end-of-school exam. But 10…