Richard Pratt didn’t choose China – “China chose me”, he says. In 1990, he was sent on a four-year Voluntary Service Overseas stint at a teacher training college, initially in rural Hubei province. The place got under his skin. He was 23 when he left the UK for China, but it was there that he believes he got his true education.
“I grew up in China. My sense of who I am was formed there. My education until then had not fulfilled any meaningful function,” he says, betraying a scepticism of formal schooling. A document he recently wrote pitching his ideas for a new boarding school in Hangzhou, one of China’s up-and-coming cities, began with a quotation from Albert Einstein: “Education is what is left after one has forgotten everything one learnt at school.”
It was in Hubei that Pratt, now 45, learnt Chinese and met his wife Jianping. But in 1995, his work took him back to Britain. He spent the next 16 years teaching, first at the King Edward VI School in Southampton and then, from 1997, at Eton College, where he rose to the position of housemaster. His working connection with China seemed to have been severed. Until now.
Last May – at 9am on a Monday morning, he recalls – he received a call asking if he would consider moving back to mainland China to become director of a new boarding school being established by the Hong Kong-based Chinese International School (CIS). He was reluctant at first. Life at Eton was comfortable. Too comfortable, he decided on reflection. A new challenge in China was what he needed.
And so in July last year, he set off for the frenetic pace of Hong Kong. His 14-year-old son remained behind at Eton. “He sent his parents away from boarding school,” Pratt deadpans. “It’s a bit upside down.”
Since CIS Hangzhou does not open until September, he will spend a few months ferrying between Hong Kong and Hangzhou, just south of Shanghai. It’s about a two-hour flight between ultra-modern airports. The commute is not unusual. Many expats still use Hong Kong as a convivial base for working in mainland China. Nor is it uncommon for mainland Chinese to set up residence in Hong Kong, where taxes are lower and the air moderately less polluted.
In both Hong Kong and Hangzhou, Pratt will be spared one of the potential traumas of relocation – looking for a place to live. That’s a blessing in Hong Kong, where rents, even for fairly shoddy apartments, are among the highest in the world. Prices in Hangzhou, a booming technology hub, are as high as in Beijing and Shanghai.
In Hong Kong, Pratt lives in a pleasant school apartment on Braemar Hill on the east of Hong Kong island with heart-stopping views of the harbour. When he moves to Hangzhou he will be housed on the grounds of his new school, which is nestled inside the Harvard-style quads of Hangzhou’s Greentown Yuhua School, a Chinese boarding school that is co-operating with CIS.
CIS was established in Hong Kong in 1983 as an English and Mandarin dual-language school. It is considered one of the best in an education-crazy city where – Pratt points out – maths tutors are advertised on the side of buses. (Full disclosure: my two sons are fortunate enough to attend CIS. They also have a maths tutor.)
Now CIS, a day school, wants to go one stage further by establishing a boarding school offshoot. It will offer its Year 10 students (ages 14 and 15) a one-year residential experience. The idea is partly inspired by Melbourne’s Geelong Grammar School, which sends its children to Timbertop in rural Victoria.
“They have to chop wood and wade across streams,” says Pratt of Timbertop. “Our challenges are more inward-bound – negotiating your passage through life in a complex modern city.” Surviving in an alien metropolis, he says, is appropriate training for children growing up “in an overcrowded planet that is increasingly urban and global”.
Hangzhou is an ancient city. It was founded during the Qin Dynasty (221-206BC) and became capital of the Southern Song Dynasty in AD1123. It is famed for its West Lake, now a World Heritage Site, with its 10 classical views beloved of poets and artists.
But Hangzhou is also modern and creative, home to successful companies such as Alibaba, an ecommerce business founded by Jack Ma.
The city will be the students’ classroom. The school is located next to the ancient Xixi wetlands, China’s only wetland park. Pratt envisages his students exploring the 2,800-acre grounds, with its waterways, temples and old-style shopping streets. As an advocate of experiential learning, he intends to use the full scope of the International Baccalaureate programme taught at CIS, with its emphasis on holistic and cross-disciplinary study.
He wants students to learn Chinese revolutionary history by interviewing mainlanders who lived through it, using the Mandarin in which most CIS students are proficient. A design project might involve finding out what the local community needs, building a prototype and then testing it in the real world. “There’s geography, human interaction, manufacturing, maths, science, Chinese,” he says. “Field, classroom, field.”
The experimental philosophy may seem far removed from the academic rigour of Eton. Pratt says not. “The interesting thing about Eton is that it’s well camouflaged. It has this Hogwarty external image. But behind the camouflage, it’s really kind of a progressive and liberal institution.”
Such teaching methods are hard to pull off in a large day school. At CIS Hangzhou, a maximum of 144 students – from CIS and elsewhere – will have an enviable teacher-student ratio of one to seven. “This project offers the chance to do something innovative and idealistic,” he says.
Gaining an understanding of Chinese culture will be integral. “People are sold the idea that culture is calligraphy and dragon dancing,” Pratt says. “But culture is about all the things you can’t see, about ways of being. We’re going to be embedded in another culture.”
Not all the parents at CIS Hong Kong have embraced the idea of packing their children off to mainland China for a year. The programme is strictly voluntary. Some worry about safety, while others are concerned that their children may fall behind academically. Pratt says he is convinced they will zoom ahead.
Many parents are proud of Hong Kong’s traditions of free speech and the rule of law. Some worry that their children might return a little too culturally assimilated, inculcated with Communist party propaganda. The idea of a Hong Kong school setting up a mainland offshoot raises some of the same issues thrown up by Hong Kong’s reintegration into China: one school, two systems.
Pratt finds the contrast fascinating. “Although Hangzhou is the older city by about two millennia, for me personally, Hong Kong has felt more ‘old world’ and Hangzhou more ‘new world’,” he says. “Hangzhou is opening up and embracing change whereas Hong Kong is seemingly experiencing a passage of uncertainty over its future and identity.”
Perhaps Hong Kong has “greater wisdom and worldliness”, he concludes, but Hangzhou “feels young in comparison”.
This year, he has been fortunate. He has not had to choose between them. “I love them both.”
David Pilling is the FT’s Asia editor
Hong Kong and Hangzhou in short
Hong Kong: the pros
● The comforts of living in a western city
● Low tax
● The frustration for a student of standard Chinese living in a Cantonese- speaking environment, despite the respect that any Sinophile has for the Cantonese tradition
● Overemphasis on material success
Hangzhou: the pros
● Plenty of physical space
● The welcoming and flexible character of a society in transition
● Complicated regulations for setting up an enterprise
● Anxieties about pollution and food safety
● The lag in “social infrastructure”, particularly the health and educational systems
What you can buy for $1m …
A 275 sq m flat with four bedrooms, two living rooms, one kitchen and two bathrooms in downtown Hangzhou near West Lake
What you can buy for $100,000 …
Also around West Lake area, 30 minutes’ drive from the above, a 55 sq m one-bedroom flat with a living room, kitchen and bathroom
What you can buy in Hong Kong …
For US$100,000 Nothing
For US$1m A 530 sq ft, one-bedroom flat with private roof