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China schoolsCogent advice submitted by a parent suggests taking the long view and looking at the broader school picture in this beguiling siren of a city. 

The first thing we wish we’d known when we arrived was that we would end up staying here so long!  Like so many people, we came for an initial 3 year assignment, and we’re still here with no plans to leave yet. Whilst that’s not directly due to the school, many people do the same thing, and we would probably do things slightly differently had we known how long we would be here. I think it’s worth advising new arrivals to Hong Kong that the same could easily happen to them.

We chose the school largely on considerations of strong reputation of the kindergarten, but had we known it would eventually matter to us, there are a couple of things about primary level schooling in HK that might have made us consider other schools in more depth.   

  • Several of the top schools in Hong Kong are double streamed, meaning they have both a particular national curriculum and an international curriculum (ie: French/international; British/international; German/international etc). All pupils must study the school’s native language from P2 upwards, and it’s a serious commitment from P3 onwards. As a result, Mandarin is not introduced until P3.
  • A number of parents would prefer it to be the other way around, with the European language optional if possible. Once you’ve lived in HK a while, some of those other languages seem pretty irrelevant, but Mandarin is highly desirable. I think Mandarin is largely responsible for the growth in popularity of schools such as Chinese International School, and even some pre-schools that focus more on Mandarin. For parents whose business is related to China and the rise of Chinese business, it seems obvious that their children should learn Mandarin whilst living in China.
  • A double-streamed school may say its curriculum is “based on the English curriculum” (as, of course, the British one truly is), but as a result of the commitment to the school's national language, there  is an acknowledged “gap” between the two curricula – particularly in areas such as science and history. Again, this isn’t mentioned much when you sign up for the kindergarten, but becomes more worrying as time goes on, especially if you intend to return to the UK at some stage.
  • Although there are a number of very strong and inspiring teachers in the top schools, there are always a few who are just average. It’s important for parents to find out, if they can, whether the school manages teacher performance very well, and whether there is a process to “improve or manage-out” teachers that aren’t performing.
  • Even if a school has an extremely strong reputation for academic excellence at the secondary level, and is especially good at A levels –  a number of schools are nonetheless considering a move to IB; parents should ask if that is in the wind, if they prefer to stick with the English system and exams.
  • All international schools in HK are currently facing severe space constraints, and may give  priority to families of their school’s nationality. Some schools are now running out of space on their main campuses. As a result, parents might begin to find no room for new entrants even at the kindergarten level. As it is, you should be aware that class sizes may seem a bit large for a private school: class sizes in primary are often 27 or more.
  • Parents need to be wary about poor communication from their school; the rumour mill is always the first source of news, and communiqués through official channels from the school are infrequent and often don’t give the full story.
  • In some schools, only parents fluent in the school’s national language can be proposed to sit on the school board – again this doesn’t seem a big issue when you first sign up, but you soon realise that you have precious little influence on the school, largely because the international stream is way under-represented on the board (despite the fact that the international stream may be by far the bigger of the two).

A final note: Westerners are leaving Hong Kong. According to a recent report in the South China Morning Post, the number of expats has been steadily declining. Although air quality is often touted as the main factor, lack of international school space is another factor, which I think is probably more important in many cases. Plus, even if you get a space in an international school, many people do not feel that the quality of education is as good as the UK – hence people face a choice (normally at secondary school age) of boarding school, or the whole family returning to the UK.

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