For newcomers heading to Hong Kong, the local and international education systems can seem even more daunting than learning Chinese even for long-term residents.
The myriad options can be overwhelming, but the good news is that the number of new schools opening (including some British ones) has made the shortage of places at old favourites such as Kellett less stressful: the choices have broadened enormously in the last few years, with genuinely great alternatives to the overseas boarding school route.
Educational Options in Hong Kong
A stint in Hong Kong is seen as a great opportunity for more and more expats, with or without Chinese heritage, to enable their children to learn Chinese. One (budget friendly) option is to put your child into a local Chinese school, although the application process can be difficult for non-Chinese speakers and for home-to-school and child-to-school communication. Also, being taught in a completely new language can cause significant social and emotional upheaval, so is not a decision to be taken lightly, particularly as children get older.
It is easier at an early age: many opt to use a Cantonese nursery or Kindergarten (most local schools still teach in Cantonese rather than Mandarin) which on the whole seems to work well. Young children tend to fit straight in and generally pick up a good smattering of the language.
The work-load in the local schools, as well as the stress level, goes up enormously once the child hits the primary level, tutoring is the norm, and there is little time for sports or anything play-based. Academic results are the be-all-and-end-all. For these reasons, most expats move their children to international schools at this point, more of whom are now offering a serious Chinese programme, allowing children to develop language skills without sacrificing breadth and depth of curriculum.
However, it really is horses for courses, and there have certainly been successful outcomes for families going down the Chinese route for the sake of language acquisition and local integration.
It used to be that if you were a British expat, you would either send your child home to the UK for boarding school once they had finished ESF primary or Kellett (the British International School) at 11, or you would go to one of the ESF through-schools that offered English National Curriculum. Other nationalities would send their children to their respective international schools, such as German Swiss (GSIS), French International(FIS) or Hong Kong International School (HKIS), which offers an American curriculum.
Over the years, these schools got very stretched with the increased numbers of expats in Hong Kong (of all nationalities) and with local families wishing to send their children to these sought-after schools. For years 1 and 7 in particular, it became increasingly difficult to find places.
The Government has worked to overcome these school shortages by giving licences, land and grants to new international school groups. In 2007, Kellett opened a brand new senior school and a second primary campus in Kowloon, thus encouraging its pupils to stay in Hong Kong rather than going to boarding school. Harrow has built a successful franchise school in the New Territories, and Malvern College and Shrewsbury opened international schools in 2018. Wycombe Abbey is opening a co-ed Hong Kong island campus in 2019 followed by a planned senior school in the New Territories.
These, plus other openings, should ease the burden on the other popular schools. However, some of the new schools (e.g. Malvern) are using IB and with ESF primaries having moved from English National Curriculum to IB PYP, there is still a definite shortage of National Curriculum schools for transient British expats. The few international schools that still teach it (Kellett, Nord Anglia, Harrow etc) are mainly all-through schools so there is little incentive for them to prepare children for the UK Common Entrance or pre-tests (none do) despite a huge demand. Parents therefore rely on tutors and a lot send their children back to UK for the last few years of prep school.
Some schools give nationality preference; for example the Australian International School (AIS) gives preference to Australian passport holders. FIS gives not only nationality presence but also a French government school-fee subsidy to French passport holders, as long as they enter the French or bilingual stream (rather than the English-language International stream).
GSIS is run on the same lines (priority for German and Swiss passport holders in the German stream but not in the international stream (notoriously difficult to get into)). Passport holders from other countries can apply to any of these schools, but only into the non-native (English speaking) streams. Sadly Kellett does not offer priority to British passport holders!
International schools offering a strong Chinese language program are exceptionally sought-after. For example Chinese International School (CIS) and International Schools Foundation School (ISF) are both hugely desirable for the local elite, as they offer very strong academics in both English and Chinese. They also offer good sports and are fairly well-rounded, so are an excellent (if expensive) alternative to the local system.
The English Schools Foundation (ESF) runs the majority of the English speaking schools (22 at last count). Due to the transition from English National Curriculum to IB around ten years ago, they are no longer British-dominated and have morphed into a completely multi-cultural mix (particularly popular with Europeans and Australians).
Large classes (approximately 30) can make them feel less intimate than one might like, but the IB results are exceptional at senior level and sport is very strong.
The Hong Kong government has now begun phasing out the subvention (subsidy) on ESF fees, so the fees are now in line with most other international schools. However the waiting lists are still long as these schools remain hugely sought-after and very popular with local families. ESF schools only take children who reside within their catchment areas both at primary level and at most secondaries, which means all have a strong community feeling.
However, even if you move inside the catchment area, there is no guarantee you’ll be offered a place. They are not under any obligation to do so, and as more and more places are taken up by permanent residents, there are few for new arrivals or temporary expats. In order to allow for immediate entry, as well as raise funds, ESF have recently started introducing debentures.
Most other schools also run a debenture* system, both individual and corporate, which may be one way to get your child a place. The corporate debentures cost more and therefore help more, so if you can get your hands on one through your company, do. In fact, if you are moving with a company, make it a negotiating point if you can.
Note that schools don’t always give sibling priority, so you might want to consider that issue too, before you jump in to accept the debenture for one child (you might be kicking the can down the road and not be able to get the sibling in).
Definitely plan to put your name on the wait list for your top choice schools (particularly Kellett which runs almost entirely on a waiting list system), even if you think you won’t be in Hong Kong long enough to get in. You will be surprised how long most people end up staying here.
The application process (for international schools) is arduous, compared to the UK, and the application fees substantial. Application forms are generally completed online, but don’t let this fool you into thinking this is a user-friendly experience. It takes at least two hours to fill out each application, as long as you have the mountain of supporting documents already scanned in to attach (and often to send as a hard copy too). This is obviously a test to see how dedicated you actually are!
Returning to your home country from a Hong Kong school is usually fine if coming from the same curriculum. Some of the schools have exceptional maths (and other subject) standards as children in Hong Kong have a lot expected of them and are heavily tutored from an early age. If they need to switch curriculum (eg. from IB to English curriculum) tutors are again employed and particularly popular for British entrance exam preparation.
Transportation to and from schools is excellent and generally school buses cover most of the territory. However if you are going to school on Hong Kong island it is probably advisable to live on that side, and vice versa for Kowloon. It is worth checking with the school before you commit to school and housing contracts. After-school activities are more manageable if you live close by, whether sports matches (fairly few and far between on the whole – most sports are done in clubs) or school productions (a lot!). Volunteering and community involvement are encouraged here, particularly as many expat mothers (in particular) don’t work.
Architecturally, Hong Kong schools are either old and scruffy (local and less expensive international ones) or take on a very modern, smart aesthetic. These are more akin to a university than a traditional British public school, but generally really rather impressive. Sadly, playing fields are lacking across the board, but schools try their best with the available space and bus children to sports grounds if need-be.
Overall the situation in Hong Kong is vastly improving with new schools opening up, including some British ones to help ease the strain on old favourites such as Kellett. Most areas will have a good ESF offering and if you wish to travel to another international school, the small size of Hong Kong means that most areas will be served by school buses if they are not on your doorstep.
*Debentures- Debentures are a system used by schools to help fund their growth. Schools tend to have two types of debentures:
- Corporate debentures that can be sold on - these are usually bought by companies, although some individuals have been known to buy them. The second hand price of a Chinese International School (CIS) debenture is currently around HKD 14 million (GBP 1.4 million). Independent Schools Foundation (ISF) debentures range from HKD5-6.5 Million (GBP 500-650,000). Harrow and Kellett are in this latter range.
- If you get into a school without a corporate debenture, in most instances you will still have to buy a personal one which will be valid for the time your child is at the school but cannot be sold on or used by anyone else. Alternatively some schools ask you to pay an annual levy (non-refundable but less expensive). Some schools give you a proportion of the debenture back, depending on how many years you have been at the school, and others give you the full amount back with an admin fee but without interest.