As an English-speaking parent, there are two main reasons to turn your back on Hong Kong’s international school system and send your English-speaking child to a ‘local’ school; simple economics, and a desire to invest in a multi-lingual future for your child.
An easy choice you may think, but unfortunately that’s not the case, with more challenges and compromises than you can shake a stick at. To help you make some sense of it, we spoke to experts and parents for their best advice. Take a deep breath everybody – it’s time to get to grips with Hong Kong’s ‘local’ education system.
Hong Kong’s Educational Dilemma | The ‘Local’ School System: An Overview
The Reality of EMI in the Local System | Learn in Someone Else’s ‘Mother Tongue’
The Dangers of Switching Systems | Teaching Style in Government Schools
How Do I Decide? | Fast Facts | Resources
Hong Kong’s Educational Dilemma
There was a time when being a native English speaker was enough to grant you access to a host of dream jobs – but times have changed, and employers have their pick of near-native English speaking candidates who speak and write Cantonese, as well as Mandarin.
Kate Choyce, Managing Director of recruitment experts, The CHOYCE Group, sees firsthand the problems young adults who are not Chinese literate have in finding a job. “Even being able to speak Cantonese is not enough” Choyce explains, “you need to be able to read and write Chinese well.”
With long-term plans to make Hong Kong home, Choyce decided to enrol her children in the local system, giving them the opportunity to become bi-literate and also to build life-long friendships. “I want them to form connections which enable them to experience all the nuances of this wonderful place and that is something that can only be truly understood by full integration. Ultimately, I want them to be able to follow any career they choose in Hong Kong and not be restricted by their lack of language or cultural skills.”
Now, seven years later, Charlie and his younger sister are fully conversant in Cantonese, and Charlie reads and writes Chinese characters to a more than acceptable level for his age.
For others, the reasons are largely economic. With international school fees on the rise, not to mention the required extra spending on “community awareness weeks” in exotic overseas locations, and the required Macbook Air laptop, some parents have chosen to take a chance with the local education system. After all, even if you had to pay for tutors, in many cases you’d still have more than enough cash for exotic holidays for the whole family – plus a laptop or three.
However, parents who have been taught in a Western education system are often concerned about the quality and style of teaching offered by the local education system. Other concerns include understanding the application system, and if choosing a Cantonese medium of education, how to support your child in a school where everything is written in Chinese.
The ‘Local’ School System: An Overview
Understanding the Hong Kong Government school system does take a little concentration. The structure is, in fact, an interesting reflection of Hong Kong’s history — if you have the time to contemplate this. Alternatively, click here for a good overview courtesy of education consultant, Top Schools.
In a rather large nutshell, there are:
- Government schools, which are run by the government itself, or by charitable organisations, the latter being described as ‘aided’ schools (pictured above). Education is free in these schools, from Primary One to Secondary Three, with the government subsidising fees in Secondary Four and Five. These establishments follow a curriculum set by the Education Bureau (EB) and children sit local Hong Kong Diploma of Secondary Education (HKDSE) exams in secondary school. There are both Chinese-medium instruction (CMI) and a few English-medium instruction (EMI) schools.
- Direct Subsidy Scheme (DSS) schools, which are subsidised by the government, and are allowed to charge fees. These additional fees range from a modest $3,000 to $90,000 per annum – the latter of which is the reported fee for more prestigious schools such as Diocesan Boys School. Within government guidelines and with the approval of the EB, DSS schools can set their own admission criteria and have some flexibility in the curriculum they follow, sometimes offering overseas examinations such as IGCSE or International Baccalaureat (IB).
- Private ‘local’ schools, which usually charge less than international schools, though not in all cases. These schools have their own admission systems, and within guidelines set by the EB, follow a curriculum of their choice. Many do IB and IGCSE.
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The Reality of EMI in the Local System
If your reasons for considering ‘local’ schooling are of the economic kind, you should be prepared to accept a poorer level of English instruction compared to international schools. On the plus side, however, your children may get a better education in Cantonese and Mandarin.
The first option is the free government or aided schools with a pick of both CMI and EMI institutions. However, parents and experts warn that the quality of teaching and the learning environment is often poor in the EMI institutions, in particular as English is simply the common language shared by the native-Chinese-speaking teachers and the students – many of whom also only speak English as a second language.
A mother whose child attended an EMI government aided primary school in Tai Hang backs this up. “The teachers’ English was appalling; they would mark Annie’s* answers wrong when in fact they were correct,” she explains, “and even questions on the exam papers were wrong.” Annie, who was six years old at the time, is now happily attending Rosaryhill School, an EMI private local school on Hong Kong Island.
Secondly, there are the DSS schools which also offer EMI and CMI options, with more EMI at secondary level. After completing their primary years at ESF, my children were lucky enough to attain places at the DSS YMCA of Hong Kong Christian College (pictured above) in Tung Chung, a secondary school where subjects are taught in English and the staff body includes a generous ratio of teachers from overseas. Students have the opportunity to sit the British IGCSE exams as well as the local HKDSE, and the outlook of the school is progressive. A success in my eyes, and although it’s not free, the fees do not require a second mortgage by any means.
However, as Ruth Benny, ‘Head Girl’ of Top Schools explains, “YMCA of Hong Kong Christian College is one of a rare breed in that it is pure English medium with a very diverse student community. There are other government-funded schools which use English as the medium of instruction, but most still have a high requirement for Chinese language. As a result, the higher-ranking EMI schools are incredibly difficult to get into for a non-native Chinese speaker… though not impossible.”
Choyce suggests the numbers can be as high as 1,000 applications per place for schools like St. Paul’s with less popular schools pulling in ‘just’ 70–80 applicants per place.
The third option is to find a private ‘local’ school to fit your budget – the clear winner for Choyce. “I believe private local schools are the best and most realistic compromise for expat English-speaking parents” she explains. “Entry is less competitive than DSS, they offer a better standard of English than government schools, and the curriculum is often more progressive.” Plus, any gaps in English language skills can often be helped with additional support or tuition.
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Learn in Someone Else’s ‘Mother Tongue’
If, like Choyce, your decision to go ‘local’ is to immerse your child in a Chinese language environment with a view to becoming bi- or even tri-literate, you still face the dilemmas and challenges of the quality of teaching in government schools, and the competition for places in DSS. With all schools parents face the challenge of persuading the school that their child is a serious applicant in light of the huge challenges CMI poses for both child and parent who cannot understand the language of their child’s education. And that’s just the start!
As Choyce explains, “The challenges for parents going through this are truly unique. Simple things like parent Whatsapp groups, usually such a source of support and knowledge, are not open to us due to language barriers. We can’t even read school notices without an app.”
For this reason Choyce set up the Cantonese School Parents Group on Facebook; an incredibly supportive online community specifically for English-speaking parents with children in Cantonese medium schools. The group now has over 3,000 members and tonnes of helpful tips and advice – simply browsing the threads will answer many a concerned parent’s questions.
Choyce recently ran a random poll in the group asking, “For those further down the line – knowing what you know now, would you still send your children to a CMI School?”
The feeling was overwhelmingly positive and, even taking into account the heavy workload and other difficulties, most parents agreed they would do it again. While some parents admitted, very honestly, that ‘yes’ was their only option due to financial constraints, most said that, despite the homework struggles and the need for tutors, their children had won through in the end. A recurring theme throughout the thread was to engage tutors sooner rather than later.
Choyce added her thoughts, admitting that “it is incredibly difficult and if we weren’t planning on staying here, I wouldn’t do it again. More than the physical toll, the emotional toll is also a burden. People, including locals, are curious as to my decision, and in some cases people have told me outright that I am ‘psychologically crippling’ my children. It is a social struggle as much as an educational struggle.”
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The Dangers of Switching Systems
So, what if your child succeeds in learning Chinese at primary level, but then you decide to send them to an English-medium secondary school in Hong Kong, or even back ‘home’? This can also lead to problems as one family learnt when they decided to return to the UK. The mother describes how the family endured six months of “absolute hell” trying to prepare for 11+ exams for selective secondary schools in the UK, while trying to maintain good grades at local school.
“We learnt that there is a significant language leap between the ages of 7-12 and suddenly children start to use very sophisticated language in their native language and write fairly long essays. We found that our children really were not making it to that level in Chinese, and they did not really make this leap in English either! But if you are not looking at a selective secondary school it may not matter at all,” she says.
Similarly, a transfer to a competitive English-speaking secondary school in Hong Kong may create similar problems. However, this is a problem faced by many Chinese-speaking Hong Kong students as well, and is a much debated topic in Hong Kong under the topic of ‘mother tongue’ instruction.
Teaching Style in Government Schools
In speaking to parents who have sent their children to CMI schools, several voiced concerns over their children’s self-esteem while struggling to learn in a second language. Annie’s mum describes the approach as “Dickensian”, saying, “children are ranked in the class and that rank is out there for all to see. Our children often do struggle at first which can be soul destroying for them.”
Another parent, Annette, a mother educated in the US with children in CMI primary and secondary schools, also struggled with the style of teaching:
“(When my daughter started secondary school) I wasn’t prepared for how strict it would be, but after asking around, I’ve found that they are no more strict than other secondary schools… But now that we’ve been through so many years, I’ve come to accept that my children’s childhood will be different from mine, and that’s okay – as long as I make sure our home life is a good one and that they know we are proud of how hard they work, even if they are failing Chinese!”
On the other hand, Annie’s older brother attended the CMI Lignan Primary School before it was temporarily closed down for rebuilding in 2013 (it’s scheduled to reopen in 2017). Mum describes the school as a “fabulous” place where the teachers “adored the kids”. Her son is now at Rosary Hill, attending the CMI secondary school, where he is also doing very well.
Choyce shares an interesting insight; she believes that in fact it is the top schools that are more old-fashioned in their approach to teaching as the high-achieving ‘tiger’ parents will only believe their children are getting a good education if they suffer heavy homework loads and endless testing. Without this pressure to ‘succeed’, Choyce thinks that the middle-ranking schools are more relaxed; “they’re a lot more progressive than people give them credit.”
How Do I Decide?
Whether considering ‘local’ schools for economic reasons or your child’s Chinese language skills, it seems that compromises need to be made. Western-educated parents are wise to modify their expectations of teaching styles, and should certainly be prepared to get outside support, whether to help with Chinese or English. If choosing the Chinese medium route, be prepared to dedicate yourself, and many hours, to your cause.
The government policy is to promote the use of Chinese — mother tongue — as the principal medium of instruction (MOI) for local schools but as both Chinese and English are the official languages in Hong Kong, the Government says it “invests heavily” in training students to be biliterate (Chinese and English) and trilingual (Cantonese, Putonghua and English). It is a noble vision for a ‘World City’, but it appears we have a way to go before this dream is achieved.
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- In the 2015/16 school year, there were 572 primary schools, 506 secondary day schools, and 61 special schools. Click here or here to view profiles of government schools.
- The Hong Kong Government provides free education for all children in Hong Kong from Primary One (P1) to Secondary Three (S3). Education is subsidised in Secondary Four (S4) and Secondary Five (S5).
- Kindergartens in Hong Kong are privately run by voluntary organisations or private bodies, but supervised by the Education Bureau (EDB). Kindergartens usually charge fees, although the government does offer financial support for all children born in Hong Kong. Children usually start kindergarten aged three, and move on to primary school at the age of six.
- There are three modes of operation in the government primary schools; AM, PM, and whole day. The government encourages most primary schools to adopt a whole-day operation.
- All junior residents in Hong Kong are, upon application, allocated P1 places in government and government-aided primary schools through the Primary One Admission System (POAS). This takes place in September for the following school year. If your child attends a local kindergarten they will be provided with the relevant forms. If not, click here to download the government information leaflet. If you’ve missed this deadline, call the School Places Allocation Section on (+852) 2832 7700/ (+852) 2832 7740.
- Children are allocated subsidised government S1 places through the Secondary School Places Allocation System (SSPA). This usually takes place between January and May for admission in September of the same calendar year. Click here for more information.
- DSS and private schools don’t use government admission systems. Parents should apply directly to the school. See the Resources section for lists of schools.