Although Hong Kong’s public schools produce excellent academic results, rote-learning and a litany of exams are the norm, and most lessons are taught in Cantonese. As a result, the majority of expat families living in Hong Kong prefer to send their children to international schools, but with high demand and very few places, there’s a multitude of hoops to jump through in the pursuit of that perfect school place.
One of the best pieces of advice is to start your search and application process early, as some schools accept applications years in advance, occasionally from a child’s birth! On top of this, there are face-to-face interviews for children and parents to contend with, academic tests, and often verbal and non-verbal reasoning assessments that cannot be prepared for.
Some parents subject their little ones to hour-upon-hour of extracurricular classes in an attempt to put them ahead of the pack, while others submit complementary portfolios as thick as your thigh detailing a child’s hobbies, test results, awards and personal attributes. Those with the means may even literally buy into the system, shelling out millions of dollars for huge debentures, some of which are non-refundable.
The reality is however, that there simply aren’t enough private school places in the city to accommodate the demand, especially on Hong Kong Island, where spots at the top league international schools get snapped up years in advance. Those new to the city therefore stand little chance against established expat families armed with knowledge of the system and fighting fierce for the few places available.
One solution is to employ the help of on-the-ground experts, such as Crown Relocation Services. Alongside lobbying the government to build more schools via their membership to the American Chamber of Commerce, the global company (locally based in Wan Chai) advises expats on everything from which schools are right for their children to where to buy uniform.
According to Hong Kong Crown Relocations manager Paula Walker, there are glimmers of hope for the future as the government sets aside more land for private schools, but this land simply isn’t being released fast enough. She adds that families with the option are often bypassing Hong Kong altogether in favour of Singapore or other Asian destinations, while those who do settle here are usually forced to drastically reduce their expectations in regards to their favoured schools.
“No relocation company can guarantee a child a place in Hong Kong, but we have the information to manage expectations because we know what’s available in each school,” says Paula. “We can give them the right information to maximise the chances of their child getting in, but working down the list of favourites normally has to be done.”
The Crown team is on hand to analyse parent and child requirements in order to suggest schools, help with the application and supplementary paperwork, liaise with admin offices and even accompany parents on school tours. One of their most recent success stories was with a French family, whose three children, none of whom spoke much English, all needed school places. During the family’s flying three-day visit before the big move, Crown managed to secure interviews with the city’s top French and Canadian schools, and all three children are now happily settled.
When asked what the secret is, Paula explains that every case is different. “The application process varies from school to school. Sometimes they want visa copies, birth certificates, previous school reports, and now there’s a growing trend of parental statements, in which the parents have to describe their ethos and what they would be bringing to the school community. There are no set rules, but we can describe the character of the school and direct parents accordingly.”