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School Choices for Expatriate Families in Hong Kong

Hong Kong education

On a recent trip to Hong Kong, I had the opportunity to visit a private school. The ISF Academy is located within the Island South district of Hong Kong Island. It offers a unique language program wherein students attain fluency in both English and standard Chinese by the end of grade 12.

As an American educational researcher, the purpose of my visit was to research school choices for expatriate families living in Hong Kong.

The waiting list to get into the ISF Academy is long, as is the case with most private and international schools in Hong Kong. Most expatriates choose to send their children to private or international schools; very few send their children to local schools. There are several reasons for this.

First, gaining entry into local schools is difficult because of the rigorous assessment system. Once enrolled, the learning environment is intensely competitive.

Second, most local schools use Cantonese as the medium of instruction—though a change to the language instruction policy will take effect in September allowing secondary schools to switch to English medium or adopt a mixed approach. Expatriate children who do not speak Cantonese find it extremely difficult to integrate into the current local school system.

Third, the curriculum provided by local schools does not prepare expatriate students for the learning environments they will face after graduation if they decide to attend overseas universities. Some expatriate parents feel that exposure to the international system at the primary and secondary level is the best way to prepare their children for a similar system at the tertiary level.

Expatriate families are not the only ones who prefer private and international schools over local schools. More and more local families are also coming to that conclusion because of globalization, rapid economic development in mainland China, and a variety of other reasons.

Malcolm Pritchard, principal of the ISF Academy, said: “The intention underlying the international schools is that they should cater to the needs of the very large expatriate community. The reality is that a lot of local families feel that international schools offer a broader range of curriculum choice, and therefore, you will find local students in international schools.”

For the past several years, Hong Kong has been one of the world’s fastest growing markets for international schools. The robust growth has been driven by increasing numbers of expatriate families moving to Hong Kong.
According to the Education Bureau, there are currently 51 international schools in Hong Kong.

Despite high tuition fees and the recent global financial crisis, the waiting lists to get into private and international schools are still long.

This is presenting a dilemma for professionals with families who are sent abroad by their companies to work in Hong Kong, and it’s a deterrent for companies trying to recruit them. Many foreign professions who are not able to enroll their children in a Hong Kong school choose not to relocate there.

In order to boost the competitiveness of Hong Kong as a destination for talented expatriates, the government plans to expand its pool of international school places. In the meantime, expatriate families will continue to struggle with waiting lists.

For expatriates who want help with the difficult process of searching for schools in Hong Kong, the ITS Tutorial School offers a school placement consultancy service.

Anne Murphy, director of training for ITS Corporate Training, offered this
advice: “The process of choosing a school for your child can seem extremely daunting, but we believe that early preparation and planning can help make a well informed choice.”

Principal Pritchard offered similar advice: “It would be prudent to contact schools well ahead of the transfer time to ascertain if there are any vacancies, what the entry requirements are, and to get your name down early.”


Bill Costello, M.Ed., is an education columnist and blogger. He visited ITS on Dec 14, 2009.
He can be reached at www.makingmindsmatter.com

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