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Local or International School? The Dilemma Facing Expats in Hong Kong

Parents waiting outside an international kindergarten in the rain to hand in application form for their kids. Photo from Apple Daily. Non-commercial use.

Parents waiting outside an international kindergarten in the rain to hand in application form for their kids. Photo from Apple Daily. Non-commercial use.

As a global financial center, Hong Kong attracts a large number of expat families. For those with young children, education is a priority, but the city's limited options can prove to be a headache.

In private international schools, tuition is often through the roof and admission highly competitive. Waiting lists are so long that in some cases parents are reportedly submitting applications along with ultrasound results of their soon-to-be-born children in the hopes of securing a spot when their son or daughter reaches school age.

In local schools, lack of Cantonese-language skills can keep expats from enrolling their children.

Malvern College, a leading British public school, recently announced that it is looking to launch its primary section in Tai Po, with over 90 percent of spots reserved for students holding foreign passports. If the school goes ahead with building its campus there, it will be the second famous British boarding school in the area, after Harrow International School in Tuen Mun, which opened in 2012.

But with only 1,104 km2 of land, Hong Kong does not have the space to build many new school facilities, and Malvern appears to be an exception to the rule. Most expats are left with the dilemma – local or international schools?

Expensive schooling

It takes a bit more than pocket change to pay the annual fees of the top international schools. Harrow International charges 136,500 Hong Kong dollars (17,610 US dollars), while other private schools charge about 79,500 Hong Kong dollars (10,200 US dollars). The Malvern School, which has yet to start, has fixed its yearly fees at 160,000 Hong Kong dollars (20,640 US dollars).

Schools also charge for applying for enrollment, up to a few thousand Hong Kong dollars for some schools. Local parent Fiona Kong commented on the forum Baby Kingdom:


To make sure [that the kids have] a good learning environment and enter a good primary school and develop fluent Chinese and English, parents are crazy. To be frank, now that my young daughter has to choose a secondary school, and I would rather cut short my lifespan for a few years in exchange if she managed to enter the one that we choose. I believe many parents share my feeling. Tell me, a few years of life or 2,800 Hong Kong dollars for buying hope, which one is more expensive?

Fees are bound to rise now that the Hong Kong government has decided to cut subsidies for schools run by English Schools Foundation (ESF) starting in August 2016, increasing the burden on parents. In fact, the ESF increased fees for primary education by a whopping 5.9 percent in 2013 and has also revealed that in 2014 non-Chinese speaking children will not be given top priority for admission.

However, the international schools and the private institutions in Hong Kong have recently lost their appeal to the expat families.

The language barrier

In comparison, local public schools are free. Annual fees at Direct Subsidy Schools, which are private schools that receive support from the government, start from 7,370 Hong Kong dollars (950 US dollars) to nearly 60,000 Hong Kong dollars ($9,000 US dollars).

While a better deal financially, the majority of Hong Kongers speak Cantonese, and so it is the common language of instruction in many local schools, something that at times worries expat parents whose children don't speak it. Kids are expected to be fluent in the language if they want to be enrolled in a local school.

Cara from the Asia Expat forum talked about her experience of sending her kids to local Cantonese-speaking kindergarten:

both of my kids attended a local kindergarten (my hubby is chinese, though). but their best friends, all non-chinese speakers, also attended the local kindie. now, they are all mostly at a local primary school […] so, yes, it is perfectly possible. just don't expect your little one to understand everything immediately. it is a long process and the first few months will be the most difficult.

On the flip side, many international schools require children to be fluent in English. Maureen Anne called for help in the expat forum because her daughter cannot speak English:

My husband just accepted the offer to be expatriated to Hong Kong. Our family will also move there. We just realize how difficult it will be to find a suitable international school to our 5-year-old. All the 2014-2015 formal applications completed last Sept. More important, our daughter does not speak English. According to the agent who is assisting us to schools, all the good international schools will have English interview, they do not accept non-English speaker at all!

In an interview about relocation to Hong Kong, Kam Sun who is SEO in Hong Kong advised other expats:

Getting a school place in Hong Kong is very tricky so any new arrival needs to get applications in as soon as possible, even if the children are not of school age yet.

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  • I have taught at two local (free) primary schools in Hong Kong and also at a top-tier private international secondary school in Hong Kong. Each school had it’s own strengths and weaknesses of course. My own child has attended an ESF school and a different top-tier private
    international school in Hong Kong (not the one I taught at). Teaching in Hong Kong was an incredibly enlightening experience for me as a teacher, as a parent and as a human being.

    I can say that having that having clarity around family priorities (i.e. language of instruction,
    identity, social and emotional development, academic emphasis and orientation, etc.) is critical in making the best choice for a child in Hong Kong – or anywhere where you may find your self raising your family.

    I know that both Hong Kong local and international schools offer brilliant academic opportunities for students. The tricky part is determining what socio-cultural environment may best support
    your child, as a human being. We don’t learn in a vacuum. Children are not machines to be slotted into any school and expected to have the same level success as their peers. Humans respond in unique ways to social contexts such as schools. A supportive social-cultural
    environment is key for a child to learn optimally. This then becomes more a question about having a sense of belonging in an incredibly school-choice rich city such as Hong Kong. There are excellent academic programs all over the territory. However, each school is staffed by human beings with particular cultural orientations and values determined by the part of the world in which they were trained and educated themselves. Teachers are limited by their own cultural experiences, just like parents are. Furthermore, school curricula are often based on national ones with a particular worldview which may (or may not) support your child’s sense
    of identity. Some curricula are international without ties to a national curriculum and thus the teaching staff may be somewhat heterogenous in order to deliver these types of “international” curricula. There are pros and cons to both situations.

    I always suggest that parents get their hands on a school’s reading lists and social studies/history curricula online or elsewhere when possible to get a taste of how their children will be formally educated in the school. Much will be echoed in the social environment
    of a school. Whether one likes it or not, schools become an extension to the family and this can be disconcerting to some parents (and to some children) whose values at home conflict with the values taught within the school curricula. I’ve seen this many times in my professional career.

    This socio-cultural element is just as important as the academic rigor and financial element when making a school choice for a child. Do consider the intercultural dimension when choosing a school and try to meet the teachers in a school to discuss your questions when possible. It might
    be perfect to have your child socialized and educated across cultures but, for some families, this might be more stressful than enjoyable.

    I recently wrote about family global lifestyles with parents in mind.
    You can check that out here if you’re curious:

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