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Gaps in education

Published on Sunday, 24 Feb 2013
ITS Education’s Anne Murphy and Danny Harrington with their young wards.
Photo: Jonathan Wong

Some see a worsening shortage of international school places, others note an easing. Is it a policy mess or a mere mismatch?

The demand is insatiable. As new international schools open, the queue for places grows longer. More than 7,370 children await places at English Schools Foundation (ESF) schools – almost triple the number in 2008. At the Chinese International School, at least 700 children applied for just 88 Reception places last year. Kellett School, the British international school in Hong Kong, has around 400 children on its waiting list.

The situation has left many parents frustrated and worried. After forking out thousands of dollars in multiple application fees in a desperate effort to secure a place in an international school, they still do not know if their child will be accepted. Some have even resorted to homeschooling.

“The greatest pressure is on Reception, and Years 1 to 4,” says Ann McDonald, principal at Kellett School, the British international school. “It is slightly better in Years 5 and 6, and at the top of the school. The biggest challenge is accommodating families. Often we can find a place for one child, but not the other [from the same family].”

It seems that more parents than ever are determined that their children receive an international education, no matter whether they are incoming expatriates or local Hongkongers. The government, meanwhile, has been forced to react by offering new land or vacant school premises for the international school sector to expand.

Dozens of operators, including leading British independent schools and international education companies, are ready to step in to meet the demand.

The government’s Annual Digest of Statistics 2012 shows that even though the number of school-age children declined over the past decade, the numbers enrolled at international, private and Direct Subsidy Scheme (DSS) schools steadily increased.

In 2011, 32,997 students were enrolled at international schools, up 21 per cent from 27,199 in 2001. According to an Education Bureau (EDB) spokesperson, 1,700 new places were created for the 2012-13 school year. There are now 38,600 places, and 34,400 students enrolled, accounting for 4.7 per cent of all students in Hong Kong.

The EDB says there are a total of 48 international schools in Hong Kong, consisting of the ESF’s 14 primary and secondary schools and other private schools. But these exclude schools operating under other funding schemes that are, in practice, international schools, or offer the option of international curriculums such as International Baccalaureate (IB) programmes, General Certificates of Secondary Education (GCSEs) and General Certificates of Education (GCE) A-levels.

These are schools set up under the government’s Private Independent School (PIS) scheme, which offered funding for new schools in the early part of the last decade, and the DSS, for which the government provides the same subsidies per student as to government and aided schools, but allows the schools greater management freedom, such as over fees and curriculum.

PIS schools include Victoria Shanghai Academy, ISF Academy and Yew Chung International School, as well the ESF’s Renaissance College and Discovery College – all IB schools.

 DSS schools also come in international hues. They include Li Po Chun United World College, part of the UWC global network, and schools such as St Paul’s Co-Educational College, Diocesan Boys School and Creative Secondary School. All offer the IB Diploma. St Paul’s College, St Paul’s Convent School, and YMCA of Hong Kong Christian College, meanwhile, have International GCSE (IGCSE) and GCE A-level options. 

DSS and private schools saw a 40 per cent increase in enrolment – from 72,793 to 102,245 – in the decade from 2001. Aided and government schools, meanwhile, lost a staggering 194,812 of their student population, resulting in the closure of 86 primary and nine secondary schools.

What the enrolment numbers tell us is that a significant shift in schooling preference has taken place. By 2011, 17.2 per cent of students in Hong Kong were being educated in what can be called the independent sector – international, private and fee-paying DSS schools – up from just 10.5 per cent a decade earlier. The EDB spokesperson says they expect even more families to want international schooling in the coming years as the city’s international business sector expands.

Despite the new places, pressure points persist. Clara Chu Sau-chun, director of residential leasing at Colliers International, monitors school places for her clients. January data shows most schools had waiting lists of 50 to 100, and some many more. “The early primary years are the worst,” she says.

Chu advises families to plan ahead and apply to four or five schools. They will find a place, she says, but not necessarily in their first-choice school.

Danny Harrington, co-founder and director of ITS Education, says most incoming families find places for their children within a few weeks of arriving. He knows this from the demand for services provided by ITS, which include tutoring and placement for both international schools in Hong Kong and boarding schools overseas.

For those waiting for places, ITS helps by providing interim schooling, so that the child does not fall behind academically. At any one time, ITS has 10 to 15 school-less children attending its tutorial centre in Sheung Wan, for up to six hours a week. “We are a safety valve,” Harrington says.

An EDB spokesperson acknowledges the imbalance in supply and demand, rather than an overall shortage – 11 per cent of places remain unfilled, she points out. This is due to the “choice of parents in respect of the quality, location, curriculum, and religious or cultural background of the schools, as well as whether vacancies are available at the grade levels in demand.” Multiple applications also add to waiting lists.

McDonald sees nothing unusual in the fact that some schools are turning away so many children. “If you go to New York or London, the most popular schools are over-subscribed,” she says. “Parents are very clear in their mind about the schools they like.”

Steve Thomas, director of construction-industry specialists Maxim Recruitment, says that the perceived lack of international school places has not been stopping executives moving to Hong Kong.

“It could be possible they won’t get the school of their first choice. But is it really reasonable to expect the place on the day you want to join? It is no different from the UK, where the better, more popular schools, have waiting lists,” he says.

There is a paradox in the scramble for international places. Hong Kong families are opting out of local education at a time when the school system consistently outperforms most others in the world in tests such as the Programme for International Student Assessment of the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD). Education reforms aimed to reduce traditional drilling for exams and to promote a broader education have been implemented over the last decade.

Professor Bob Adamson, head of the Department of International Education and Lifelong Learning at the Hong Kong Institute of Education, says some parents have not yet been won over enough by Hong Kong’s recent education-system reforms to enrol their children in government schools. “Parents have said to me, ‘We don’t want our children to be the guinea pigs for another experiment,” he says.

Political mistrust about the role of education in the city’s increasing integration with China may also be another factor driving some families away, he adds.

“Despite the reluctance on the part of the EDB to admit it, there is a sense of reintegration with the mainland through stealth,” Adamson says. “The New Senior Secondary Curriculum aligns secondary education with the rest of China in a three-three configuration.”

Flag-raising ceremonies and other initiatives to enhance students’ patriotic feelings, as well as Putonghua as a medium of instruction, are also being promoted.

“Then there is the ill-fated National and Moral Education curriculum – the final straw for many parents,” Adamson says, referring to the compulsory curriculum the government was forced to shelve last autumn following strong public resistance.

“Parents are still keeping an eye open regarding local political and social developments. The IB Diploma makes access to overseas education and even relocation easier,” he says.

Many are already seeking overseas alternatives to local and international schools in Hong Kong, out of preference or because they cannot secure a place in their chosen school. In 2011-12, there were 6,064 Hong Kong students in UK independent schools, up from 5,151 in 2008-09, according to British Council data. More affordable state boarding schools in the UK, which charge for boarding but not tuition and involve similar costs as ESF secondary fees, are also popular with Hong Kong families with full British passports.

Fierce competition for places in local high-performing English-medium schools is another factor driving Hong Kong families towards international alternatives, and keeping families new to the city out of the top schools.

Applications for St Paul’s Co-Educational College, for example, far exceed those for any individual international school. Kim Tsoi, the school’s spokesperson, says that for the coming academic year, 2,950 children applied for just 150 Primary One places, and 1,300 for the 110 places on offer in Secondary One. Non-local students could be admitted, but must cope with the Chinese curriculum.

The picture is complex, and many observers do not see a crisis over international places. The issue, then, is not to be daunted, but to be ready to navigate the system to find a school fit for your child, even if it is not your first or second choice.   

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