A Hong Kong primary schools application timeline

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In the previous article in this series on primary school applications in Hong Kong, I sketched out the boundaries of the local school choice battlefield, introducing the basic types of local Hong Kong schools, and how they go about admitting students. But any good general out on the field needs more than a map: he needs a battle plan that sets out a proactive sequence of moves that must be made to win the day.

This is part of a series on how to choose and apply to a Primary School in Hong Kong. You can see the full list of articles on the left.

If you've reached this page via a search engine, you'll probably want to read the introduction first.

With my arsenal of martial metaphors temporarily discharged, let’s move on and put the whole schools application process into a different kind of order – a chronological one. If you’re looking for a school for your child, this may turn out to be the most useful approach to the whole mess, because once any one of the umpteen deadlines you’ll face has been missed, it’s really missed. Schools here don’t seem at all interested in granting do-overs.

The actual primary schools admissions-and-interviews firefight (sorry; I was wrong about the metaphors) in Hong Kong can take over a year. We put in our first application form in May 2007, had our initial interview in late June 2007, and although we’ve been spared the need to participate in the central allocation and the last-minute jockeying for places that will go on in June 2008, many parents are not.

But if you want to be well-prepared for the hour in which the bullets begin to fly (I promise I’ll stop; really) you need to initiate your reconnaissance and intelligence-gathering (that’s it) even earlier.

Since the process itself is so long, it may appear that there will be lots of time to get things done – to research schools, to prepare application packages, to write letters. But we found ourselves frequently feeling rushed; deadlines crept up quickly, and since there are so many of them, at times we wished we’d been better prepared.

I’d therefore suggest the following rough timeline for preparing for, and engaging in this application process. I’ve included key dates in approximate terms only, since the actual days on which these deadlines fall will vary a bit from year to year. My calendar dates are oriented in relationship to the day your child will start school, i.e. in September of a new school year. We’ll call that benchmark ‘E-Day’ (for education, of course). The dates therefore are stated in months before E-Day, beginning, as you’ll see, weeeelllll in advance.

January-April (E-Day minus 17-20 months): This, believe it or not, is the time to start researching schools. You have time, and can maintain a semblance of disinterested, leisurely, objective analysis. And the people who are a year ahead of you and therefore in the midst of the process themselves – i.e. their kids need a place for the upcoming September – have reached a lull in their personal storms. This means they’ll not only be willing and often eager to talk to you about the whole thing, but they should have regained a measure of emotional distance from the ups and downs of the preceding two or three months. (I don’t recommend discussing schools with a parent whose little darling has just received a rejection letter; you’re not likely to get a useful response.)

It’s also now that you should start thinking about how you might assemble an application portfolio. I’ll discuss their composition (as well as their general ridiculousness) in a later article, so for now suffice it to say that some schools really do look at the certificates and awards your budding genius may have earned. At one interview, for example, the teacher who interviewed Mrs Tall and me flipped through Daughter Tall’s portfolio right in front of us, and then assigned an ‘extra-curriculars’ score on her application form on the spot.

You might also consider enrolling Junior in an interview prep course at this point. We didn’t do so with Daughter Tall, but in retrospect, I’m even more appalled to admit that, again, it might really have done some good. More on this later, too.

May-November (E-Day minus 16-10 months): These months are a grind devoted to downloading/sending for/picking-up-in-person application forms for DSS and private schools, submitting them by the stipulated deadlines, and then escorting your darling to interviews. Oh, and to watching the mailbox.

Most DSS and private schools will have informational sessions for parents in conjunction with their interviews. It's of course a good idea to attend these if you can, as you're going to get a better feel for the school simply by being there. Government-funded schools may also hold open days or information sessions during this period as well.

Our earliest interview was in late June; the last one we attended was in October, but many schools’ are later. The schools also varied greatly in sending out their results. Some did so within a couple of weeks of the interview, others took months. One -- ironically, the one that granted Daughter Tall her very first interview way back in June -- we’re still waiting to hear from, and I guess now probably never will . . . .

At this point it – if you haven’t already done so – it would really help to put together a calendar or spreadsheet or table or something that sets out clearly what schools you have in mind, their distinguishing characteristics, the elements needed for their applications, and the details and deadlines of their application processes. That way you won’t miss the application deadlines as come up. It’s also helpful just to keep from getting confused about which school is which. This never seemed to be a problem for Mrs Tall – who as a native Hong Konger already had a mental image of most of the schools we applied to – but for me getting thoroughly mixed up was par for the course. I had especially perplexing problems remember schools whose names are transliterations from Chinese, and found it incredibly hard to remember which schools were DSS, which were private, and so on. I also could not be trusted to remember deadlines for submitting application forms.

The key is, I had the preternaturally-organized Mrs Tall to rely on; you do not. Make up that table, put the dates in your PDA, write them on your toenails, whatever – just don’t count on yourself to remember all of them in time.

Mid-September-early October (roughly E-Day minus 11 months): time to fill in the Discretionary Place Admission scheme form (these are usually distributed to kids at their kindergartens) and submit it. Note that you can choose only one school to apply to for a discretionary place, and that you’ll need to submit the application form directly to that school, in person, at a designated time.

Late November (E-Day minus 9.5 months): the Government releases Discretionary Admission scheme results, to joy for some, and rending of garments and gnashing of teeth for many others. If your kid gets a place, and you decide to take it, you'll need to register within just a couple of days of getting the good news.

Late January (E-Day minus 7.5 months): Parents whose kids haven't got a DSS or Discretionary Place go to an allocation centre to submit a list of schools for the Central Allocation scheme.

Early June (E-Day minus 3 months): Central Allocation scheme results released.

Throughout June (E-Day minus 2-3 months): The Great Shakeup commences, as people holding onto multiple places for their kids are forced to finally make up their minds, and open places appear all over the spectrum for people willing to hunt them down.

Okay! That's already a lot to get done – and we haven't even talked yet about the most important issue: why choose one school over others? So in the next installment, I'll run down a checklist of factors to consider when looking at individual schools.