Most primary schools will have at least one open-day, for parents to visit and take a look around. Here are some suggestions on how to get the most out of the visit.
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.
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We nearly didn't visit a couple of the schools at all. We thought we'd got such a clear picture from their website and other people's feedback, we knew exactly which school we wanted. But after the visits our list of preferred schools was turned upside down, so it's a good job we went!
I'd say go along to all the schools you are considering, and maybe a even the few you feel are borderline cases. You may be surprised at what you find.
Finding out when they are held
The bulk of the open-days are held in September and October. We found out exact dates through various means:
If you still can't find out, contact the school directly. In a few cases, some of the famous name schools don't bother with an open day at all. They have so many more applicants than places, I guess they don't feel the need.
Also check if children are expected or not. In some cases children are expected to come along, and are taken away by teachers to play games while you walk around the school. In others the children had to stay with the parents. As you can imagine, the children weren't too excited about sitting quietly through a 30-minute powerpoint presentation, and would have been better off staying at home.
As you'll see, there are several opportunities for questions. What would you like to ask the principal, teachers, and pupils? You might not get a chance to ask them all, but it's good to have a few questions in mind.
And what will you look for as you move around the campus?
What to expect
You are likely to start with a presentation from the principal, then get a tour around the school's facilities.
Principals are not known for being shy, and can talk at length about their schools. The accompanying presentations we saw varied a lot - some were slick multi-media presentations. Others were garish powerpoints, packed with every animated, flashing clip-art they could find. All the presenters spoke Cantonese, though some of the powerpoints were written in English.
It's a sales pitch, so of course they all present themselves in the best light possible. Still, it's possible to get an idea of the school's emphasis from what is missing, or what is talked about at length. eg only one school's presentation didn't mention parental involvement with the school - something we were looking for. When we asked a teacher, they said there was something, but it had only started in the last three years - so it seemed low down on this school's list of priorities.
After the presentation there's usually a chance for questions. Though as the size of the audience we sat in varied from around 20 at one school, to over 1,000 at another, your chance to speak varies accordingly. The parents asking questions fell into two groups.
At the ordinary schools, questions were generally about about the school, with parents trying to find if it was a good fit for what they wanted. Questions about homework seemed universal. Things were different at the one famous school we went to. There it seemed parents were looking for some secret sauce - their questions focused strictly on the interview and application process. What edge could they get on gaming the system?
At some point in the presentation it's quite likely that two or three recent graduates will be wheeled out to demonstrate the school's academic prowess. Dressed in the uniforms of whichever famous secondary school they attend, they will likely take it in turns to recite a set piece in English, Cantonese, and Putonghua. Very nice, but just about meaningless - every school should be able to find at least three smart kids in a year.
Next comes the school tour. If you didn't get to ask your question after the presentation, here's another chance - there are usually teachers around that you can corner for a quick interrogation. You may be led around the school by pupils, so it's also a chance to hear their side of things. (Though it can get a bit intense: as we left one school we tried to say goodbye and thanks to our pupil-guide. We couldn't get close though, as they were completely surrounded by a tight circle of parents, giving the poor girl a thorough interrogation.)
If lots of the pupils are involved, it's a better chance than listening to the chosen prodigies to gauge what the average pupil is really like. We were very impressed at one school we attended, where all the children seemed bubbly and confident.
Finally, the tour is a chance to put on your sherlock holmes hat, look for clues, and get ready to read between the lines:
As soon as possible, sit down with whoever else attended from your family, and write down notes about the school. The good, the bad, questions you didn't get answered, etc. And what would you do differently on the next school visit?
It might seem a bit over the top, but we started off not doing this, and we found they quickly get muddled up. A couple of minutes spent jotting down notes will make your life easier when you come to make a shortlist.
What tricks do you have to get the most out of school visits?