School choice: the final chapter

To wrap up a very long series on primary school applications in Hong Kong, I’d like to do a couple of things.

First, I’ll add a postscript to the story of the Tall family’s own school search. I’d then like to step back and add a couple of observations about the whole experience in the context of school choice.

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.

The last time I wrote on this topic, in April, Daughter Tall had been admitted to just a couple of the schools we applied to.

Things changed in June. We had calls from two of the three DSS schools in Tseung Kwan O that had previously rejected Daughter Tall. One wanted her to come in for an additional ‘interview’, but the tone of the call made it clear this was window-dressing: Daughter Tall was very likely to ‘pass’ this interview. The other didn’t even bother with any pretense; a place was on offer up front.

This June ‘shakeup’ is important for school-searchers to remember. You of course can’t bank on your kid getting late offers, but it’s inevitable that places will open up at this point as the schools have to nail down who’s actually going to be attending, and who’s dropping out because they’ve been accepted to two or more schools.

Next, I’d like to add just a couple of observations on the whole issue of school choice. First, to what degree does ‘school choice’ really exist in Hong Kong? Obviously, it’s no pure free market, but Mrs Tall and I wouldn’t have tormented ourselves with months of application angst if there were no real choices involved.

Hong Kong’s educational system, although dominated by the Education Bureau, certainly does offer genuine choices. In fact, compared with many western countries, the range of choices is quite broad. Just to recap, there are:

  • a surprisingly small number of purely government-funded and operated schools;
  • a very large number of schools that are government-funded and supervised, but that are run by private organizations, mostly religious ones;
  • an increasing number of what are essentially charter or magnet schools, e.g. the Direct Subsidy Scheme schools; and
  • genuinely private schools that receive no government funding.

The obvious follow-up question, of course, is ‘Does this element of choice really make Hong Kong school better?’

Let me try to answer that by backing up a bit. First, I’ve long found it ironic how well Hong Kong students do in terms of actually getting, you know, educated, given the barrages of criticism the Hong Kong education system receives from many quarters, (with expats often leading the charge). Still, there’s no denying improvements can be made, especially in terms of loosening up the spiral of high expectations/excessive homework/achievement that drives many schools.

Having applied to quite a few schools (nine or ten, depending on how you count our progress into the schools’ various application processes), I was impressed by how hard the schools compete, not only in terms of their academic standards, but also their commitment to balancing studies with extracurricular activities.

And as the number of DSS schools and other ‘freer’ schools increases, and these schools compete for a shrinking pool of students (given Hong Kong’s worringly low birth rate) the SAR’s one-size-fits-all model of education is indeed breaking down, and real options will continue to be made available. It’s already started. Witness the floods of applications to new DSS schools promising different approaches such as UGA, and ‘music specialist’ schools such as the International Christian Quality Music Secondary and Primary School, and so on.

One final observation about school choice in Hong Kong is that, because the SAR is so densely populated, it’s a great place to promote school choice. Why? Because it’s unlikely you’ll need to move – or pay a huge housing premium – to get into a decent school. And even if you think you do need to be nearer one particular school, reasonably-priced housing is available in just about any of the government districts.

This is most patently not the case in some other countries. In my homeland, for example, many families bankrupt themselves by going too deeply into mortgage debt in order to get their kids into a decent school district.

In a good book I read recently, The Two-Income Trap: Why Middle-Class Parents are Going Broke, Elizabeth Warren and Amelia Warren Tyagi, the mother/daughter authorial team, ask a simple question: if so many American families now comprise two working parents, as opposed to the single-breadwinner model from a generation or two ago, why are so many of these two-earner families going bankrupt? As the authors put it:

Why would the average person spend so much money on a home? For many parents, the answer came down to two words so powerful that families would pursue them to the brink of bankruptcy: safety and education. Families put Mom to work, used up the family's economic reserves, and took on crushing debt loads in sacrifice to these twin gods, all in the hope of offering their children the best possible start in life. (pages 22-23, italics in the original)

To mitigate this dilemma, the authors call for increased school choice via a voucher system that would, in practice, look much like – Hong Kong.

In the end, of course, it’s good to be done with the whole school choice process. Having choices is great, but there’s no doubt making them can be stressful. It was quite pleasant this week when the biggest school-related choice the Family Tall needed to make was what lunch options Daughter Tall preferred in September!


school applications in the USA

Well, it's always comforting to know I'd be feelin' the craziness if I lived in a big city back in the USA, too. See this NYT article on the ever-increasing squeeze to get into the city's private primary schools.

Mr Tall

School choice in 'Yes, Minister'

This blog post embeds a hilarious -- and telling -- discussion of school choice from 'Yes, Minister'. It's devasting, really, but it's also pure heresy to many people who disparage the very possibilty of allowing any sort of market mechanism determine where children are educated.

School choice

This article from the UK's Telegraph is written in precisely the same I-can't-quite-believe-someone-would-do-this tone in which I wrote one of my earliest Hong Kong education articles. The subject is the perennial theme: 'How can I game the system to get my kid into a good school?'. It seems a lot of UK parents are looking to get their kids into cheaper schools, and when taken in combination with an uptake in the birth rate for the current cohort of kids, it's led to some fierce and ugly competitive maneuvers.

Fake addresses, hypocritical church attendance, lying on application forms -- it's all there. A couple of nice fresh tactics: fake parental separations (i.e. to 'legitimately' acquire a second mailing address in the desired district) and getting your kid declared learning disabled.

School choice HK vs USA

I have thoroughly enjoyed your comments regarding HK.  I was born and raised in HK and went through the HK education system back in the 60's and 70's.  I am raising my children in the US and is quite familiar with the system here in the US. 

In general I agree that having choices in anything is good and schools are no exception.  But having followed your experiences as well as my own, there is some serious down side to school choice as well.  As Daughter Tall's journey indicated, as soon as you can choose the schools, the schools are choosing you as well.  A lot of the pressure on the kids come from our long standing Chinese culture, along with the fierce competitive nature of our society.  Much of the pressure is also a result of the choice.  The schools are looking out for themselves and are choose the students with the most potential or "best suited to them".  Eventually everyone gets a school, the competition then turns to which school.  So admission into primary school in HK looks a lot like admission into college in the US complete with the year long research, application and interviews.  That's what people do to get into Harvard.  Isn't it too much for a 6 year old (and her parents)?

The fact that you know once you managed to buy into a good district, your kids is going to stay in the "good" schools unless he brings a plastic gun to school, is what makes life slower for junior.  He doesn't have to compete with someone else every few years.  He has time to play football, the flute and the video games.  All you need to do is pay the mortgage.  The lack of competition outside of bank account is what afforded the more relaxed childhood.

Which one is better?  I don't really know.  Each has its pros and cons.