Primary school choice factors in Hong Kong

Well, it's been nice. After a flurry of worry about choosing a kindergarten for Daughter Tall, Mrs Tall and I have been able to cruise for a couple of years.

Daughter Tall ended up in one of Hong Kong's better-known kindies, and we've been very happy with the choice. She's never been anything but eager to get on her school bus, and she's done well enough. We should know, as her report cards are assembled at a level of detail that far exceeds my universiy transcripts, much less my own kindergarten reports. (I seem to recall Mother Tall's delight with a sharp reduction in my paste-eating in one academic quarter, but that's about it).

Unfortunately, it's unlikely we're going to be able to keep Daughter Tall parked in kindergarten for more than the obligatory one more year, especially as she's already the tallest girl in her class. This means we must face the inevitable: choosing a primary school for her. And since she'll be starting P1 in just a year and a half or so, it's obviously high time to get started on the process. [No, really, it is!]

As I've mentioned before, Mrs Tall and I decided some time ago that we'd send Daughter Tall to local schools if possible, and we're grateful that so far this plan still seems viable. Yes, Chinese homework is a pain, but Daughter Tall is handling it with aplomb.

The downside, however, is that choosing a Hong Kong primary school is orders of magnitude more complex than choosing a kindergarten. It's like having a go at Mt Everest after you've only practiced on Victoria Peak.

Over the past couple of years I've been convincing myself that I've got a pretty solid handle on how the whole school selection process works here. But as Mrs Tall and I have actually started talking about it, I've realized my grip on the key issues is mostly illusory. When I start trying to list out all the variables, I feel like I'm trying to group hug a pack of weasels.

With that rather unsavory image in mind, I'll just try to calm down a bit, and sketch out a preliminary list of some of the factors we'll need to confront as we work through this school choice process. Believe me, this list is going to be as much for my benefit as it is for yours! Oh, and keep in mind: this list applies only to Hong Kong's 'local' schools, i.e. ones that teach in Chinese as well as English. The 'international' schools sector is a whole other ball game.

So what do Hong Kong parents choosing a primary school need to balance off in making their decision?

  • Is the school single-sex, or co-ed? Mrs Tall thinks this is a much bigger factor at the secondary level than at the primary, and I'm inclined to agree, but it's still something to think about.
  • Does the school have a 'through-train' arrangement with a secondary school? That is, do students coming out of P6 automatically get a secondary school place at a sister secondary school? This is a big deal, actually, because many parents have had enough of the whole school selection process by the time they've made it through the kindergarten and primary school rounds. They just don't want to have to face the whol rigamorole again in six years, and at even higher stakes. I don't blame them at all. Another potential advantage of a through-train school -- depending on how you look at it, I suppose -- is that they may be less likely to assign really heavy homework to primary school kids. Why? Well, since they're feeding their own secondary school, they don't have to worry about their primary school graduates making it into other 'name' schools. For this very reason 'standalone' primary schools may be more likely to push kids hard, thereby building up their own name.

    One caution on this point: if you want to book a place on a through train, you'd better double check your ticket. That is, some organizations in Hong Kong certainly do run both primary and secondary schools, but they maintain fewer secondary places than primary. They then cream off their top primary graduates each year into their secondary system, leaving the 'leftovers' to go find other schools, where they're obviously labelled de facto as being lower achievers. Brtual approach, this, so if you're interested in a school system that practices it, you'd better be ready to push your kid.

  • Is the school religiously affiliated? As in the UK, many schools in Hong Kong are government-funded, but run wholly by religious organizations. In Hong Kong this means mostly Christian and Buddhist schools are available. There are also completely secular schools, too. Many people in Hong Kong don't really care about this -- they just want their kids in the most reputable one possible -- but I do. I would prefer Daughter Tall went to a Christian school, but would be okay with a secular one. I would not want her at a Buddhist school, so at least that's one choice-limiting factor!
  • How close is the school to you? This is crucial for your chances of getting your kid admitted to some schools, and of course a matter of logistical convenience for all of them.
  • How is the school funded? This is a complicated but utterly crucial issue. There are basically three types of schools in Hong Kong, as per how they get their money.

    The Hong Kong Government simply pays for one set. To make it just a bit more difficult, though, this group of schools is subdivided into 'government' schools that are secular, and hence more like public schools in the USA; and 'aided' schools, which are the aforementioned ones run by religious organizations, but that are nevertheless mostly funded by government.

    The second group is the DSS -- i.e. Direct Subsidy Scheme -- schools. They're mostly government-funded -- hence the 'subsidy' in their category name -- but they are allowed to charge a limited amount of tuition to top up their government grants. They're also allowed a somewhat greater degree of autonomy. Many of Hong Kong's 'best' -- i.e. most traditionally-reputable -- schools fall into this category, along with quite a fewer newer and perhaps more experimental or 'progressive' schools.

    The third group comprises truly private schools, i.e. those that are funded by student fees. This is a wide-ranging bunch, with some good schools, and some that are not so good at all.

    It's important that you know how a school is funded for two reasons. First, of course, is how much you pay. But for many parents the much more crucial difference between these types of schools is how you get into them. And that's where things really start to get hairy.

    In fact, just getting this far into breaking things down has left me pretty exhausted. I'm therefore going to save the dirty details of the admissions process itself for a later article.

Comments from parents who have been through all this already are very, very welcome! You may also want to have a look at this compendium of comments on school choice in Hong Kong if you're interesting in this ever-fascinating [hah! --ed.] topic.


Primary schools

hi Mr. Tall. I'd be fascinated to know why you'd rather not have your child at a buddhist school? As a agnostic newcomer to (non-religous) meditation, were I to go the local route I may have been inclined to consider schools with a Buddhist slant, but obviously you've got another take on this? I'd always understood that the Christian local schools were rather heavy on the dogma. Is this not so?

Simple answer!

Easy: I'm a Christian, and am raising Daughter Tall to be one, too. Heavy on dogma is fine with me, because I believe it's true! And actually I think the concentration on religious education varies greatly amongst the local aided-but-religious schools.

ah haa

Ok. Lucky you. That must make at least one aspect of raising kids less fraught with choices!
By the way, I had a long chat with one of N's classmate's mothers. She has a son at HKA and her daughter at Lingnan. She's Chinese (Cantonese). Said the Chinese system just didn't work with her son (couldn't sit still, play with one thing at a time, do the writing etc. required and needed more hands on from the teacher), however her daughter is coping very well there. Classes are large (32 at age 3), 2 teachers. She's very positive about Lingnan despite taking her son out of it. She says there are quite a few expat's and non-chinese children there, and that the school is more accessible than some of the local schools. She did say that you just can't compare the culture with that of an international school, but if anyone is looking for a local primary school on the Island that can meet them part of the way it sounds like this would be worth looking into.

single-sex vs. co-ed

I forgot if Daughter Tall has a younger sibling. We took the risk of send SK-Daughter to a single sex school, and when SK-Son was old enough for primary, we didn't get him into one of the "good" DSS schools, and he couldn't follow SK-Daughter to her school, which was one of the factors in switching both to a co-ed ESF school.

So, the single-sex vs. co-ed also has an impact depending on the gender mix of your kids.

I think the Through-Train vs. non-Through-Train is a very important factor.

Any recommendations from the kindergarten?

MissB's kindergarten teachers keep an eye on the local primary schools, with a view to giving recommendations to parents about where their children might do well.

There was an open day a couple of weeks back, where we asked the principal about this. She said they often recommend schools to complement the child's skills and home environment.

I hadn't thought of that before, but it seems worth keeping in mind. I'm sure my natural reaction when we do the rounds will be to like schools that are most like me. But that in some ways choosing an environment a bit different could give MissB a more balanced view of the world.


ESF Schools

From my understanding ESF schools are local english speaking schools for students who don't speak cantonese therefore can not attend regular cantonese speaking local schools? Is this true?
I am relocating to HK from the United States and need to find a local english speaking school for my two kids, 7 and 12 years old. I have HK ID since I was born in HK and move to States at 2years old. Both kids were borned in the States, need to know if my kids can attend local schools. They speak only English. And is it true the schools' acceptance is basic on availablity? What happens if child doesn't get a space? Not sure how the HK school system works, very confusing.

Whatever about speaking

Whatever about speaking Cantonese, at their ages, unless they can read and write Chinese fluently, they'll never survive a local school.

ESF or International Schools are probably your only choice.