Schools part II: Getting into a good school in Hong Kong

If Hong Kong expat parents decide to send their children to local schools, then begins the intimidating process of trying to get them into a 'good' one. Parents all over the world try hard to get the best education possible for their children, of course, so in one sense there's nothing unusual about this. But the lengths to which some Hong Kong parents will go beggar belief.

Why is getting into a good school such a big deal here?

First, there's the intense -- almost religious -- faith many Chinese people have in the power of education. A look at the enrollment figures for universities in the USA, for example, will almost always reveal a disproportionate number of 'Asian Americans', a large proportion of whom will be of Chinese ancestry. On the whole, this education-fixation is of course a good thing, but it also provides an endless supply of fuel for the fires of parental ambition.

Next, Hong Kong is a small place, in the sense that everyone knows which schools are 'good ones', i.e. boasting long traditions of academic excellence, and known for producing social and cultural elites. Networks of 'old school chums' still exist and, given the Chinese propensity for guanxi (i.e. appealing to and making use of personal influence in politics and business), graduating from one can be a big advantage.

Thirdly, the Hong Kong Government directly encourages intra-school competition by grouping its secondary schools into 'bands', i.e. direct rankings of their quality. This removes any remaining mystery about the school your kid gets into.

All of this leads to some outrageous behavior from 'concerned' parents who 'only want the best' for their children. And the process begins early. Let's look at a couple of examples.

One of Mrs Tall's female relatives, who shall certainly go unnamed or further identified, has a daughter who just this year is entering primary school after finishing kindergarten. Her parents had already moved from Tuen Mun (a new suburban town that's not noted for having good schools) to Kowloon Tong (an area with lots of older, more prominent schools) in order to boost her geographical chances of getting in a 'good one'.

But was this enough? Was it now time to let fate take its hand to dictate which school she'd get allotted to? Of course not. Instead, this girl's mother launched a campaign of almost manic self-promotion and sycophancy to try to game the system, i.e. to get her daughter admitted via special dispensation to one of several famous schools. This campaign was built on a foundation of dragging the poor girl to years of extracurricular classes and activities -- swimming lessons, piano lessons, drawing and art lessons, English lessons, and so on. Mom assembled a curriculum vitae comprising several pages of information on these accomplishment, buttressed by stacks of award certificates, participation notices, signed testimonials from kindergarten teachers (really, I'm not making this up) and so on.

But none of this was at all unusual. In fact, the reason Mrs Tall and I were witness to all this is that Mrs Ambitious then asked us to write application letters for her daughter! And we did: you just can't turn down requests like this, and hope to maintain family harmony. We also redesigned and edited the CV. Mom wanted to make sure all was in perfect English, of course.

In the end, the little girl didn't get into any of the 'good schools', so Mom was back to us in a flash, asking for more letters, this time to ask the relevant headmasters and headmistresses to reconsider their decisions, to please think about what a truly accomplished and singular girl was being overlooked here, and on and on. So far, it still hasn't worked.

The problem is not the little girl. She's bright, eager to learn, and in no way unsuited for attending a good school: she's a normal child. But so are hundreds of thousands of other children in Hong Kong, and their parents are all pushing them into regimens of lessons and accomplishments and polishing up their CVs, too.

In one sense, Mrs Tall's relative isn't even all that extreme. Mrs Tall had a colleague at one of her former jobs who took the game to another level entirely. She started leveraging the application process when her son was in her womb. How? Well, she knew that many of the best schools in Hong Kong are run by the Catholic Church. So she hung around a Catholic church that was associated with one of the good schools, and sucked up to the nuns who had influence on school admissions. She became a church member, was baptized, and did a lot of volunteer work to further ingratiate herself. But it was all a sham -- and she then compounded her sins by bragging to her colleagues about how her Machiavellian maneuverings were going to beat the system and get her kid in the school's door!

This might be an extreme case, but I don't think it's isolated, either. Mrs Tall later had another colleague at a different company who'd also become a 'member' of a church with the same general plan in mind. I'm sure examples abound.

So, added to the question of whether or not to send our kids to international or local schools, the Talls and the Baldings will need to decide whether or not to 'play the game' of school admissions.

If you've got advice for us -- or good stories about this subject -- we're all ears!


CV for under 6s

I had to make a sort of "CV" for my son when we applied to a famous boys school in Kowloon that will remain nameless. Unfortunately, I did not have any certificates to show (though I did insert .jpgs of some of his art work and printed them out in color).

I also made the mistake of asking questions in the parent-headmistress interview.

One of my neighbors, making application to the same school, included her son's certificate for tooth brushing accomplishment that he won in K2. I laughed, but who is laughing now? My son was not accepted by the famous school and now attends an ESF.

School admission gamesmanship

Just when you think you've chronicled the most extreme lengths some HK people will go to in order to get their kids into a 'name' school, you're slapped right back into the ugly reality.

Mrs Tall had a recent chat with a neighbor of ours who's got a son just a couple of months older than Daughter Tall. This neighbor has recently become enamoured of a certain school run by the Catholic Church. As such, children who've been baptized into Catholicism get an extra five points come admission time. So why not get the boy baptized to get the points?

But there's a catch! Children in HK can be baptized as Catholics with minimal fuss until they're three. After that, they need to take a little course as preparation.

Since it's now too late to get all of this done before school applications must be made, our neighbors have decided to bypass this silly red tape. They're just taking a little trip to Cebu (an island in the Philippines famous for its beach resorts) where some relatives of theirs have arranged to have the baptism taken care of in a church there.

Aaaaaaahhhhh. I'll just stop now . . . .

education as religion

would just like to say that I agree with the comment of education being a religion to people here. To the degree that I am constantly harrassed even told off for not having my two year old son in school! My chinese friends are not at all understanding no matter how I explain it to them.
The reason for my decision is actually because I work in a Kindergarten and teach two year olds and have enough exposure to how seriously they take education to realise that I don't want to crush my sons creativity and ability to express his strange and sometimes impulsive little self before he even hits what I consider to be school age.
I am in the system.....but my job is so much less fun than it was in New Zealand. sigh.

We are seriously looking at other options for education than the traditional schools here. And I'm not going to parade my child through interviews and do the whole song and dance boasting of his greatness. PLEASE he's 2!!! He's great when he hasn't destroyed anything that day and has managed to be kind to his little brother!

What are the prestigious

What are the prestigious schools for expat Catholics?

This is hilarious! Things

This is hilarious! Things weren't like this back in the 70's. While it was tough getting into one of the "famous" schools, you don't have to jump through that many hoops.

anon: The traditional "famous schools" include Maryknoll, Marymount (formerly Maryknoll), the St Paul's (co-ed, convent and the one in Happy Valley), St. Joseph, DBS , DGS and LaSalle.

After seeing sherron comment

After seeing sherron comment I am glad that someone/some parent do have comment sense here. I remember my search for the primary school back in the 80s. Mum didn’t have time to prepare me properly and according to dad he wasn’t going to coach me anyway.He thinks it is a waste of time and is putting too much pressure on a 5 year old. So my 2 days basic training including being polite, posture, smile! and learn to address the teacher as Mr or Miss. (When I think back I realise that I should have call the man who told me he is the headmaster as headmaster and not Mr.) After a couple of unsuccessful interviews mum put in applications for some local school and lucky because we lives in the catchments of a good local school (Canossa School) they had to accept me. There I was sitting with mum having a quick chat with a teacher and as a safety measure they had to ask the child couple of questions to make sure we know the basic, the questions was to say in Chinese and English and point out: my name, my address, numbers, shapes and random word picked from a card. I am happy to say that I like my primary school, even though not all the teacher like me some of them are really nice and kind. You really can’t judge the potential of a 5 year old by some 15 minutes test. You never know what they would become.


if your heart are set to enroll your child in one of the band 1 and fail, then you need to look into some good band 2 school for a safe bet. because it will affect them when they move to secondary school. band 1 secondary school often accept bright student from a good band 2 school. While I was in canossa school in quarry bay a lots of my friends mainly male when on the famous band 1. (becuase canossa college was an girl school - they used to study french, cookery and play hockey)