Schools in Hong Kong, part I

Soon the Talls -- and a little later, the Baldings -- must make a fundamental child-raising choice. Do we send our little darlings to local schools, or to expatriate-dominated international schools?

This is a no-brainer for expats who arrive in Hong Kong with children who are already school-aged: since such children don't speak or read Chinese, it's international school (or English Schools Foundation schools, which I'm lumping together with international schools for pure convenience) or nothing, and in Hong Kong 'nothing' is illegal.

But for interracial couples (i.e. expat + Chinese) whose 'mixed' children are born in Hong Kong, making the school choice is not so easy.

Let's look at the local option first. The first advantage of sending your kids to local schools is fundamental: they'll grow up truly bilingual, and possibly trilingual, i.e. with Mandarin as well. Learning English isn't usually a problem, since the great majority of mixed couples in HK speak English in their day-to-day lives. Spoken Cantonese is often taken care of as well, as kids will pick up the current vernacular from Chinese relatives, playmates, etc.

It's reading/writing Chinese that's the sticking point. Children who attend international schools simply can't be immersed in Chinese, since they're surrounded by expat students who know little or none. In other words, unless you've got an exceptional child who can learn to read and write Chinese mostly outside of school, you've got to send her to local schools if you want her to acquire these valuable skills. Chinese characters are simply too numerous, and require too much sheer, brutal memorization impressed on plastic young minds, to just 'pick up' later. Some people of course do try to learn to read and write Chinese as university students or as adults, but their road is long and frustrating, and only a dedicated few achieve true competence.

Also, local schools are essentially free. This is not insignificant, in that many of the international schools charge anywhere from HKD5,000/month to double that or more by the time the kids reach secondary level. That adds up, dear friends, especially if you are prolific with your issue.

Okay then! To local schools they go! Would anyone reject these potential advantages, especially since Hong Kong is famous for producing students who are extremely well-prepared for university study, especially in math and the hard sciences?

The truth is, almost all families in our situation do just that -- they reject the local schools, and send their kids to study with expat children.

Mr Tall has heard numerous stories, for example, of mixed or expat families who placed their kindergarteners in a local school, and jerked them back out within months or even weeks. The usual reasons? The teachers were mean and hyper-critical. The curriculum was far too demanding. Their five-year-olds had two hours of homework a day. The local children made fun of the 'different' kids.

It's easy to laugh these complaints off, and assume that people who take this route should be a little more patient and tolerant of cultural differences. This is far easier said than done, however, when you're trying to convince someone who's barely potty-trained to suck it up and tough it out in a school she sees as Hamburger Hill.

The thing is, though, without some fairly bloodyminded discipline, the kid's not going to learn something that's going to be very good for her down the road. We now must confront one of the deepest complexities of cross-cultural living: which culture do you really want your child to learn, and to live as a part of? We're in put-money-where-mouth-is territory.

In western countries these days, children are assumed to be 'active learners'. They're creative, curious, and just brimming with enthusiasm for picking up new knowledge on their own, and from each other. The best educational methods, then, are those that keep teachers from getting in a student's way. Teachers should be facilitators, not lecturers or disciplinarians. They should help students 'learn to learn', so the actual content of the curriculum is worth consideration, but isn't crucial. Above all, what is important is students' self-esteem. Students who lack confidence in their abilities will be discouraged from learning. Their bright little fires will be dampened. Whatever efforts students make should be praised, affirmed, and validated, since the carrot works better than the stick. This view is essentially therapeutic, and it is based on an optimistic view of human nature.

Contrast this with the Chinese view. Students are assumed to be naturally slothful and in need of frequent correction. Creativity is valued, but should never be indulged to the detriment of mastering a solid body of basic content. Memorization and rote learning are practiced from the very early stages of formal education -- especially, of course, in learning Chinese characters. Other teaching methods are predominantly traditional as well, with plenty of lecturing. Teachers are authoritative, and notions of setting students loose to 'learn on their own', or from each other, may get lip service, but are rarely put into serious practice. It's assumed even the best students will need knowledge hammered into them at times. This view is essentially conservative/traditional, and takes a fairly low view of human nature.

Mr Tall, if you Discerning Readers hadn't gathered this already, is of a fairly conservative nature himself. He is therefore attracted to the Chinese view in the abstract. But when he thinks of Toddler Tall trotting home from preschool in the near future with a mountain of tedious homework, and crying because her teacher told her she was a lazy girl, it's much, much harder.

At least Mrs Tall and I have a couple of years to think about this. Any advice is appreciated!


having your cake and eating it!

I have my 2 children in one of those liberal, much praise and little or no homework institutions that pass as international schools here in HK.  Our neighbour's daughter (caucasian) is in one of the head thumping, homework laden local schools.

Do I ever wish there was something inbetween the 2 extremes??

The pro's (as I see it) of a 'liberal' education (our choice)

* My daughter has grown immensely in her own self-esteem since she switched schools.  She loves going to school, and is an eager learner (our neighbour's daughter absolutely hates her school and it is a drama getting her out the door each day). She's less shy, more comfortable with her peer group and can hold her own (in a polite way) with adults.

* She has lapped up learning and goes to extremes to find out more about the things that catch her fancy (ancient egypt is the current favourite), she's largely self-taught on the reading side (I find the school too slow on this for her ability level)

* she amazes us with her knowledge about all sorts of things, and also her understanding of how things are inter-related to each other

* the school emphasizes Mandarin (oral) and she's doing pretty well on a conversational level, and picking up characters, albeit slower than she would be at a Chinese school - but she's really motivated about it and loves both the language and the teachers

* there is little pressure, academic or otherwise on her, so she's free to be a 6 year old child in the afternoon, without any homework, so her fiendish mother (me) drums the discipline of learning a musical instrument (cello) and daily practise into her, she also indulges in drawing, ballet, gymnastics and soccer, and still manages to get 12 hours of sleep a night.

* My son,  who is significantly slower on the academic side (i.e. reading and writing) is left to be, with no pressure on him to either read or write, while his frontal lobe catches up with the rest of his development.  He is apparently unaware of the fact that he is significantly slower in this regard than his older sister.  Neither the school nor ourselves have labeled him as 'stupid' or 'lazy' 

* He is praised for his social behaviour (being caring, disciplined, principled etc.) and chastised when he slips up on behavioural issues.  We believe kids have one shot when they're young to learn social behaviour.  They have a lot longer to learn the other stuff.  No point in being a smart a**hole.

* Anecdotaly an acquaintance told us his kids who went to a 'soft option' international primary school are now thriving and doing extremely well at the very competitive and academic Chinese Int'l school.  He reckons too, that they need to have fun when they're young and learn to love learning and school, and then one needs to turn on the thumb screws when they hit 12.  

The cons:

* I get frustrated that my daughter is not pushed more.  I get frustrated by the 'lowest common denominator' view on the academic side of things in the class room.  And I get frustrated that she will become complacent about being 'smart' and not having to compete yet, so that it will be a huge shock when she does have to compete or is confronted with kids vastly smarter than her, or even who've just been pushed more

* I have my doubts that I'm doing the right thing.  Should I be pushing them more, encouraging them more, tutoring them more, giving them homework myself, sending them to competitive schools?  I'm also old fashioned in my views that life is hard, punishing and unfair.  Kids may as well get used to it as soon as possible.

* The school naturally has a high proportion of foreign students.  Kids are coming and going all the time. It's not the place to engender a feeling of permanency or stability

* They're not going to come out of the system being bilingual.  (on the other hand, our neighbour's daughter has a lot of characters, but is afloat on reading in English ...)


Poor kids, they're the guinea pigs in all of this! 


Hi Gweipo,   Are your kids

Hi Gweipo,


Are your kids in an ESF school? My kids are and I have found it rigorous enough (especially now that my older one has strated KGV). SKBaba gives them a little extra work, because he wanted to make sure they are grounded in the basics - so they have extra Chinese and Maths at home, corrected by SKBaba. They also have their music practice.


The thing I like about the ESF schools my kids attend is that there doesn't seem to be a lot of turn-over among the kids. Most of them, their parents are HK permanent residents - so they have had basically the same classmates for the past 4 years (since we moved them to ESF system). In fact, sometimes I wish my older one had a bit more tunr-over because the complexities of the 11-year-old-girl-social-scene has its roots in primary school :) Do I have to hear about the ups-and-downs of her relationship with children XYZ for the next 6 years the way I have listened to them  for the the past 4?  Is there no clean slate ?  ;) Or, mybe things are more solid (stolid?) this side of the Harbour?


re: fear of kid becoming complacent because "smart" - praise more for hard work than for cleverness - continue to show how things could be improved by more application (don't skate...). Also, address these concerns to your child's teacher (if you haven't already). 

schools, pro and con . . . .

Great stuff, gweipo and skmama -- thanks so much for your insightful comments.

A couple of questions for you first, gweipo -- when you say your daughter is very interested in lots of topics and does well integrating what she knows, do you think this is a result of her school's input, or just native curiosity/good home environment? I know that's an impossible question to answer, but hey, what are discussion boards like this one good if we don't ask them?

Also, do you think it's going to be tough to be the one turning those thumbscrews when kids hit 12 or so? I think we can grant that there are going to be some kids who aren't going to love school no matter good the school they attend is, and perhaps a very few who will love school no matter how bad theirs is. But can schools' efforts to teach the other kids, i.e. those in the middle, to 'learn how to learn' and to 'love learning' really survive a Jekyll-and-Hyde model in which the kids are indulged a bit at younger ages, then asked suddenly to perform at a high level? Or is the ability to focus on academic content something that must -- again, for those kids in the middle -- be learned early, or otherwise will be lost? How is this different from learning the social graces you mention?

I don't pretend to know the answers, and I should note that I'm not trying to make comments on ESF schools or any of the others named or alluded to in this thread. I genuinely don't know, but would really like to have a better idea.

Anyway, thanks again, both of you, for really enriching the converation on this most vexing of topics . . . .


Home Enviornment, School, Upping the Ante at 12


Hi Batgung Admin,

I think that home environment has a lot to do with developing kids curiosity and desire to learn, but some of it also comes from innate personality, and that these traits can be fostered or squelched within a school.

I know that at my child's local kindie, the headmistress told me "You don't want to send her to [Famous Name School], she's not that type of girl. She'll end up being the "nail that gets hammered down"." So, when she was turned down by Famous School, I was not completely unhappy. I know that at the school that my daughter attended for 2 years, before we switched, she was beginning to get rather turned off of science by the way it was taught. I have a colleague who sends her daughter to that school now. Her child is doing very well there, but was unhappy the way her classmates wept in class when getting their exam results. These kids are SEVEN.

So, not all schools are perfect for all kids. It's important to find the right fit (yeah, I know, not a particularly original conclusion).

re: Let them play 'til they're older.

I don't think that the ESF primary school my kids go to is just letting them play. They appear to learn quite a lot of facts about geography, climatology, history, language, maths. In science classes they are learning about what is a "fair test" and how to make a hypothesis and test it. They don't have a lot of daily homework assigned by the school - but they do have to do research and projects. My second child's handwriting is not very good (I raised this w/ the teacher) so she has organized some handwriting home work for him to do, to practice making it more legible. That's good for him - but what a pity it would be for ALL the kids in the class (most of whom have decent handwriting) to have to do such work.

IMHO there's enouigh academic content. They know many countries of the world, they know how to add, subtract, multiply, and divide. By P-6 (the equivalent of P5 in the local school) they are working on geometry and basic algebraic-type formulae. The know about fulcums and inertia and acceleration and other physics-type things. They know lots about zoology and endangered species. In P6 my daughter's class did projects of various Great Civilizations and then had to present them to the class. So, my daughter studied the Roman Empire, but also learned about Chinese empires, Incas, etc. My son is now studying world explorers (Magellan, Leif Ericsson, Zheng He).

The place where you really see the lack is in their knowledge of reading and writing Chinese.

The "turning on the screws at 12"...

I think that it's not really that, so much as greater amounts of work and concentration are expected of the kids as they get older. My eldest had to do more in P6 than she did in P4. The amount of work she now gets in KGV is definitely greater than in primary school, but she is coping OK.

I think around 12-14, kids cognitive ability increases in quantity and quality. In Year 7 my daughter is learning Spanish and Mandarin, Geography, History, Maths, Religious Studies, PE, Technical Arts, ICT, and music. Her big history assignment for the autumn "Emperor Hadrian and Qin Shi Huangdi - compare and contrast". In religuous studies it was "Discuss Moksha, Reincarnation, and Dharmma and how they relate to each other" - which is the sort of essay I had to write in university.

WhenI was her age, if you asked me to even tell you who Hadrian and Qin Shi Haungdi were, I would have been stumped. As for Hinduism, I knew very little. So, content is there.

Controlling expectations

Hi there
I am impressed by the level of detail in the "Tall" entries (thanks very much) and it appears that the admissions process is similar to that of the UK, which we have just completed for our first child and have the joy of starting for our second one this year (2008).

so having digested it all I would like to know on a scale of 1-10 (10 being most unlikely) what our chances are of getting our 5-6 year old and 3-4 year old into the school of our choice. This is a significant part of our decision process on up rooting them when we are privileged to be very happy with their current school in the UK

Many thanks

Putonghua schools - the third option

The original article gave parents the simple either/or choice of local or international schools, with the assumption that local schools would be the choice if the children were to learn chinese. There was another assumption that 'Chinese' would be spoken cantonese and written traditional chinese.

But there is a third option - choose an international school that is geared up to teach western children chinese, by immersing them in a chinese-language environment. But here 'chinese' will be spoken putonghua, and written simplified chinese, ie the language of the mainland.

Gwipo is blogging about this at the moment, so take a look at her posts around this one to see one western family's views of the pros and cons.

We're planning to stick with the local system, with its cantonese and traditional chinese. Since that is the language of the local half of our daughters' family, it makes sense for them to grow up learning it.


Ahh the joys of parenting...

We found ourselves with this school debate also and decided to send DS to a local kindergarten at 3, the first months were fine but then we noticed a slight change in his behaviour (not for the best). Fortunately I was invited to Parent aide at the school one afternoon and could check things out for myself.

 A little discipline I believe is a good thing (and start early), we figured he has free play at home, he can have structure reinforced at school, none better than local to learn the local language.

Well thank goodness for the parent aide afternoon. I noted with horror he was now 1 of 28 kids (had been 12 when he enrolled) and with one teacher and only one teacher aide it didnt take me long to calculate how much one on one time he was getting during each day (6 mins if he was lucky.) Quite simply, he was bored and unattended, not a good mix. Hence his increased amount of time on the "pink chair" at school. With us struggling to learn chinese at home we were little help to him in this transition.

As luck would have it we discovered another local school that teaches in english 2 days a week and cantonese 3 days a week. What a fabulous compromise!

Now at Sun Island, yes his homework is increasing to a treacherous 30-mins to 45mins per day but the payoff is, he is successfully learning Cantonese reading and writing whilst not neglecting his English reading and writing. The result; a kiwi boy that knows school is for study and play is for after homework. Some of our friends find our methods a demanding. I feel that we are giving him a solid base of how to learn, is this not as much of an art as learning itself?

 Our next issue? Taking him home to NZ later this year to start the official 1st year of primary, and now it seems he may face boredom again. This time not from not understanding, rather from having already completed such learning when he was just 4.

Ahhh the joys of parenting...

Sun Island

TNZ, thanks for writing in.

It sound like you found the perfect solution for you and your son. I don't know Sun Island, but looking at their website it seems most children go on to local primary schools, so I guess most pupils will be native Cantonese speakers, wanting to improve their English?

How did you find your son took to Cantonese?

And are you able to read & speak Chinese,  or is communication with the kindergarten in English? I think that's a big concern for western parents thinking about putting their child into a local school - how will they know what's going on at school. So I'm interested to know how you & Sun Island handle it.

Regards, MrB

Western kids entering local system


I was wondering if you speak Cantonese at home?  We are a western family with two small children (3 and 4 yrs old) and are debating putting them in the local system.  We are 50/50 on Cantonese vs Putongua, leaning more toward Cantonese since that is the language on the street.  I'm curious to hear about a western family's experience with this.  Was there any problems with your son being different?  Our kids are blonde.  How about your experience as a parent with the school?  I'm attempting to learn Cantonese but it will be a long time before I am able to really communicate and I don't think I will ever be able to help with homework.


Local schools

My kids are half-Chinese but I feel I can give a bit of help anyway because their mother, although Chinese and born in HK, was raised in the great plains of sunny Essex in the UK. We speak English at home.

Two of my children (ages 3 and 6) go to a local kindergarten which teaches purely in Cantonese. Neither could speak before they started but after a year at school my daughter was fairly fluent - she is in her third year now and certainly puts me to shame in the language department (my Cantonese is generously described as intermediate - I've been here 3 years). My son is a bit shy and is taking his time speaking it, but he certainly understands a great deal (he takes great pleasure in explaining his homework to me as well )

The main problems you will find sending your kids to a local school is getting the Chinese homework and other stuff translated - by other stuff I mean the odd informational leaflet or letter sent home. We got around this by investing in a small translating machine (you can buy the in local stores) which has been a real help. My wife can read a fair bit, but only through diligent study over the past 3 years. Whereas I am learning by proxy by helping my daughter out with her H/W.

After a while, you get used to the sort of stuff required in the H/W and most of it is fairly self explanatory. We use the translator just to confirm our suspicions.

The only other issue is perhaps some of the teachers may not speak English and able to explain stuff to you. Initially I had help from the school's English teacher (a Cantonese speaking Pakistani) but after a while my language got up to a point where I can quite happily converse with the teachers about stuff going on. If I get stuck I just ask and it is a great way of improving your vocab. It is certainly a steep learning curve but enjoyable as you see your kids (and your own) language capabilities improving.

It's funny. Being the only whitey at school (though this year that has changed) got me a reputation of being a bit crazy and the locals can't understand why we aren't sending our kids to an English speaking school. But I just tell them we feel that learning Chinese (written and spoken) is important for our children (they are Eurasian after all) and I think they can understand our viewpoint.

Incidentally, we did try and get our daughter into a local school for primary as well but we missed out on our first choice and instead got an offer from an English/Putongwa school and decided to take that. I am hoping her Putongwa will improve and she can keep up her Cantonese with her schoolfriends.

Anyway, I think it's great that you are considering this. I think it will be initially hard for everyone, but it does get easier and its worth the effort.

Tutor for Western children in local schools

At our daughters' kindergarten there are some other mixed children where mum & dad don't read or write chinese (but can speak). As their daughter goes to primary school next year, they are thinking of hiring a tutor to help with homework, and with translating the various bits and pieces of printed information that come home from school each week.

They haven't got past the planning stage yet, so I'd be interested to hear any dos & don'ts from parents that are already doing this.


PS Dsb, if you haven't seen it already, also check out the 'local vs International schools' thread.

Bilingual education

Today's blog from Gweipo has her summary of a recent symposium on Bilingual Chinese-English Education.

Cantonese Romanization

The problem with so many, if not all of Hong Kong's local schools is that they have a dearth of qualified teachers who can teach in English, not just speak it, and they do not use Cantonese Romanization of any type. I am Chinese (Cantonese) American who studied at CUHK for a semester and when I showed local HK students my Yale Cantonese Romanization textbook (which CUHK uses at their wonderful Yale-in-China Language Centre), all of them were perplexed by it and couldn't read much of it. Seriously, Hong Kong could do Western expat residents a huge favor by saving costs and not having to fight for seating in expensive and overbooked private international schools if they taught Cantonese in romanization as they would Mandarin in local schools. In that way, English speaking students and other language speakers (native Mandarin speakers included) could save money for parents, immerse in the local culture, and not have to worry about speaking or writing Chinese in the short run.  

hear hear

one of the main reasons I opted for mandarin over cantonese is the lack of standardised romanization - never mind the poor instruction.