Local or International Schools ?

Mr Tall,

I'm glad that you're leading the way with the choice on which type of school to attend.

Currently I'm hoping that we'll find a way for Baby B to learn Chinese writing, which would suggest a local school. But I also wonder how much of a hard time she'd have there. Kids are notorious for picking on any differences, and having light brown hair is a very obvious difference. While reading your article last week I even caught myself thinking "I wish she looked a bit more Chinese" !!

The other potential downside of being taught in Chinese is that I won't have much of clue what teaching materials are being used, or how homework is going. Hmm, just thinking about that some more - which direction has the pendulum swung at the moment on using english-language text books ? Maybe a local school using english materials is the compromise ?

Fortunately for us, you are one year ahead on all these big decisions, so we'll be watching your progress with interest.

Mr B.

PS As with most of the cross-cultural issues in HK, the Lily Wong cartoon strip has some amusing comments on this subject.

Any suggestions if you can't get in to zoned ESF?

We have been told we are unlikely to get our children into the ESF for which we are zoned on HK Island. Any suggestions for non-international school alternatives? We have no aversion to international schools but they are too pricey and were wondering whether there are english-instruction independent schools or bilingual schools. Any suggestions anyone?
We'd be interested in any comments on Victoria Schools and St Paul's Convent School in Causeway Bay.

EFS in Hong Kong Island

All the "Island schools" are ESF schools and they follow the UK system of GCSE's and A levels. They are all located in Hong Kong Island. I went to South Island School and most of my friends ended up in very good Unis in the UK, US and Aussy too.

Royden House

I'm curious if Royden House is still open. I went there in the 70s. Anyone know?

Kindergarten interviews

It's been two years since this thread started, which means that we're just starting to think about where to send MsB for kindergarten next year when she is three. (Well, in reality I think MrsB has been thinking about it for at least two years, but now the open-days and interviews are beginning so I get to join in too).

We had our first visit this weekend, to a nearby kindergarten having an open day. The answers to our questions were pretty much in line with what's been written earlier:

Q: Do the children get to play outside at all?
A: No, Hong Kong is very dusty and our pupils' parents wouldn't like it.

Q: How about the airconditioning, do you ever open the windows?
A: Generally no, as the parents are concerned about mosquitoes. We may open them if the temperature drops below 15C however.

Q: What is the homework load like?
A: We believe in a broader education than many local schools, so we limit the academic content of schooltime to around 70% (compared with 90% for most), and homework to just twice a week.

It is going to be an interesting couple of months,


Re: Royden House

[quote="guest"]I'm curious if Royden House is still open. I went there in the 70s. Anyone know?[/quote]


Kindergarten interviews

As Mr Tall notes, we're currently making our choice of kindergarten for MissB. Yes, it's interview time.

When I first heard about the concept of interviews for kindergartens, I filed it away under the category of amusing stories to tell visitors, and left it at that. Several years later and we're in the thick of it. It turns out that the term "interview" is pretty broad, and the three we've been to have all been very different.

Interviewing through the language barrier

The first interview was at the kindergarten we'd visited previously for their open-day .

This was to be Cantonese-only, so I left MrsB and MissB to it. It turns out that understanding the teacher's Cantonese wasn't a problem for MissB, though the interviewer had a harder time of it.

After letting MissB settle in with some playtime, the interviewer asked her to come and look at some picture cards and say what she saw...

Interviewer: [holds up picture of tiger]
MissB: [jiggles her shoulders up and down]
Interviewer: ????
MrsB: Tigger! (To quote one of MissB's favourite books "Tiggers bounce, yes they do...")

Interviewer: [holds up picture of lion]
MissB: Raaar!
Interviewer: (no problem there)

Interviewer: [holds up picture of cup]
MissB: [puts hands together and wiggles them]
Interviewer: ????
MrsB: Fish - there's a picture of a fish on the cup!

Interviewer: hmm, ok [holds up an apple-shaped keyring]
MissB: Boat! (in English)
Interviewer: ????
MrsB: Boat! (in Cantonese) There's a picture of a boat on your keyring...
Interviewer: (turns keyring around)
MissB: Apple!

Interviewer: [holds up picture of monkey]
MissB: Baba!
Interviewer: ????
MrsB: Uh, she means daddy - it's a family joke (The first time MissB saw a picture of a monkey the connection to daddy's gweilo body hair was apparent)

Interviewer: Yes, yes, all very creative. Maybe we should try something else...

Down to business

The next one was at a bilingual kindergarten that can be difficult to get in to. Here the "interview" didn't have any one-to-one attention. Instead a group of potential customers and our offspring spent some time doing activities while observers with clipboards made notes. I asked what they looked for in their pupils - nothing particular was the reply, just making sure there were no serious behavioural problems. But then we know of two people that didn't get offered a place, so I guess there must be some profile they are looking for.

Anyhow, the time passed without incident, and I was happy to have just about kept up with Cantonese games intended for two year-olds.

The latest and greatest

This morning's interview was different again. Their stated focus is on explaining what they do and what their beliefs are, so the parents can make a clear decision about whether or not it is what they want for their children. We were taken for a walk around the school, and it was all very refreshing. It is a very clear winner in our eyes, and we hope when we hear from them next week that we get a place.

A proper interview

When I first heard of kindergarten interviews, I had the mental picture of our 2-year old perched on a chair in front of a grumpy interview panel. You can see from the limited experince we had that it's not really like that at all, and yet...

One of the local mothers got their child accepted at a prestigious local school (one of the "Saint ...") and told MrsB she should get in quick for an interview. But here it really is an interview, where the child is taken off for 15 minutes without parents present. After the time was up, they would not tell the mother what had happened.

Isn't that a bit crazy? Thinking back to that first interview, who's to know what they'd have made of MissB's responses without mum present to interpret. And unlike Miss Tall, MissB takes a little while to warm up to strangers. We decided to pass on that interview.

Anyhow, fingers crossed that the number three option above comes through, and then no more interviews to worry about for another three years!


Rating Hong Kong Kindergartens

We had another interview on a recent Saturday, this time at a popular kindergarten in mid-levels. The style was different again, but left us feeling even more convinced that kindergarten #3 mentioned in the previous article was the right choice for us. Then on Monday we received a letter saying that #3 had accepted MsB, so all is well with the world. Still, this brush with the interviewing process has opened my eyes to a business opportunity…

There are books on sale that list kindergartens, neatly tabulating their staff-pupil ratios, monthly fees, etc. I’m thinking of releasing a new version of the booklet with some extra columns, including:

Hello-Kitty rating
Kindergarten #4 achieved maximum points on this rating, meeting all criteria:

- Pastel coloured uniforms for staff (they even got the bonus point for pink)
- Staff age below 30
- Use of baby-talk voice to encourage “Deh” behaviour as early as possible

Kindergarten #3 failed miserably, not managing to get past zero

Religious fervour
While MsB is at such an impressionable age, I’d like her to get a brief description of what’s going on at different religion’s festival times, and let her make her own mind up about her religious persuasion when she is older and wiser. That is always going to be tricky in Hong Kong, with many of the schools linked to one of the Christian faiths.

#2, the international kindergarten worked much the way I wanted, scoring low on the fervometer. #1 and #4 rated high, with #3 coming in at a medium (daily prayers, but not high profile otherwise).

Tolerance to bugs and dirt
If you can’t eat earthworms when you’re three, you might not get the chance later (or at least, not until you are much older and eating China business-trip dinners).

#1 scored low on this test, with their belief that outdoor play should be avoided since “Hong Kong is very dusty and our pupils' parents wouldn't like it.”

#2 was also low, with no outdoor play area
#4 had a good play area, scoring medium
#3 was the clear winner, with outdoor play area, regular field trips, and pictures of happy kids playing in paddling pools in the summer

The Blackberry / Academia factor
I originally thought these would be two separate columns, but statistical analysis shows a high correlation. The Blackberry factor assigns one point for each disinterested father that is checking email / making business calls while attending the school interview. Academia points are granted for each parent giving intensive questioning on how the kindergarten will help them get their progeny into the right school.

#3 failed miserably again. They provided personal tours of the classes, so I didn’t get a single chance to check mail or make a call! And they skirted questions on schools, preferring to talk about how they turn out a whole child (though MrsB noted the pupils’ workbooks had the most sophisticated Chinese writing of all four sites)

#1 was barely better. It seems to have the reputation of being the place your kids go if they don’t get an offer from a ‘good’ kindergarten.

#2 and #4 both scored highly. #2 was the early leader, with charts on display showing the schools their 6-year old alumni were gracing. #4 made a strong recovery when the head-mistress’s talk about her school focused exclusively on learning and academic achievement.


This is written with tongue firmly in cheek, but there’s an element of truth to it. Several of the local mums MrsB talks to had also visited the #3 that we liked so much. Mostly the comment was that they didn’t like it because it was old and scruffy, though they did comment on how they liked the approach of the school and the attitude of the staff.


The building is old (but clean), and ok the toys weren’t all bought this year – but is that really more important than the attitude of the people who will be spending five days a week with your children for the next three years?


Thanks to our last poster!

Thanks very much to the 'Guest' who wrote the previous post. It was both illuminating and, for this parent of a mixed kid on the local school track, very inspiring.

Your point about the advantages of a mixed kid being the only one in the class was especially insightful. I'd never really thought about the potential dangers of a small group of mixed kids being tempted to become a clique, of of their classmates possibly assuming that's what they'd naturally want to become. I congratulate you on your obvious resourcefulness during your own school days!

One other question, if you don't mind: you said that you found your local education very enjoyable, which is the part I admit I liked best! This runs so strongly against the beliefs most expats have about local schools/local kids, i.e. it's assumed their school life is just drudgery, and that only a western (i.e. international school/ESF-style) approach can make learning fun. So what was enjoyable? How much time did you have to spend on homework and bo-jap? How much time did you have available for the extracurriculars you mention?

Sorry, that's more than one question, I guess, but I'm really interested!

Mr Tall

Kindergarten admissions in another big city

If anyone's interested, I came across a long article in New York Magazine today on getting into the 'good' kindergartens there. Lots of it is NY-centric, but I found points 3, 7 and 9 quite interesting.

local schooling vs expat

Someone said they'd like to hear more stories of mixed race kids in local vs expat schools. I have experience of all of these in my family, and I hope the following will be helpful.

My sibling and I are mixed race, went to 'average' local schools (not the academic hot-houses like St Paul's Co-ed), had a v enjoyable education with loads of extra curricular activities pretty much all organised by the students themselves, won HK scholarships to top international universities, where we found our education levels were competitive by world class standards, and are bilingual and bi-cultural. We are very grounded in both HK and Western cultures and have lots of HK and Western friends. We each took several Chinese language based subjects up to F5. Best of all, education was free up to university level - apart from Bo-jap.....

BTW - I came 36+ in placement in a class of 45 all through primary school (hence the bo-jap) , and ended up with scholarships to university, so the little girl who's no. 29 in her class is off to a good start :-)

We also have family members who went to international schools in HK, and who are all doing extremely well academically and professionally. However, they have no sense of belonging to HK and speak minimal/no Chinese. Then they found that they weren't truly accepted in the Western countries where they went to university as they hadn't been raised in those places- although they are quite clear that they are not HK or Chinese. Their fight, ultimately, was to be no different from all the Western young people who'd never lived abroad. HK just happened to be a place where they lived when they were young.

Other relatives who went to ESF/local schools and were then sent to boarding schools are more in-between. They don't really have enough Chinese to read for pleasure or business, and they dont' feel entirely natural in a Chinese setting. However, they do speak Chinese, and they have a sense that they are part of 2 worlds, even if they don't fully understand one of those. NB - please note nearly all of these relatives say they would not send their kids to a boarding school under any circumstances.

Only those among us who went to the local schools want to live in HK as adults, or have local friendships (sustained from primary school onwards). Please remember that if you send your kids to ESF and international schools, chances are that they won't have many local friends who will still be based in HK as adults.

Racial discrimination - all kids pick on anyone who is different from them, whether it's due to looks, wealth, personality, intelligence, female/male or clothing. My parents taught me that when I was 6, and that if you can learn to be yourself in life and deal with people's responses to who you are, then you can be truly liberated. For me, the important thing is that I know what my cultural roots are, and what grounds me. Sure, there were people who tried to pick on me because of my racial background, but Chinese kids in my class got bullied for many spurious reasons. The bullies never got anywhere with me because I'd learnt from primary two onwards not to be scared of being different.

It also helps a lot if you are the only mixed race or non Chinese kid in the school. It's a lot harder to feel threatened by a single person than by a group, and it's much easier for the kid to overturn pre-conceptions. It does not help being one of a handful of mixed race kids as you can then get easily typecast (also happened to relatives of mine).

What you choose for your children depends on how you want to raise them, in what kind of environment, and what kind of life you envisage for them afterwards. I can't give any suggestions, but here are some paths and consequences my family members have followed.

the localisation of the ESF

Thanks for your insights, Guest.

I just wanted to touch on one of your points:

"Only those among us who went to the local schools want to live in HK as adults, or have local friendships (sustained from primary school onwards). Please remember that if you send your kids to ESF and international schools, chances are that they won't have many local friends who will still be based in HK as adults."

For the past 10 years, the ESF schools have become more localised. I would say that about half of the children in my children's classes are children of locally born and raised Hong Kong people.

OK, I just checked the website. According to the results of surveys taken last year, 51% of the students are of Chinese ethnicity, 16% Caucasian, 11% "Eurasian", 9% Indian, 7% "other East Asian" (Japanese, Korean...) 6% "other".

42% of the children have Chinese as their mother tongue, and a further 6% as a second language. And over 75% of the children's parents are permanent residents.

This fits in with my experience. Where I live my kids now go to an ESF school. So do about half a dozen of our neighbors (same housing estate). About half the families are HK-born and raised (both parents); another 1/4 are mixed (HK-born and non-HK) and 1/4 are non-HK born, but permanent residents.

So, perhaps there is also a change going on to what it means to be a Hong Kong person. Maybe Hong Kong will become more like Singapore, where English speaking, is not antithetical to having a local identity.

Mr. T, I wish you good luck on the local track. As I've written, it just got to be too hard for us as parents, but maybe you and your family will have a better time. I also do not at all regret *trying*.

Thanks for the

Thanks for the encouragement, Saikungmama!

By the way, here's another interesting article contrasting cultural attitudes towards academic success:


It's USA-based, but much of it will sound very very familiar to readers here in Hong Kong.

parental attitudes towards school

Hi Mr T.,

I might have already recommended it, but "Preschool in 3 Cultures" by Joseph J. Tobin, David Y.H. Wu, Dana H. Davidson, although 16 years old, provides a fascinating insight into how preschool education both reflect a society's attitudes towards the questions of "how best do people learn" "what sort of human should we try to shape". It's a really great read, and not full of academic jargon as you might fear.

Another interesting book is Zeng Kangmin's "Dragon gate : competitive examinations and their consequences" where he looks at the college entrance examiniation cultures in Japan, Taiwan, and Korea. Similarities and differences! People in Taiwan it seems are very much against anything counting towards college placement except examination results, because they think that other qualities are too subjective and could also lead to a corruption of the process.

re: the Slate article - it is truly hard work to make sure your kid studies (unless you are one of those lucky parents w/ naturally quiet, diligent, and biddable children). We feel happy if we can just get our kids to do a couple of extra pages of maths and English in addition to their relatively light work-load at school.

Royden House Island School

I too attended Royden House in the 70's. Then subsequently went on to Island School. I particularly remember the fights the boys used to have to impress the girls at lunch time(at Royden House)

Island School was incredible though.

School selection stress spreading

This article from the Times of London hits on some themes that sound very familiar to those of us thinking about getting our kids into good schools here in Hong Kong. Even the 'fake conversion' tactic is catching on in the UK these days as the overall quality of British schools plummets.

. . . and it's bad in New York, too

Here's another current article about kindergarten admissions stress. If we Hong Kong parents think we have it bad, just get a load of the bit in this article about the application essays parents must write!

Yet more bad behavior to get kids into good schools . . .

. . . this time from the UK again, and this time perpetrated by state school teachers themselves! Read about it here, and note that yet again the old-pretend-to-be-pious trick is employed.

Yet more on British school selection stress

Here's yet another article about parents' struggles to get their offspring into a half-decent secondary school in Britain. I felt particularly sorry for the father who said he had considered selling a kidney to pay for a private school when his child couldn't get any of his choices of state school. Maybe the HK system isn't that bad after all.


Amazing article

Wow. The letters/testimonials that follow that article are really brutal. Are most secondary schools in the UK that appalling?

I found it easy to sympathize with some of the parents, less so with others. The bit I found extremely familiar from visiting kindergartens with Daughter Tall was this:

"In practice, there is not a great deal you can learn from traipsing up and down the corridors, or from listening to the head's marketing patter. Instead, you try to pick up a school's "atmosphere" osmotically . . . But mostly you listen to the grapevine: hungry for any clues about which school will be right for their [sic] child . . . ."

That sounds just about right!

. . . even more school selection stress

It's spread to San Francisco and Belgium as well. Hat tip to Joanne Jacobs for these two.

Away in a Manger


The fact that many HK schools are religiously affiliated has come up several times in earlier posts. Fervor varies a great deal of course from institution to institution; the rule of thumb, according to a Chinese friend who grew up here, is that the Catholic schools tend to be more actively religious, the Protestant ones less so. But clearly you need to look school by school, and the growth of evangelical schools may make this cliche already outdated.

What surprised me upon moving here from the US-- and also compared with my experience living in Taipei in the early 1990s--was the prominence of Christian culture in schools more broadly, given that only 10% or so of the population is supposed to be Christian. Christmas pageants, Easter egg painting, Easter break for that matter - things that would likely be avoided or reworked into a more secular or generic form (Happy holidays! Enjoy your spring break) in, say, New York or Boston, are here couched in Christian terms.

I expect this is the British heritage, and I shouldn't have been so startled when our child came home from his international, secular kindergarten singing "Away in a Manger" and informed me that they would be putting on a nativity play. He also began talking about Baby Jesus. Granted, my mother had her Brownie troop planting hostea - the gift that keeps giving - all around the Catholic church in the small New Jersey town where I spent part of my childhood, and we learned religious as well as secular carols in my public school there. But in larger cities I had noticed much more care to avoid identification with particular religious traditions, and so I was rather taken aback. It was one element in my decision to take a more active role in my children's religious education - if they are going to be learning about baby Jesus, it might as well be in the terms of my own particular tradition!

Perhaps I am exaggerating this element of HK culture -- my experience here is pretty limited -- but thought I'd mention it. Like skmama and the Anglican prayers, it's not a big problem for me personally, but I can easily imagine it being an issue of significant concern for others.

geoexpat thread on local school

There is a short thread on geoexpat following a post by a parent in a mixed (foreign/mainland) family whose child is attending Pentecostal Yu Leung Fat Primary School in Fanling (the school web page (in Chinese) is here.

There is also an account from an Australian-Chinese family with 4 kids at a local school (but doesn't say which one). Scroll down for a version of the post with paragraph breaks.