Hong Kong schools: perspectives on local schools

This collection of posts recounts mostly Hong Kong expatriates' experiences of local schools here, both as teachers and as parents of students who attend them. This thread has lots of interesting and pertinent information, but please keep in mind that Hong Kong's schools vary greatly.

MrB starts us off by asking some of the big questions about schools in Hong Kong:

This whole topic is one that I just don't feel well-equipped to handle. It seems to be a natural part of local life, and something that parents expect to dedicate a large part of their lives too. But where I grew up, the town had one secondary school, take it or leave it!

Just like Mr Tall, I've also heard my fair share of strange stories. The most basic is moving to live in an area that has a selection of good schools, to raise your chances of getting into one of those schools. If you remember the advertising for the Belchers (great name !) housing development, a lot of that focused on the schools that surround it, and the opportunities it would give your children if you moved there. One of my ex-colleagues moved over here to Western when her first child was born -- she didn't want to live here, but was attracted to the local schools. Her kids have ended up going to schools in Aberdeen and Wanchai, because she's been unable to get them into local secondary schools, and she's wishing she had stayed living where she wanted to.

Maybe these children didn't make the local schools because of their academic performance, or maybe not. Another of our colleagues is completely open about the fact that from the day his son was born he paid a fair sized chunk of money, sorry "made a generous donation" each year to the school association where he wanted his son to study. His son is in that school now, and dad considers the money well spent.

Reader Nic brings us a teacher's perspective:

I'm a foreigner who is also a teacher in a local school here in Hong Kong. Call me 'Mr. Fat' (Fay Loh). No please, it's ok, most people here feel the need to comment upon my physical appearance at will. Am I fat? Not really, apart from being 6 foot 2 inches tall, my stomach is comparatively bigger than that of my workmates, as is usually pointed out to me 4 times a day. Some staff greet me with 'Say Fay Loh' which apart from meaning 'I hate you, die, fat man' is meant to be a greeting of friendship. In a local school, a microcosm of the society at large, appearances are everything.

A traditional teacher will have no trouble in addressing students as 'the fat boy', 'the big girl', 'the Indian' or simply, 'Number 35' (their class number). Thankfully, my school is not your average Hong Kong High school and so some of these habits have been broken.

Back to appearances. Classes are lectured regarding their need to 'decorate the notice boards' both around the school and in classrooms. This is especially frenetic if there are to be visitors such as parents likely to be prowling the school. There is no need to put any marked schoolwork on the boards, what would the point of that be? No, it's better for the boards to be as banal and colorful as possible. Preferably with as many members of the Hello Kitty family as can be found. Appearances are everything.

Many large garlands of flowers will appear at any event where visitors may appear. Such tributes make the ones at a mafia funeral look somewhat anemic by comparison.

We have 'uniform groups'. A previous Principal stated his intention to have more such groups operating in the school. My suggestion of the Village People as candidates met with a muted response. Most Hong Kong schools would have: a road safety patrol, an air cadets unit, a Red Cross group a St John's ambulance group, a girl guides troop and a cub pack. What do each of these groups have in common? Apart from the need to role-play, all of these groups practice the same essential Hong Kong pastime. They practice their marching.

Go to any Hong Kong school on a Saturday and you can see them, marching around the playgrounds in a fashion that would make any drill sergeant proud. Why you ask? I'm not sure I know why either. The road safety patrol are never on crossing duty, the cubs are frightened by trees. The answer it seems lies in appearances and in Hong Kong, where a secretary who earns 10,000 HK dollars a month buys a 5,000 dollar handbag, this is what counts.

SP, another teacher, replies


This is my 5th year as a NET Teacher in Hong Kong. Your post about appearances is spot on. I wonder whether I will have any appetite for teaching when I return home next year.

Despite all my best attempts, I have all but given up on teaching here in HK, at least in the way I have known it for the past 20 years. This year I have even given up and started using a microphone.

The first year here I was told I had to put up a noticeboard for English. I spent two or three weeks getting students to make nice posters to put up only to have them all taken down and replaced by colourful paper cutouts and (yes, you guessed it Hello Kittties) When I asked why I couldn't display students work I was told that "we never do that in Hong Kong".

Nic replies:

I'm sorry to hear that. I know exactly what you mean about reaching that point where you've had enough.

Being a NET is a lottery (I'm not a NET) though am lucky believe or not to work for a local principal who is probably a diamond amongst the rough here in HK.

Sure, we have to design boards, etc, though he has cut most of that bullshit out. He is concerned about real teaching and learning and about being as innovative as possible to teach, not for the kids to rote learn.

I'll still be here for a while though I'm probably luckier than most.

Keep your chin up.

In response to a question about what an 'EMI' school is, we received this reply:

EMI stands for English as a medium of instruction. There are 2 ways of looking at this: how a native speaker would envisage EMI and how a local does.

Strictly speaking, EMI means that lessons are taught solely in English. However, you know what the standard of English can be like amongst some adults in HK -- well, EMI in some schools means only a couple of subjects and or an English text that is taught using Cantonese.

The other view is that of local parents whose Asian background would relate more to a native approach to English, e.g. Indians, Nepalese and Filipino parents. They believe that EVERY situation in a school should be in English if the school purports to be an EMI one. However, we are in a Chinese society where Cantonese is the dominant language. It is difficult to mandate a particular social language as well as demanding a perfect grasp of English of visitors/speakers to any school.

The kids that cope better are the ones who can speak Cantonese and therefore can involve themselves in what is happening. However, many kids with great English seem to band together with other similar peers, forming a fairly narrow and exclusive group.

MrB adds:

EMI... A local friend who's a teacher had explained the catch-22 of trying to use spoken English to teach in his Secondary school: Speak English and a large part of the class don't understand, speak Cantonese and the English standard never improves. He's from a school with a very good reputation, so I guess the problem is much worse elsewhere. Still, if EMI means I can see what the text books are talking about, I'll be happy.

I think EMI only takes effect at secondary-school level? Any thoughts on primary schools?

A reader asks: Do parents in Hong Kong feel totally free to choose elementary and secondary school for their children?

And another reader answers: No, just like parents in all locations we are constrained by what the state system provides and the rules by which provision is made; by our economic situation (a multi-millionaire might feel more "free" because $ concerns need not be a high priority in choosing a private or DSS school); and our hopes, fears, and beliefs about education in general and the schools that provide it.

Saikungmama gives us a description of some typical local school activities:

Went to my daughter's Sports Day preliminaries on Friday. Took a 1/2 day off from work so I could sit for 3 hours and then go and stand at the rail and cheer on my girl in the 60 m. dash. (Took 30 seconds or less).

The girls were sweet and the teachers and headmistress kind to me (said nice things about my daughter).

One thing I'd also like to mention to those of you who are not familiar with the local school scene and that is its highly religious nature.

My kids went to an Anglican kindergarten and now my daughter goes to an Anglican school. Every week they have scripture lessons and they say grace before snack or lunch, the End of Term Service is a religious occasion.

On Sports Day, we also started with a prayer in Cantonese -- basically thanking God for the good weather and so on.

Since I am a practicing member of the Sheng Kung Hui (Anglican Church in HK) and my local church sponsors the kindergarten my kids attend, and our vicar sometimes preaches at my daughter's primary school, this degree of religious practice and inculcation doesn't bother me too much (although I have winced when my 4 year-old began spontaneously singing "Yes, Jesus Loves Me..." on the MTR). I know that a couple of weeks ago there were a series of letters to the editor in the SCMP on the religious sponsorship in many schools, so it needs mentioning here.

Many of the "big name" schools are religious: Maryknoll, La Salle and Wah Yan are all Roman Catholic. DGS, DBS, St. Paul's Co-ed, etc. are Anglican.

Other "private" schools also have a religious orientation, for example the Norwegian International School and (rather obviously) the International Christian School.

What about actually getting admitted to a local school? What are the criteria schools use in their admissions?:

Saikungmama again has some experience in this area:

From what I understand. many schools follow a "formula" of:

5 points = eldest child in the family
5 points = same religion as the sponsoring body
5 points = older sibling in school
5 points = parent attended the school ("old boy" or "old girl")

If the school is secular, it probably won't use the religious points.

So, my son for some of the schools that rejected him only had 5 points.

But who really knows how it all works?

MrB brings up another crucial issue with the local system:

One of the common themes of local education is the high volume of homework, even at an early age. If there are any local teachers reading, I'd be interested to hear why this is the approach that local schools take, and what the benefits are considered to be. I can see that learning Chinese characters needs a lot of drill and repetition, but why so much homework beyond that ?

Talking with MrsB about it this evening, she felt that many parents would complain if they felt their children weren't coming home with enough homework -- that somehow it would be taken as a sign the school's education wasn't up to scratch. So it would also be good to hear whether schools are keen to move away from the heavy homework load or not, and whether they face resistance from their parents ("If it was good enough for me...").

Bijai writes:

If I look for example to DGS [i.e. Diocesan Girls' School, one of the very best in Hong Kong -- ed.] in the photo of the faculty they are almost all (except one) Chinese. I know that this does not mean they are not eminently qualified (I've heard Anson Chan speak) and this is perhaps a type of irrational thought, but how are you assessing the quality of the English in this 'name' schools? I know ex-colleagues that have gone on to become teachers and I wouldn't want kid#1 learning from them. I got in trouble with Madam while kid#1 was in preschool for saying the teacher was wrong and I was right WRT the correct way to say something. I know, Lohpoh, you are moving away from this now, but I'm sure it must be something you've considered.

Saikungmama adds:

At my daughter's present school, I have been more concerned with the *style* of teaching, rather than the level. I think that the expectations for P1 and P2 are a bit too high. For example, on her dictations, if she misses a comma or a full stop, she gets marks off. Can you think of a better method to discourage a child from wanting to write?

Hers is a Govt. school, so I don't know if the Big Name Schools (BNSs) follow the same practices. I assume they do. Maybe you can ask the headmaster or headmistress about the role of dictations and overly high expectations of punctuation in the lower grades? Of course, you may get branded a troublemaker....

On the other hand, her handwriting and sentence creation are better than mine when I was her age. So, maybe it is a good thing?

As for pronunciation, I remember when she was in K1 and she was saying "A ... Pair ... Of ... Zissors" and I corrected her, telling her "you know how to say scissors properly" and she said "but that's the way Miss L. says it ... " and I said that I wanted her to speak English like me, not Miss L.

She does have a bit of a British accent when she pronounces words (I am from No. America), but I just think it's cute. I have a British acquaintance from Leicestershire who says that enrolling her kids in the local ESF school has changed their accents "They sound like Americans now".

The young people that I have met who are in F6 or F7 of the "name schools" have had very good spoken English. Since I haven't seen their writing, I couldn't comment on that.

We are considering sending them to extra Chinese classes if they get into the ESF school. I also plan to take them North for a holiday in a year or so, so they can see that Putonghua is a living language and that might encourage them in that area.

But, we also have the issue that Putonghua is commonly taught using the simplified characters and I want them to learn the traditional characters. It's not easy.



For those who are skeptical of the quality of english education at DGJS, you'd be surprised by how many of the dgjs students even outperform local native english-speaking classmates in English(including diction) when they go abroad. 

Can anyone share the magic of

Can anyone share the magic of English Education in DGJS?