Hong Kong schools: Local vs International

This long article brings together some of the back-and-forth agonizing that goes on when people in Hong Kong try to choose between sending their children to local schools and 'international' schools, including the ESF.

Mr B kicks us off:

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.


From Reader Ron:

Now for a general introduction, even I married a wonderful Hong Kong lady and we now have three extremely naughty but lively kids.

The eldest son is Vinnie [14], daughter Veronica is 7, and youngest son is Ronald Jr. [6].

Yes, yes we are aware that we were not very careful and have two younger ones in a short span. But, that has now proved to be a blessing as both Veronica and Ronald study in the same school and same class.

Now to mention our experiences about mixed kids in local schools...

Back in the 90's Vinnie was just preparing to enter school and as he was our first, my wife and I discussed a lot before eventually sending Vinnie to a local school.

Our plan was that Vinnie grasp and understand both written and spoken Chinese at a young age. This because, Chinese is a comparatively difficult language [as the system involves symbols and is different from ours].

We believed that Vinnie would surely pick up English easily [at home] as even my wife, despite being a Hong Kong Chinese, was educated overseas and speaks perfect English. Furthermore, since I am an entrepreneur and have settled in Hong Kong since 16/17 years, ours was not a case of expats returning *back* to native country [say after a couple of years].

This in my opinion is a major consideration in selecting schools. For example, if as in the colonial days, British children came to Hong Kong because their parents were posted here [and that too temporarily or for a specific time limit], then I would advise that they go to ESF schools right away.

For them, learning Chinese or Cantonese would not be such an important issue as they may not permanently settle in Hong Kong.

On the other hand, families like us need to think about the future of our children and possibly give them best of both worlds.

Therefore, Vinnie started his education in local kindergarten and thereafter moved on to a local primary school. Later he would further move on to ESF school.

As you already know by now, Vinnie is a mixed kid and it shows on his face, etc. But in our experience, this was not a major problem for him. He even laughs when people call him Gwei Chai [which means foreigner kid, but literally means Ghost Kid].

However, a point to note is that there is definite discrimination in Hong Kong [society] and the discrimination is unequal. Meaning that a Caucasian Chinese kid will fare much better compared to Indian, Pakistani, Filipino, Nepalese, or Thai mixed kid.

In fact, a Caucasian Chinese kid will be looked upon with pride and awe, whereas the other category above will suffer. Nonetheless, the discrimination is nowhere as serious as say the White/Black divide back home.

In short, I don't see any discrimination problems for kids of Mr. Tall and/or Mr. B. On the contrary, expect the teachers of local schools to give *extra* attention to your children which eventually is good.

I am sorry if anyone is offended, but this is a fact of Hong Kong and has been created by Hong Kong's multi-racial society alongside its colonial legacy.

Anyway ... Vinnie sailed smoothly and effortlessly through his kindergarten and primary school(s). In fact, he has become truly bilingual in the sense that he has developed an interest in Classical Chinese literature and at the same time is trying to collect his "canon" of The Hardy Boys [American teenage fiction by Franklin W. Dixon -- a fictitious author].

While Franklin W. Dixon's works are nowhere near classical, it does help Vinnie in his upbringing that most of us had as kids back home. So in a sense, Vinnie did get the best of both worlds.

Our plan for Vinnie also included that at a particular age he switchover to International school(s). Therefore, Vinnie knew very early on that after Primary 3 [P3] he would be going to ESF school(s).

Initially we were quite worried about the switchover as the environment would be suddenly different. However, Vinnie always played with other kids of our expat family friends, so the environment factor was not as much of a shock.

However, Vinnie did become a bit introvert in the first few months at ESF (P4) and we also felt that he was losing confidence. But my wife and I spent a lot of time with him, gave him enough counselling and arranged events with his [now] new school friends and their families, so as to regain his confidence.

This helped Vinnie a lot and after a few months, all his problems disappeared. There was never a "Me no speakee English" problem for Vinnie as we speak both English [more] and Cantonese [daily] at our house.

Vinnie's great break came [in ESF] when he started scoring quite good in sports as well. Even at the age of 13 he was almost 6 feet tall and he definitely has an excellent physique. This helped him a lot alongside regaining his confidence.

Today, Vinnie still goes to public libraries and reads Chinese books and on the other hand he is almost an all American kid.


From Stephen Frost:

I've just read your posts on having a baby in Hong Kong and the dilemmas surrounding the choice of educational institution. Your posting on schools really captured the conversation my wife (who's Chinese) and I are having. Our daughter -- Leilani -- is nearly 2 1/2, and we've got to make a decision soon. We want her to speak and read Chinese, but dumping her in a local school is not really an option (for all the reasons you mentioned). We'd like to send her to a school that teaches in Mandarin and English (and the Montessori on Caine Road actually does that), but this option is ridiculously expensive (more than $5,000 per month). I'm not really prepared to fork out that amount for classes where she'll spend most of her time gluing cotton wool onto coloured paper.

. . .

An expat friend (from Malaysia) whose son has just started at a kindergarten here told me yesterday that her son's already coming home every night with homework (causing more stress for the parents than for the child, she added laughing). Okay, it's only art homework (pasting cotton wool on paper and the like, I suppose - he's not sweating over quadratic equations just yet...). Nevertheless, my friend spends a lot of time preparing materials beforehand and cleaning up the mess afterwards. She's also already received a telephone call from her son's teacher chastising her failure to follow the instructions accompanying his homework. On top of this she has a (Chinese expletive deleted) clothing list that includes a crimson blazer and bow tie. My daughter attends playgroup twice a week (for half a day each time). She loves it, but so far there's no homework. Except of course the puzzles, playing horsie, pulling her around our apartment on a rug, making blanket tents, bath time bubble blowing, dancing, etc etc etc... Ha ha."

I'm sure it will all work out fine...

. . .

Even before Leilani was born I was assuming the role of financially spooked dad and looking long and hard at international school fees. One school whose name has slipped my mind -- possibly blocked out as a consequence of sheer fright -- charged something like $150,000 per annum by the time your little one had become a big one in Form 6, on top of which were extracurricular activities. I'm all for a spot of after school debating or weekend tennis, but when I looked at their site I saw that what they meant were field trips to Italy and the like. All of a sudden I was seeing another $10,000 or more flying out the window.

And then there was the story in the SCMP 3 or 4 years ago about the girl attending her senior dance who asked daddy if he could borrow one of his business associate's Roller for the evening so she could be spared the indignity of stepping out of a lowly Mercedes in front of her peers. After all, she wailed, everyone else was arriving in style.

I guess I better keep a copy of Zhang Yimou's Not One Less handy so that I can show my daughter that conditions in her school aren't really all that bad ...


Saikungmama adds:

I send my daughter to a local school. She is no. 29 in a class of 38 girls. As far as local aided schools go, it is quite good. Although very crowded by western standards, the atmosphere is cheerful and loving.

My daughter is in P2, she is the only "mixed" girl in her year (out of ~120 girls) and may be the only mixed girl in her primary. The Cantonese word for "mixed blood" was a new word that she learned on the first day.

Because her mother (that's me, the author) is the foreign one, her mother-tongue is English, which puts her at a bit of a disadvantage. It also means that the homework burden and communicating with the school burden falls on my husband. Because he does not come home until about 7pm at night, we have to hire a tutor to help her with her homework. (Or, I suppose we could send her to a "Bo Jaap" centre).

If you plan to send your baby to a local primary school, then you will need to send her to a local kindergarten. The expat-oriented kindergartens will most likely not be able to prepare your child for the enormous amount of work they will have to cope with right at the beginning of P1. Even for regular HK parents, the first year of primary school is often a terrible strain and shock: the weekly dictations in English and Chinese, the regular exams; the sheer heavy weight of the school bag.

My husband thinks that schools are harder today than when he was a boy and that our daughter, although at the bottom of her class in reading and writing Chinese, knows more characters at the age of 7 than he did when he was 7.

So why do we keep her in the local school, and plan to send her younger brother to one?

1) Language -- we want them to be fluent in Cantonese and since we speak English at home, this is the best method we can think of.

2) Language -- we want them to be able to read and write in Chinese, and it seems like the best way for them to learn. Every year that they manage to hang on in the local school means a few hundred more characters.

3) Sense of place -- the kids are growing up in HK and we want them to be HK kids, have more of a sense of community and rootedness.

So, we try to keep a close eye on her progress and how she feels, and will pull her out and switch her to an ESF school if/when she feels like it's too much for her, or if we notice that her attitude towards learning is beginning to deteriorate.

[Wait for more from Saikungmama . . . .]


Bijai says:

Background: I am an expat on local terms in a local (99% Chinese) company. Madam is Chinese and we both speak fluent English and I can do pretty well in Cantonese. We have three snot machines.

My eldest has been accepted and is very happily attending an ESF school, however Madam decided that she would like to see if it would be possible to get him into a 'name' DSS school [A 'DSS' school means a 'direct subsidy school', a term that denotes local Hong Kong schools that can charge limited fees, and that have greater autonomy in how they're run. They tend to be 'name' schools with highly competitive admissions -- ed.]. Apparently ESF students can still get these places and so, to our surprise, he has been accepted and we now need to make a very difficult decision.

As with most others I hope that my kid will be bilingual, however if one language is to be weaker than the other than I would prefer it to be Chinese. He attended an international kindergarten (read Chinese language) and was at the age of four frequently doing 3+hrs of homework -- OK if he didn't have the attention span of gerbil it might not be so much, but none the less this is what he was doing – and this was a major reason for looking at ESF schools in the first place.

Madam went through the HK education system and did well in exams but now has no recollection of anything she learnt but is now not using. I went through the education system at home (widely criticised but I don't think too bad) and came out with a love of learning and an understanding of the principles involved...and so have a pretty good recollection of most things I have learnt. We both agree that this is pretty close to the truth. Hence the dilemma.

In our opinion pros of ESF/disadvantages of DSS:

1) When you look at the ESFs websites they have a philosophy towards educating the kids which is essentially in line with my own. The DSS school doesn't seem really interested in discussing their philosophy and I am unable to get any feel for it from their website.

2) Kid genuinely loves it because they have so much fun and no homework.

3) Seems to be a very broad education and learn the basics through other topics and having that specialist knowledge gives them something which they can tell adults which Kid loves.

4) More in line with home education system (not British...but similar) so if we decide it's time to leave, it may make the transition easier.

5) Native English teachers in all subjects (OK except Chinese) and so no risk of substandard English in the classroom -- well no more than a school back home.

6) Direct path through to senior high. DSS we'd have to apply.

Pros of DSS/Cons of ESF

1) Able to learn Cantonese. ESF teaches Mandarin but at a very low level similar to kids first year in primary.

2) Easier to get into University if we are still in HK? Don't know but it seems to make sense ... most ESF kids seem to get out of HK education system.

3) Money. Kid is 1 of 3. ESF is cheap and in my opinion good value, but it's not free. Government talking about scrapping subsidies means that either facilities are going to suffer or fees are going to go up. 48kpa/kid if it stays the same could be well spent on other things for them.

4) DSS has Name recognition. In HK coming from a name school gives you a good network and interviewers look very favourably at this; I know from my own company. Madam says in the local psyche 'ESF' means you can afford a good education, 'name' means you've got a bright kid.

5) ESF has recently discharged two principals for failing audits (is this good/bad?) and some of the others are leaving. Is this 4/10 changing?...I don't know the numbers exactly but that's not low and may point to more fundamental troubles. Changing principals may also significantly change the school culture. [The ESF has had continuing troubles with administration, with loads of bad press, since this post was written. -- ed.]

Lots of people tell us we should go to the DSS school for a couple of years and change back but I've also heard from some [other] people that they have been wait-listed for ESF schools after going with other schools first.


Saikungmama adds:

My husband and I have decided to switch to ESF next September (if there are places available...).

Our son, despite going to a "name" kindergarten, was rejected by 3 schools, and waitlisted by a 4th. We don't know what's wrong. Is it that our son's Chinese is weaker than his English? Is it that he's the "wrong type" of mix (mother is the westerner) and schools anticipate problems with home-school communication (although my husband has been responsible for that with our daughter in her Govt. school). Or maybe I talked too much in the interview? Or maybe our son was too "lively" in his interview?

So, we are now in the process of trying to get both kids into our local ESF school. We feel exhausted and are so SICK of having to nag nag nag our daughter to stop reading a book and do her homework, or stop drawing a picture and get her school bag together. She was doing OK in everything but her written Chinese, but we are afraid that if our nagging and the homework pressure continue, it will hurt our relationship, and destroy her love of learning.

It's been a really hard thing. If our circumstances were different, or we were different people, maybe we would "tough it out". But instead, we have decided that we would rather have our kids learning happily in one language than indifferent or hostile (or thinking they are dumb) in two. Then we can have more time on the weekends to go to the beach, or museums, or just hang out.

With the local system I often felt like our family was a round peg, trying to cram itself into a square hole. I know that my educational philosophy might not match the ESF perfectly, but at least there will be more common ground (I hope).

What I did like about her school was the generally loving environment; the excellent maths curriculum; and the way her teachers and headmistress tried to play up her strengths and helped her to feel good about them. But overall, I decided that I wanted her to *love* school and learning, and if that means her reading and writing Chinese will suffer, so be it. She can force herself to cram Chinese characters when she's in her teens or twenties if she wants. We have had enough of homework induced weeping.

As for the name recognition ... KGV and Sha Tin college have good name recognition too (I don't know about on the Island). And ultimately, I care less about the brand of education than the quality. We are not really planning to send our kids to Uni here in HK anyway, so why have them study their youths away for HKCEE and HK A-levels?

So, we have capitulated. But I feel like I should warn you that the waiting lists for places at ESF schools are also long and if you kid shows signs that he or she can cope in the local system, you may have a very long wait indeed.


Bijai has more:

Do you know anyone (mixed) who is successfully studying in local schools? I met a western mother who had a girl in a local school studying quite happily, but with that exception I really don't know anyone.

Madam says that she saw two kids from the local school kid #1 has been accepted in to. The first was crying whilst waiting for the bus because he'd been sick during the test and so hadn't performed well. This is a P1 kid. The mother and another parent suggested that they pray together that the results would be OK anyway. Again P1!!!

I wonder if the IB which ESF now use makes it difficult for them to enter Uni here. Like yourself [i.e. Saikungmama] we don't plan to use local Uni's, but why rule them out unnecessarily? Also quality is of course most important, but if kids are not being pushed at all, as I feel it is in P1 at least, then it may lead to them not achieving and not forming good habits. It is this balance between the workload of local 'name' schools and the relatively (at least it appears) ESF style that we are trying to figure out.


Saikungmama replies:

My eldest is in P2. My younger one is in K3, so if we get a place he would be in P2 of ESF and the older one would be in P4.

IB, A-levels, who knows what the HK unis will require in 12 years' time? Besides, a student in theory can bypass the JUPAS and apply for direct admission based on results other than the HK A-levels.

I agree with the need to form good habits in primary school, but I haven't seen any evidence (yet) that ESF kids are lazy or that the kids who graduate from these schools become -- I don't know, what's the fear -- ignorant, undisciplined young derelicts, destined to sponge off their parents the rest of their lives?

I guess the only thing is to try and see. Different kids have different strengths and weaknesses, as well as the schools. Maybe your kids might thrive in the local system, quite a few do. Nothing ventured, nothing gained. We are happy that at least we have TRIED the local system for our eldest one.

My eldest (in P2) just came home with a 53 on her latest Chinese exam. It's better than the 50 earlier in the semester (we tried to console her), and she also comforted herself that there was another girl in the class who got a 48. SAD.

My daughter's school is considered a quite good school, but not quite "top tier" like DGS or Maryknoll. My husband says that compared to some local schools, the homework load is not heavy. It just seems that way to me, perhaps because I never did a bit of homework until I was 11 years old (my step-dad was bit concerned about it and had me memorize some poetry when I was about 10 to make up for the lack :))

My daughter is the only mixed kid in her year at her school (~120 girls) and at sports day I didn't see any other mixed kids in the other classes, although there might have been some. No Europeans or South Asians either. But, some of our neighbor's kids go there, so in that way you can say that she shares the same economic class and location background. ;)

Yeah, I don't ask her for being at the top of the class. But playing Sisyphus is a hard game for a 7-year old, at least ours.

Some kids from mixed families do quite well at these schools; some kids thrive. I think it's worth a chance to see, especially if your wife is really committed to being an on-the-spot homework facilitator. A lot of the kids I teach Sunday school go to these schools and they are very impressive, even at 6-8 years old: articulate, thoughtful.

My daughter's strengths (at this point) lie in her way with people (she is friendly, outgoing, empathetic, speaks well) her athleticism, and her understanding of stories. Her logical abilities, while not terrible, are not so strong. In that I think she is probably like me, who usually managed to get B's in math if I worked VERY HARD (unlike some classmates who were very clever at math and could get A's without any studying). So, it may be that the ESF schools are better for her. But also, less work for my husband and me.

As for my son, he is probably more intellectually suitable for the local schools. But, his behavior is less disciplined than many local students (although by US standards he is mostly an obedient and well-behaved child). So, we hope that by switching him to the ESF system, he will be an "average" boy, instead of "one of the 4 naughtiest" or something like that.

As for the IB... only one person my own age I know got it. He is from Australia and spent his last 2 years of secondary at one of the United World Colleges (not the one in HK). He really enjoyed his studies there, went on to a very good university, where in addition to getting a degree in engineering, he was also very involved in theatrical management.

Here is some information on the International Baccalaureate:

But, at the moment, the ESF schools still follow the UK National Curriculum (or at least KGV does): http://www.kgv.edu.hk/zInfo/Curriculum/Overview.htm.


Mr Tall adds:

I'm reprinting here, with permission, an email I received from a young man who's just been through the HK education system.

I'm sure you have had lots of feedback concerning the decision of which school you want to send your children too...

My parents are Chinese, and so am I, but they decided to send me to an international school (Kennedy school if you've heard of it). Being there I learned to get along with people of all races, which you do not get in local schools period. I learnt English perfectly, my father stopped speaking Cantonese to me and started with English in the hope that I would improve even more. My mother carried on speaking mandarin to me. The hope of this was that by the time I was grown, I'd be able to speak read and write English, and speak mandarin and Cantonese.

This didn't quite work out as they planned and English became my first language. While I still could speak basic phrases in Cantonese but was more fluent in mandarin. I found it increasingly difficult to live in Hong Kong. Looking 100% Chinese but not being able to speak it meant that I led a more dormant life. Even though we had less work to do at school, there was not enough freedom to spend the time usefully, ending up watching TVB world (I think). My parents would still try to push me to my limits, forcing me to learn all sorts of things which all ended in failure simply because I was forced into it.

My friends were all foreigners with good English. So I never really integrated into a Chinese society.

This brings a lot of problems to the table -- living in a society but not integrating yourself into it as much as people think you should. I remember I was shunned on the streets for speaking English so well and being laughed at when I told them I couldn't speak/read/write Cantonese.

If you are planning on living in Hong Kong for a long time, you need to consider whether you want your child to grow up as an outsider to the Cantonese community. I'm not sure if you know this already, but racism in Hong Kong is even worse than it is in multicultural western societies. So I mean, your child might have an even harder time than you anticipated just because of the way he/she looks. This could easily be avoided if he/she was in an international school.

The way you raise your child will also have an effect on how she/he does in local schools. Like you said in your article, there are parents who cram their children to get into the top schools, and if you want your child to go to a more prestigious school, would you not have to do the same? Living in London now at 18, I've realized no matter how good your English is, at the end of the day people will still treat you differently because of the way you look. I learnt that lesson the hard way finding it difficult to settle into primary school when I first arrived (being the only Chinese kid in my school). Not only did looking Chinese affect me, the morals and rules I had to abide by in my Chinese household did too. So the way your child looks will have an impact on where she goes. A life of bullying will ruin your child! I mean, if you send her to local schools, she'll have to deal with a lot more situations regarding her culture that she will have to deal with. Am I Chinese? Or, if everybody treats me as a foreigner, am I one?

I think that the main point I am trying to make is, if you raise your kid in an international school, she/he will have less chance of integrating in Chinese society. Of course, if you are thinking of sending her abroad after secondary school for uni then everything is fine. She will be more prepared for the western world in that sense.

I cannot really see any advantages a mixed race child would have at a local school over an international school to be honest. I suppose everybody says that Chinese will be the most important language in the next century etc... If you can teach your child Chinese through extracurricular means, then everything would be sorted. Best of both worlds! But if you fail, then your child will only speak one language. English.

The level of your language depends on how often you need to use it. If you don't, you'll forget.

At the end of the day, if your kid looks foreign, send it to an international. If your child looks Chinese, then local it is.


Saikungmama replies:

I think his opinions are perhaps an over simplification of the issues and there seems to be a fundamental difference between his parents attitude and our own -- the people who have been contributing to date seem not to be trying to deny their own culture or language but to develop and integrate their children into both cultures. Even if I was to forbid my wife from speaking Cantonese to the kids, my wife enjoys Chinese TV and my kids watch at the same time. Their grandparents speak Chinese. The people they meet on the street speak Chinese. People on the street take them as Chinese and when we're out with foreigners or their in an English environment they feel perfectly comfortable.

The opposing point that I guess I would make is if you only expose them to Chinese culture going to Chinese schools and living amongst Chinese they will grow up with the prejudices that are found in those groups. ESF has a mix of so many different people and cultures. I don't think people will survive if they're not blind to the differences amongst different people. At the moment if you asked my son to sort the kids in his class, there'd be three groups: boys, girls and naughty boys.


Fiona writes:

I've been fascinated reading this thread and thought I'd share with you my education to show how some parts have changed radically… and some haven't ...

I grew up here and went to school in the 60s and 70s...a year at KJS then we relocated to Macau for 3 years where I studied at Santa Rosa de Lima … the 67 unrest (really quite bad in Macau) forced us back to Hong Kong where I was enrolled in Sacred Heart Canossian College (a.m. section) … basically there was a huge lack of places in what was to become the ESF schools and as my dad didn't work for a big hong, leverage was out of the question … they did take my brother though, having felt that a 'gwei-loh' boy needed to be assured of a British education over and above his sisters (shrug)

Sacred Heart was tough … my sister and I (she's five years younger, mind you) being the only non-Chinese students, we stuck out like sore thumbs … though I do owe my parents a great debt for not sending me to St. Paul's, as they couldn't bring themselves to put their somewhat dumpy lil' girl into a blue cheongsam!!

Some of my lessons at SH were in Cantonese, but I'd started to learn that in Macau (you had to do 2 languages there, choices being English, Portuguese and Chinese) so I didn't fare TOO badly … until they started to push the religion. I was spending my Saturday afternoons at The Catholic Centre and the straw that broke the camel's back was me asking for a veil … my sis was having nightmares from the textbooks showing children being terrorised by the devil … and my born-Protestant but atheist-leaning dad took it upon himself to complain to mother superior about it all … in the process talking us out of school!!!

Proudly returning home, he told my mum that he'd sorted all THAT out … and my sis piped in with "Mum!!! He swore at mother superior!!" to which my mum's reply was great … and now what? Well, next up was Royden House Junior & Senior School (not RH College) where many the non-Caucasian and non-Chinese seemed to end up. My classmates were Macanese, Indonesian, Japanese, Korean, one American, Indian, Pakistani, Malaysian, etc.

Interesting place … sadly it went downhill somewhat towards the end of my secondary education there (I attended P6 through F5) and I ended up leaving school with ONE GCSE in English...well I could hardly fail that now could I?

I was promptly dispatched to a Kent crammer where I took and passed 5 O Levels in one year and 2 A Levels the next, so we knew my poor results weren't down to me … I remember teachers at RH refusing to allow participation, the rote learning -- I recall being chewed up one day when I refused to pronounce aborigine as 'abor-i-jine'!!!

I had mixed feelings about every school I attended … SH was difficult because I was made to feel so different … one of the nuns used to whack me on the head every day and tell me to tell my mother to brush my hair before I came to school (very curly hair!!) … RH was interesting but provided a poor level of education...mind you the Kent crammer and all those English schoolgirls was yet another eye opener

I think it's great to see more people going into the local system so long as you get what you want out of it … I'm not so sure the rote learning has changed too much … it took me a while to get out of that mindset, I can tell you.


Readers, any updates/thoughts to add?


Coping with the local system

I read with interest all your postings. I am in a similar dilema as some of you. A mother of two, I am the foreiger and my husband Chinese. Our eldest daughter is in P2 in a local school. All the subjects (except for English) are in Chinese, all school notices as well, her student handbook, everything. To complicate matters, my husband is usually away, as he works in China during weekdays and only comes to HK during the weekends, by which time, I've had a very frustrating week dealing with homework and trying to figure out what she needs to study. Most of the time my daughter can take care of her homework by herself, but there are times when she can't understand what's being asked and we are left relying on mobile phone cameras or webcams and praying that my husband is available. Thankfully the school allows students to remain one hour after school to do homework, and the class teacher would usually be there to guide them. That has been a lifesaver for me, as I remember when my daughter first entered P.1 I felt so frustrated I even thought of sending her to my homecountry to study. Obviously that was not a feasable solution, so we decided to wait and see in the hope that my daughter would be able to do things and study by herself. That, has worked for 90% of the time thus far. Except, when it comes to exams. I have been advised by her Chinese teacher to get her a tutor, as that is the subject where she is faring the worst. The last two tests, she failed, and although she passed all the other subjects, her happiness was crushed when she got her Chinese subject results. Why does a 7 year old child have to go through such preassure? After reading your comments, I am seriously considering a change to an ESF school, my main concern (besides the relatively higher fee) is that she will loose her Chinese. I believe that Chinese will be vital for her future and I would not like her to forget what she's learned. I have to admit, her Chinese is really good considering we speak English at home at all times, even with her dad, and she only gets the chance to practice once in a while when her grandparents visit and at school. So, would I be making a terrible mistake to pull her out of the local school? I think the dilema is, she is probably coping with it better than I am, is it worth the pain? I want her to have a good education and reach her potential. I feel that the local schools have a very rigid curriculum and do not involve the children in non-academic subjects as much as international schools do.

Switching from local to ESF school

Hello MM,

Our two girls are much younger, so I don't have any practical experience to share - hopefully parents of older children will be able to help out with the pros and cons of switching schools.

A practical note though, if your daughter's school is generally supportive, have you talked to them about the difficulties you have understanding all the chinese instructions that come home from school? Even though our elder daughter is only in K1 there is a steady flow of notes to be followed. I'd certainly feel lost if MrsB wasn't here to translate.

Would your school be willing to help? eg introduce a teacher that speaks English, that you could call or talk to at school? Or are you friendly with any of the local mums in your building block, or mums of children in the same class as your daughter, that would be willing to help translate when something needs clarification? Even if you do end up changing schools in future, some help with translation now sounds like it would make the weekdays less frustrating.

Regards, MrB

Coping with the local system

Hi MM,
I've been thinking of writing a similar post to yours for a long time. Our situations are very similar as I am also a Western mother with a Chinese husband and my elder son is also in P2 in a local school. A couple of months ago I was so fed up with the endless homework and, like you, the frustration of never knowing what is going on with the notices and not being able to help that I was also ready to give up on the whole thing. My husband is also exhausted with managing the homework and notices, although he is very committed to having the kids study at a Chinese school and wouldn't have it any other way. I guess what encouraged me to persevere was that my son, who has always been near the bottom of the class and often didn't seem to get what was going on, suddenly jumped up 20 places in the class and made it to the top 10! I've still no idea what happened but it gave me the encouragement that he was actually making some improvement after all, plus at the same time he seemed to have more friends than before and be generally happier. He has also speeded up a bit as he used to be so SLOW that he never had any free time (he's still pretty slow though!). I'm not in any way pushing him towards academic excellence, it's just such a relief that he finally seems to be coping with the Chinese medium. It sounds like your daughter is doing really well managing her homework by herself. My son is not there yet at all and we have to send him to a homework centre in our estate so someone can watch him and make sure he knows what he's doing. Then my husband checks it when he gets home. I would really recommend that you either find a homework centre or get a tutor, then maybe the tutor could also help you with the notices and save you time. To be honest, I really wonder how you have managed by yourself for so long. Your daughter must be really smart and independent. So if she seems to be coping and is HAPPY (most important), I would stick it out as long as possible, for the sake of the Chinese. I really love that my kids can talk to anyone in HK and are not limited to only conversing with those who speak English (as I am, apart from my poor attempts at Cantonese). And remember, once you change to ESF, you can never change back, but you always have the option of switching to ESF later if you want.

I think it really helps to know that there are other Western parents sending their children to Chinese medium schools as I for one rarely come across many others, especially where the mother is the Westerner. Let's stick together! But do look into getting a tutor or homework centre. It will save you a lot of headaches.


I'm another western woman married to HK-guy.

We stuck it out through P2 in the local system w/ our oldest. We tried tutors and so forth, but it was just getting so hard.

1) SK-daughter came home saying things like "I'm the stupidest girl in the class" (her own perception, the teachers and headmistress were very kind)

2) SK-daughter had a hard time managing the homework & I did what I could, but often we had to wait until SK-Baba came home from work and then there were frustrations and tears.

It was making our lives miserable and my once joyous daughter who loved learning into a girl who often dreaded school.

3)SK-Daughter was not the only kid I knew who went to this school who had problems. Another classmate (both parents HK-Chinese people educated in HK schools) was also suffering from the pressure. Her parents moved her to a less "high powered" local school (private).

4) SK-son could not follow SK-Daughter into her girls-only school and lacked points to get into a similarly "good" local school.

5) There was no flexibility in the system. However kind and understanding the teacher and headmistress were, SK-Daughter was one of 38 girls in her class and there were 4 classes in each year and structurally because of the rules and regulations of the school and the EMB there was no way for the system to accomodate her (e.g. by having her in English w/ the P5 girls and Chinese w/ the P1 girls and maths w/ her own year).

So, we switched to ESF. Yeah, it's expensive. But, at least they love learning and there's more to school than just reading and writing. They get interesting assignments requiring research and thinking. They like their teachers. The science education is SO MUCH better - they actually get to do experiments and take data and build things.

The maths - so-so, not quite as good as the local schools. So, SK-Baba has them do some supplementary work at home (usually 1 page a day). They are doing fine.

The Chinese... SK-daughter's spoken Cantonese is better than her brother's. But, he can understand quite a bit and answer a bit. They are learning Chinese reading and writing at school (not enough - teachers are overworked and they only get 2 sessions of Chinese per week). So, we supplement w/ Kumon & that seems to help.

So, we are basically satisfied & hope to have the kids Chinese get better and better as they get older. They are not as good at Chinese as some kids I know (like my friend who sends her boys to a Famous Boys School) but they love school and are learning and have time to play and explore their own interests.

I just try to relax now and remind myself that compared to my own primary school, the school the kids go to is amazing and that there is plenty of time for the kids to learn what they need to learn and to discover what they want to learn.

MBAs at 4 years old?

Thanks much for your post, MM, and also to Bauhinia Girl and SKMama for telling us about your experiences, too.

I can tell you that I was regretting Daughter Tall's K2 homework last week -- we were all jetlagged after a trip to the USA, and did I ever wish that she could have been free from writing her characters every night!

Anyway, things can always be worse. Read here, for example, about a 'mini-MBA' program for 4-year-olds in the mainland!

Finding an English School

I have a somewhat different situation from most of you. My wife and I are mainland Chinese. We stayed overseas and then came back to China. We have been in Beijing for five years and now I have had an offer to come to teach at Hong Kong U. We would like to find an international school or ESF school for our 12-year-old son, who never did well at the Chinese local school here in Beijing. But the international school we called (Canadian) said they require a test, which I think my son will not pass (since he never has gone to an English school, although he is a native English speaker). The ESF school (West Island) we called said that they don't have a space for the coming year. Do you happen to know of any other alternatives near the HKU area? Any suggestion would be appreciated.

Dean (dxu@gsm.pku.edu.cn)

English-language secondary school on Hong Kong Island

If you haven't seen the Government's Education Department website already, they have a page on Education for Non-Chinese Speaking Children, which has a couple of useful documents.

The shorter document, 'Education for Non-Chinese Speaking Children', gives an overview of the options, lists of schools, and useful contacts at the Education Dept. The longer document, 'International Education in Hong Kong - A Prospectus' gives a 2-page overview per school for all the main English-language schools, showing class sizes, fees, etc.

It can be difficult to find a space in an English-language school at short notice. Can HKU give you any help with this? It would be worth asking your future colleagues if they have contacts at any suitable schools, and could put in a good word for you.

Good luck, MrB

Finding an English School

Have you looked at the Chinese International School. It's on Braemar Hill - has a curriculum of Mandarin & English. It has a very good reputation - some say it's hard to get in, but it sounds like your son might be the right type to get in (educated in Mandarin, native English speaker)

But, it is rather expensive (HK$ 124,000 for years 7-11, which your son would be)

The Kiangsu-Chekiang College International Section on Braemar Hill? 70K per year


Delia School of Canada in Taikoo Shing

The Carmel School in Mid-levels is a Jewish International School, but they accept non-Jews. The school goes up to Middle School, so you might want to double-check w/ them what happens after that.

There's also French International & German International on HK-side. They both have International sections (your son would not be expected to be fluent in French or German) but they are quite expensive.

Thank you, MrB and skmama.

Thank you, MrB and skmama. It's hard to get onto this website from the mainland.

Local or international school?

Ok, so it's not exactly 'Child of our time', but as a couple of years have passed since the original post it's time for a progress update from the Family B.

The path we've chosen is to send our two girls to international playschool, then on to local kindergarten and primary school.

I'll just talk about our older daughter, as obviously she's further ahead. She is nearly five years old, and is in the third term of K2. When she started in K1, she understood Cantonese well, and could speak it but wouldn't say much and preferred to speak English. I think that's a combination of her own personality, and the fact that she's grown up learning two languages. Her younger sister has started talking earlier and can speak more Cantonese, despite following the same path.

The kindergarten believes that children can help other children learn, so they grouped her with some of the chattiest girls in the class. Initially she'd give a lot of responses in English, with the teachers repeating back to her in Cantonese. By the end of the first year I'd say her preferred language had switched to Cantonese, and she is now very comfortable & fluent in it.

Chinese writing? Yes, that's well underway, and she can already write lots of characters I don't recognise - admittedly I don't know many Chinese characters, but still it's something we're happy to see.

There's never been a problem of being made fun of because she's different. Maybe the children don't even notice it yet, but certainly it's not a problem. If anything I'd agree with Ron's observation below - she gets slightly more positive attention because of it, so it turns out to be a good thing.

There's daily homework, but so far it's a sheet per night that takes just a few minutes to complete. It's certainly developing the habit that there will be homework to do each night, but it's no great strain to do.

All communication from the school is in chinese of course, so mum takes the lead in following what is happening, and helping with homework.

We have no complaints about the teaching style - we haven't seen any of the force-feeding learn-by-rote that has been mentioned elsewhere as a potential problem. The emphasis seems to be on developing the child's curiosity and confidence, while at the same time making sure the basics like reading and writing are covered. More simply, our daughter loves to go to school.

Any downside? Her English is not quite at the level of her friends that only speak English. The most common mistake is getting he/she/her/his/it muddled up, as you just don't have to deal with that in Chinese. But she has no problems at all talking to English-speaking friends and family. And I'm glad we followed Mr Tall's lead in teaching her to read with the phonics approach, and she enjoys reading in English now.

Would it work for you?

I think communication with the school is the key point you'll need to work out.

If one parent speaks and reads Chinese, you should be fine, but think about whether there will be any feelings of resentment caused by one parent taking most of the load.

How about speaking but not reading? There is another mixed girl in our daughter's class, but her mum is overseas Chinese. I guess she can understand but not speak Chinese, and can't read chinese. The teacher helps write English translations of key information for her, and a couple of the teachers can speak fluent English if there are questions to be answered. At the start of K1 her daughter spoke very little, but now chatters away in Chinese like any of her classmates. So the benefits for the child are there, but as it means a lot of extra work for the teachers you'll want to be clear up front that they are willing to do it for as long as your child attends school.

What if you don't speak/read/write Chinese? I've heard our daughter's kindergarten had a western child attend a couple of years ago, so it may be possible. But again you'll want to be sure your teachers are willing to help with translation. The safest bet will be where the English instructions are made as part of the normal routine. When you rely on teachers to handwrite translations each day just for you, it seems the risk is higher that it could break down at some point.

So could you learn Chinese? Realistically speaking, the chances of you learning to read are slim. You're still going to need to be sure there are translated copies of instructions available for you.

But, learning to speak Chinese will certainly bring great rewards. In this comment about the ISF, the Mum learnt putonghua before her child did. In my case I could speak some Cantonese before our daughter started K1. It means you're more likely to know their songs and rhymes, and probably be more willing to attend school events too. Plus while your children are learning the new language you'll be learning too, as they speak slowly and simply. Unfortunately that doesn't last long as they are soon far ahead of you, but still, it's good while it lasts!

Finally recognise that you (the non-local) are an extra source of work for the teachers, and think if there are ways you can pay them back. Learning the language shows you're willing, and the offer to help is well received. It doesn't need to be anything too taxing - I've dressed up as Santa the last two christmases, and occasionally go in to read short English stories.

Currently we're thinking about which primary schools to apply for, and see how we get on there. From several of the other comments, it seems that primary school ratchets up the pressure, and that's when the headaches are likely to begin. I'll let you know in another couple of years how we're doing.

How about the other mums & dads on this thread? How have things turned out for you and your children?


Fine here

Hi Mr. B, 

Not much has changed for us lateley, except that SK-daughter has now started an ESF secondary school. Her Mandarin seems to be OK. She's in the middle group - not w/ the kids whose mums and dads speak Mandarin at home daily (native speakers) but w/ the other "Chinese heritage" kids (Cantonese speakers and or extremely keen non-Chinese-at-home speakers). She's taking a lot of classes: English, Spanish, Mandarin, Geography, History, Science, Maths, ICT, Drama, Music, Religious Studies, and Technology (cooking, sewing, metal-work, etc.). She has joined the chamber choir and also is on the field hockey team. Oh and she debates for her "House". She loves school and is doing fine. 

SK-son at his ESF primary now has Mandarin daily and seems to be more accpeting of it. Introducing him to Jet Li (as Wong Fei Hung) and Chow Sing Chi movies has given him a better attitude about speaking Cantonese and learning Mandarin. he's still mostly passive in his Cantonese (understands a lot, but doesn't much), Both kids now LOVE to correct my bad Cantonese. SK-daughter's Cantonese remains stronger than her brother's due to her 2 years in the Cantonese Medium school she attended for P1 and P2.

Both kids like school and are interested in what they are learning. My 10-year-old son knows what is an oligarchy (they're studying political systems now) - something I didn't learn about until I was about 16!

So, I'm basically content for now. I feel like they are getting a good education. Yeah, I wish they were MORE fluent in Cantonese - but I feel like they are getting a decent grounding in Chinese and as they grow older, it will be up to them to improve further.

Fine here

Hi SKmama,

"Both kids like school and are interested in what they are learning." - that's all I'm looking for with our two.

Thanks for the update, and it's good to hear that the move to ESF has worked out well for you.


Finding an English school

As you have mentioned Kiangsu & Chekiang International Section, I am very much interested to know that if this school has good reputation?  How will it be compared to ESF school in acadamic aspect?  Is it a good choice other than ESF school?

Thanks a lot.