ESF Schools In HK and the non-Chinese-speaking Child

Dear All:

I have read through the forums, but not found the exact answer to my question.

My wife and I are both US citizens. I live and work here in HK, and have a HK ID card, my wife and our kids, ages 2 and 6, will be joining me here in June 2007. I am fluent in written Chinese and spoken Mandarin, but speak little Cantonese (yet). My wife and kids speak no Chinese. We will be living in Shatin (probably) or perhaps Kowloon. So far, I have applied on my daughter's behalf to two ESF schools (Shatin Junior and Renaissance College, in Ma On Shan)and two other bilingual International Schools, one in Kowloon, one on HK Island. Our goals for the kids are to learn good written and spoken Mandarin while keeping pace in English.

My questions:

1. As a non-Chinese speaker and (soon to be) resident of HK, is my daughter actually guaranteed a spot in an ESF school? I hear different answers on this. All of the schools (of course) send me nothing but form-letter replies to all emails and letters: "Our school is horribly competitive, who knows if anybody will get a place, etc., etc." If she isn't guaranteed a spot, local schools are not an option for her given the lack of Cantonese, so what then?

2. I have heard the level of Chinese, especially written, is quite low in the ESF system, but that Ren College may be an exception to this. Any first-hand knowledge (actually, even wild speculation would be welcome at this point!)?

Thanks in advance for your thoughts!

Nathan Congdon


Please try Bradbury School 43 Stubb's Road. Visit
You will get admission there as long as you can prove, you stay in vicinity of the school.

International schools

Hi Nathan;

If the ESF route proves to be impossible, Hong Kong has quite a range of other 'international' schools, i.e. private schools that teach in English. There are many, and they vary greatly in background, approach and price.

To get you started, this page from Google has links to quite a few.

Hong Kong's Education and Manpower Department has information you might find helpful. A good place to start seems to be here. The prospectus on international education you find there should be most useful if you end up looking for non-ESF international schools.

You might also find this discussion thread here at Batgung a help; scroll down to the comments especially.

I don't know much about Renaissance College, although I had a quick look at their website, and it seems they do focus on teaching Chinese more than the other ESF schools do, but that's purely an impression -- they're very new, so if anyone else knows more, please do tell!

Best of luck.


The way I've been explained it is that ESF schools are obliged to take english children in their catchment area. If they are full they then need to refer you to the next nearest ESF school who should then accomodate you. I've personally not ever heard of anyone who hasn't been accepted to an ESF school.
If you're going to live in Shatin / Kowloon then Bradbury is really far away for such a small child to travel to each day.
Further, the 5 year old of our next door neighbour is attending a cantonese medium local Kindergarten, which she can stay at until she is 8. Her parents are both british and do not speak, read or write a word of Cantonese. She is quite happy there and is pretty fluent in Cantonese (she's been there since 3). It is not impossible if you would choose that option.
The only cautionery note I'd say about ESF, and why we didn't choose it is that the class sizes are quite huge. P1 (for 6 year olds) can have up to 30 children in the class. Typically the internationals are a little smaller (24)

Hi Nathan, I am an

Hi Nathan,

I am an Renaissance parent but my child is in the secondary, so I cannot tell you much about the primary. BUt still I hope the following info will be useful to you:

1. RC offers Chinese (taught in Mandarin) at different levels, including what we call baby class,ie. for students with zero Chinese. Baby class will learn simplified characters. I think the class time for Chinese is about 4 hours per week.

2. The Chinese teacher team includes westerners. In my child's year level (year 7), the baby class is taught by a western teacher. The head of Chinese is a Chinese gentleman but he speaks perfect English.

3. RC uses local textbooks. Students can access a website for reading practice. RC primary kids recently won the championship in local speech festival.

4. Except for Chinese, all other subjects are taught in English.

5. Majority of the primary students are local kids. They mostly speak Cantonese to each other during social hours. But usually they will switch to English when talking to kids who do not speak Chinese. The English speaking environment is stronger in the secondary. I seldom see the secondary students talk in Chinese.

6. The teachers are generally nice and caring. They are very responsive to parents' feedbacks. My child's advisory teacher even gave parents his mobile phone number.

7. RC is a brand new school and has good facilities: indoor gym, indoor swimming pool, performing art theatre, dance and drama studio, basketball courts, roof top play area etc, The school offers a wide range of extra-curricular activities (of course, secondary students have a wider choice than primary )

8. RC is a warm and welcoming school. My child enjoys school very much and so far I am very happy about the school.

9. If you live in Shatin, I think RC will be an ideal choice in terms of location. I also live in Shatin. It takes only 10 minutes to drive to RC. Also RC has an entrance connected to the KCR ( train )exit. You need to think carefully if you consider schools on the HK side. The very early morning pick-up and long school bus travel will tire your kids out.

10. If you want to know a bit more about the RC primary school, let me have your specific questions. I shall see if I can find the answers for you.


Thanks very much for your replies. As far as you know, is it true that English-speaking kids are guaranteed a spot at the nearest ESF school? Does this go for RC as well? I have already put in an application for my daughter, but if she does not come to HK until June or July, will there be time for her to get a spot for the school year starting September 07? And finally, 4 hours per week does not sound like much time to study Chinese. Is this really enough for the kids to learn the written language well? When you mention using "local" text books, are these in Chinese?

Thanks again for all your help!

Nathan Congdon


Hi Nathan,

Traditional ESF schools are supposed to give the highest priority to children who are not able to learn in the local langauge (Chinese), but the problem is ESF places are always in great demand. RC, though under ESF, is different from other ESF schools in the following ways:

1. RC was established under the HK govt's Private Independent Schools (PIS)Scheme. The govt gave the school the land and partial funding for the construction but no recurrent subsidies. So RC charges a higher fee than other ESF schools. Currently a few hundred more than other ESF schools for secondary; a thousand more for primary.

2. Unlike other ESF schools, RC has no catchment requirement. Students all over Hong Kong can apply to RC. The admission process for RC is separate from the centralised system for other ESF schools.

3. The terms of the govt grant require that schools under the PIS scheme
have to have at least 70% of its students whose parents (either mom or dad)are permanent residents of HK (three stars in HKID card). But permanent residents are not necessarily local HK people. Many of the parents of my child's schoolmates are westerners and they have stayed in HK for a long time and have become permanent residents. Also many students are from HK families returning from Canada and Australia etc. These kids look like local Chinese but do not speak much Chinese.

RC is new and expanding and is not yet reaching its full capacity. So I think the 70% requirement should not affect their admission policy at the moment. Rather I have the feeling that they prefer native English speaking kids so that a better English speaking environment can be built up in the school.

I heard that if you apply to RC and other ESF schools simultaneusly, RC
will consider your application only after you are not able to secure a place in other ESF schools. But this is only informal info.

Sorry, I got to go home. Will answer your questions later.


Hi Nathan,

Answers to your other questions:

"is it true that English-speaking kids are guaranteed a spot at the nearest ESF school? Does this go for RC as well"

(first question) Yes, in principle but your nearest school may not have places available.
(second question) No, this is not applicable to RC. Catchment area policy does not apply to RC. You have to "compete" for a place with applicants living anywhere in HK.

"I have already put in an application for my daughter, but if she does not come to HK until June or July, will there be time for her to get a spot for the school year starting September 07"

The school year usually finishes in late June. If you indicated June or July as your intended date of entry and if your child is admitted, I guess the school will automatically delay your start date to the next school year (commencing Aug). But you better check with the school on this.

"4 hours per week does not sound like much time to study Chinese. Is this really enough for the kids to learn the written language well?"

4 hours per week applies to my girl's year level (year 7). I heard that the primary is more or less the same at the moment but may increase the hours when more Chinese language teachers are on board. 4 hours is far better than other ESF schools. I was told other ESF schools have much less time for Chinese. I can find out the Chinese hours for two ESF primary schools in Kowloon from my friends. Will let you know later for a comparison.

Don't be too ambitious about Chinese language learning for your kids. Chinese is a much more difficult language than English. You will be lucky if your children do not hate Chinese, let alone being proficient. Local HK kids studying in bilingual international schools here generally like English and hate Chinese. My child is a good example. She is reluctant to read anything written in Chinese.

"When you mention using "local" text books, are these in Chinese?"

I meant RC uses locally developed textbooks for Chinese ( at least for my child's year level). What I said in point no. 3 in my first message applies to Chinese only. For all other subjects, I don't think there are any textbooks. Even if there are, they must be in English. I mentioned "local" just to distinguish RC from other International schools which may use Singapore or Mainland China materials.

Some primary year levels at RC are full. In what year was your first child born?

So much for today.


Amelia was born 31/3/2000, so I think she would be applying for Year 3.

Best regards,


Children born in 2000 should apply for year 3 in 2007-8 school year. Read from the school newsletter that this year group has most students (125) among all year levels. I was told before that the full capacity for each year level was 6 classes x 25 students. So there is a chance of RC offering an extra class for this year group.

I think you should apply to both RC and Shatin Junior. The non-PIS schools of ESF have the obligation to take on students who cannot learn in Chinese. Even if Shatin Junior is full, you will be referred to other ESF schools.

Did you apply to International Christian School (US curriculum)? It is also under the PIS scheme and its new campus in Shek Mun (also in Shatin) is expected to be ready in late 2007. Heard that ICS is also a caring school but the level of their Chinese programme is pretty low.

Hello, Do you think RC is a

Do you think RC is a good school?
Thank you.

About Renaissance College

Hi Mrs C, I was surfing the internet for information on Renaissance College and found a detailed answer written by you. Both RC and ESF Shatin have offered my daughter a place for entering P-1 but I am really confused on which one to choose. ESF Shatin has a longer history but less lessons on Chinese. Whereas RC is a new school but it seems to me that it is more a bilingual school. My daughter does not speak or write Chinese at the moment (we are currently overseas)but I hope she can catch with it when we move back to Hong Kong. Welcome your comments on this. Thank you.

ESF and RC Mandarin

If you are serious about your child (and particularly a non-native speaker of Chinese) attaining significant competency in Chinese, you should send them to a local school or possibly one of the international schools which emphasize Chinese (ISF, CIS (Chinese International School), Kingston, Yew Chung); if you do the latter, you may well still need to arrange extensive outside tutoring. (Of course, if you send your kid to a local school, you may need to do English tutoring :-)).

In my observation, ESF schools, including Renaissance, give non-native students some exposure to Mandarin as a foreign language and to Chinese culture, sort of like taking French or Spanish in junior high school in the US.  Some ability to speak and listen to simple language and extremely limited ability to read and write. The academic and to some extent the social environments are resolutely English (although the student body, especially at Renaissance, may be majority ethnically Chinese).  The greater difficulty of mastering written Chinese makes this almost inevitable without much greater commitment on the part of both administration and parents; and these are not intended to be bilingual schools.

Of course there are ESF students who win prizes for their competency in Chinese, but they probably didn't attain that competency at school. It will be a combination of a Chinese-language home environment and outside tutoring, plus very likely summer classes in the mainland or Taiwan.

Mandarin-speaking (PRC) parents in our area feel that the Chinese competency of a child who has finished primary 2 in the mainland will undoubtedly exceed that of graduates of any English-language primary school. These parents are all sending their children to ESF, Renaissance, or international schools, where they are tracked into the highest "native" level of Chinese (Mandarin) teaching; the children are typically tutored in Chinese after school once or twice a week. But they still see this difference in proficiency.

If your child is NOT a native speaker and is put in the "baby track" that an earlier poster mentioned, there seems to be little expectation that they will move up, although some do.

Friends of ours who are not native speakers of Chinese but who have both studied Mandarin, one quite seriously, were happy to get a slot for their child at Renaissance because of its reputation for better Chinese. (Their child was coming to HK mid-primary school, so they hesitated to parachute into a local school). While it may be that Renaissance does put more emphasis on Mandarin than many ESF schools, our friends are frustrated by how little is being taught or expected in the non-native track. Very likely this child will move into a higher level in time, but if so, it will be entirely due to the extra effort his family is making at home and during summers. I also know of European children who moved into ESF or Renaissance around 3rd or 4th grade from the local system (Mandarin school) due to homework burden concerns; needless to say, they are in the native track in their new schools, but their Mandarin has atrophied or is even being forgotten. The written level is simply too low, and they get little reinforcement for the spoken language because it is Mandarin rather than Cantonese.

Then there is the simplified vs. traditional characters issue. Isn't there always?

At Renaissance, non-native students are taught simplified characters; native Chinese speakers are taught traditional characters. This means that if your non-native child tries to move up a track in Chinese there, s/he will have to switch from simplified to traditional. Can you hear me banging my head on the wall here? It would make more sense, in my opinion, to teach all levels in one script or the other.

Paranthetically, this also affects children who come into Renaissance in the native track from ESF or international schools which teach simplified characters across the board to all levels. It is a simpler matter for them to adjust (the better your mastery of written Chinese, the easier the transition), but it gives pause to some [PRC Chinese] parents.

I do not take sides in the broader culture war over which is "better" as a script, simplified or traditional characters; and it's not nearly as much of a divide as people sometimes make out. But I think that especially for non-native speakers, it is a mistake to teach Chinese in simplified characters in Hong Kong. Why sacrifice the visual reinforcement of the surrounding environment? Why limit book-buying to trips to Shenzhen? Why erect any extra barrier? (Of course, this could apply to teaching Mandarin vs. Cantonese, but one skreed per post, I think). And if you are going to switch systems, it's easier to go from traditional to simplified than the other way around - this is the one thing everyone agrees on. A child from a non-Chinese speaking/reading/writing home is automatically at a disadvantage in learning this complex script - why make it harder?

OK, tantrum over. Just to be clear - this is not a criticism of education at ESF, Renaissance, or the international schools in general. It seems like you can get a good education (in English) at all of them. But for Chinese, you really need to ask yourself what you are expecting, and what you will be satisfied with.