School open days: what to look for

Most primary schools will have at least one open-day, for parents to visit and take a look around. Here are some suggestions on how to get the most out of the visit.

This is part of a series on how to choose and apply to a Primary School in Hong Kong. You can see the full list of articles on the left.

If you've reached this page via a search engine, you'll probably want to read the introduction first.

Do visit!

We nearly didn't visit a couple of the schools at all. We thought we'd got such a clear picture from their website and other people's feedback, we knew exactly which school we wanted. But after the visits our list of preferred schools was turned upside down, so it's a good job we went!

I'd say go along to all the schools you are considering, and maybe a even the few you feel are borderline cases. You may be surprised at what you find.

Finding out when they are held

The bulk of the open-days are held in September and October. We found out exact dates through various means:

  • the schools' websites
  • news from other parents
  • MissB's kindergarten arranged visits to several nearby primary schools

If you still can't find out, contact the school directly. In a few cases, some of the famous name schools don't bother with an open day at all. They have so many more applicants than places, I guess they don't feel the need.

Also check if children are expected or not. In some cases children are expected to come along, and are taken away by teachers to play games while you walk around the school. In others the children had to stay with the parents. As you can imagine, the children weren't too excited about sitting quietly through a 30-minute powerpoint presentation, and would have been better off staying at home.

Be prepared

As you'll see, there are several opportunities for questions. What would you like to ask the principal, teachers, and pupils? You might not get a chance to ask them all, but it's good to have a few questions in mind.

And what will you look for as you move around the campus?

What to expect

You are likely to start with a presentation from the principal, then get a tour around the school's facilities.

Principals are not known for being shy, and can talk at length about their schools. The accompanying presentations we saw varied a lot - some were slick multi-media presentations. Others were garish powerpoints, packed with every animated, flashing clip-art they could find. All the presenters spoke Cantonese, though some of the powerpoints were written in English.

It's a sales pitch, so of course they all present themselves in the best light possible. Still, it's possible to get an idea of the school's emphasis from what is missing, or what is talked about at length. eg only one school's presentation didn't mention parental involvement with the school - something we were looking for. When we asked a teacher, they said there was something, but it had only started in the last three years - so it seemed low down on this school's list of priorities.

After the presentation there's usually a chance for questions. Though as the size of the audience we sat in varied from around 20 at one school, to over 1,000 at another, your chance to speak varies accordingly. The parents asking questions fell into two groups.

At the ordinary schools, questions were generally about about the school, with parents trying to find if it was a good fit for what they wanted. Questions about homework seemed universal. Things were different at the one famous school we went to. There it seemed parents were looking for some secret sauce - their questions focused strictly on the interview and application process. What edge could they get on gaming the system?

At some point in the presentation it's quite likely that two or three recent graduates will be wheeled out to demonstrate the school's academic prowess. Dressed in the uniforms of whichever famous secondary school they attend, they will likely take it in turns to recite a set piece in English, Cantonese, and Putonghua. Very nice, but just about meaningless - every school should be able to find at least three smart kids in a year.

Next comes the school tour.  If you didn't get to ask your question after the presentation, here's another chance - there are usually teachers around that you can corner for a quick interrogation. You may be led around the school by pupils, so it's also a chance to hear their side of things. (Though it can get a bit intense: as we left one school we tried to say goodbye and thanks to our pupil-guide. We couldn't get close though, as they were completely surrounded by a tight circle of parents, giving the poor girl a thorough interrogation.)

If lots of the pupils are involved, it's a better chance than listening to the chosen prodigies to gauge what the average pupil is really like. We were very impressed at one school we attended, where all the children seemed bubbly and confident.

Finally, the tour is a chance to put on your sherlock holmes hat, look for clues, and get ready to read between the lines:

  • how do the pupils and teachers interact?
  • are classes laid out in groups or rows?
  • is the building stuffy or breezy?
  • toilets smelly or clean?
  • what's the level of schoolwork you see?
  • are exam results posted publicly?
  • does the project work look like it was made by a child or their parent?
  • are open areas for playing, or kept pristine for show?
  • etc...

Your homework

As soon as possible, sit down with whoever else attended from your family, and write down notes about the school. The good, the bad, questions you didn't get answered, etc. And what would you do differently on the next school visit?

It might seem a bit over the top, but we started off not doing this, and we found they quickly get muddled up. A couple of minutes spent jotting down notes will make your life easier when you come to make a shortlist.

What tricks do you have to get the most out of school visits?



Ask for expectations

One of the important questions in my view is what the school expects of the parents ... for some schools that can be pretty onorous (as exhibited by the application procedure itself as well!)  Are parents welcome on campus generall to volunteer outside of the 'special' events days.

For me it was important to see the library and the librarian.  A good well stocked library to old fashioned me says lots about a school.

I like to also see what kind of playing space there is. Are they all cramped in a hot sunny place with not enough space for the number of kids.  Are they kids free to run around and let off steam or are they suppressed all day.

I'd also ask about methods of discipline - both from the school and the pupils doing the show around (may be different interpretations).  Is there a lot of yelling and shaming of children.  You need to find out if they way of keeping control is in line with your value systems.  I've heard horror stories of children having to stand in front of the class to be shamed for hours at an end. Kids not being allowed to go to the toilet when they need to and wetting themselves etc. etc.

What are the 'reward' and assessment systems - are children ranked 1-40 in the class or do they receive qualitative assessment of their strengths and weaknesses.

 Finally, do the kids seem happy and exhuberent???

School Open days

Good article MrB. We are currently going through this same process for my daughter.

It's funny, but just the mere fact that a I showed my face in a local school got me immediate attention from staff members. Though perhaps more out of curiosity as to why my daughter isn't going to an international school. Whatever the reason it was a good way to 'jump the queue' in terms of getting stuff answered.

My daughter's local kindergarten were very helpful in organising buses to various schools as well as putting the associated bumpf (sometimes just printed sheets, other times voluminous prospectuses) in her homework folder for other places in the local area.

I also noticed that one school in Tai Wai was also advertising on escalators at the various East Rail stations. I'm not sure if any others have taken to this form of advertising.

Living in an apartment complex. it's very easy to chat to other parents and ask them where they send, or may be considering sending, their children. And of course the uniforms paraded around the place at home-time are helpful in raising awareness too.

School open days


Good points, thank you. I hadn't thought of asking about methods of discipline, that would be a good one to add to the list.

I agree that playing space is a good point to watch for. And also how much time children actually get to spend there. We're looking at schools in the western part of Hong kong island, so they tend to be in older, smaller campuses. One only had a roof area for play, and children only get to use it in the older years. We decided we'd live with it, and it's one of the schools we applied for. But it's something to know about beforehand, not be disappointed by if it comes as a nasty surprise after your child starts school.

Another school annoyed me because they had the luxury of an out door ground-level area, but a good chunk of it was fenced off as a garden. Not even an area where children could garden - it was just out of bounds. And it wasn't even a very attractive garden!


Yes, the novelty value definitely gets extra attention. Though at the out-of-bounds-garden school the principal wanted to make it VERY CLEAR that they were a Chinese-language school, and wouldn't be translating anything into English for us. In fairness it's better to be up front about these things than have problems later.

On a related point, several parents have mentioned that MissB being mixed would somehow give bonus points to her getting into schools. We haven't heard back from the only famous school we applied to, so I'm not sure that's true!

And yes, watching out at the apartment complex for school buses / school uniforms of schools we're thinking about has been a good ploy for us too. MrsB leaps into stalker mode, and is soon able to corner the child's parent for questions about open days, and their thoughts about the school in general.


school events

Besides the official open days, you can also go to schools when they're having their christmas bazaars or other events.  For example on 15th November ISF Academy is having a fund raising "Art Jam" where members of the public are welcome to come and spend their money!!

It's a good informal way to see how the school / PTA / parents / children all interact together for a common goal.

I went to the xmas bazaar of a very famous name international school and was quite disappointed as I'd have expected far more from such a prestigeous school.

At the end of the day it boils down to a gut feeling.  The more time you get to go to the school and take in its flavour the better informed rational and emotional choice you will make.  And I think kids have a gut feeling as much as parents do, so don't forget to listen to them.

School atmosphere

Here's the opener to a US reporter's account of a visit to a school in Cupertino, CA (in Silicon Valley):

As Principal Louise Ostrov walked through a second- and third-grade classroom Tuesday at Christa McAuliffe School, a little girl in a tie-dyed shirt jumped up and waved.

"Hi Louise!" the girl called cheerily.

"We're on a first-name basis here," Ostrov explained.

McAuliffe teachers don't give grades or tests, but it's not some hippie private school. It's not a new, experimental charter school either. 

Okay, maybe it's not a 'hippie private school', but come on, Louise, try to convince me the 'hippie' part's wrong!

This article is a perfect case study of the reporter seeing exactly what she wants to see. She cannot fathom why this once-popular school now has empty seats, while a nearby 'back to basics' school is deluged with applicants (and why this school seems to have so few Asian students!). It manages to ring just about every one of my alarm bells when it comes to evaluating a school:

  • No grades/formal assessment

  • Students are taught to 'think for themselves' and 'think creatively' (Thinking for oneself and thinking creatively are great goods, but I believe when schools try to teach what are advanced qualities of mature minds, they usually engage in straightforward indoctrination instead. That is, young children will just think exactly what teacher thinks, and it will be labeled as 'thinking creatively for themselves'.)

  • The school can't get around to keeping track of what their students do after they graduate.

Anyway, in his much better article, MrB's tips, and the comments that follow from Gweipo and Phil, all seem like excellent advice to me. There is absolutely something to getting the 'feel' of a school, and getting it by actually being there. It won't always be as obvious as in the Cupertino article (you're not likely to hear a kid call her headmaster/mistress by name in HK!!!), but we found that usually we could make a fairly clear 'good/bad' -- or maybe 'comfortable/get me out of here' -- decision after a visit. As Hercule Poirot would say, people may try to lie, but sooner or later they will tell you the truth, because it's simply easier.

But the article also provides a caution: we bring along our own prejudices to a school visit, and it's easy for them to subtly reinterpret and frame what we're seeing. I know I had this problem back when we were initially visiting some kindergartens with Daughter Tall. It was the space thing, actually. I agree with Gweipo that having a good play area is important, and that a school with a fresh, airy feel is better than an old musty one. My upbringing on the wide open prairies has certainly conditioned me in this way! In retrospect, I know I felt more 'positive' after visits to a couple of kindergartens that were newer, brighter and roomier than the one to which we eventually sent Daughter Tall (it's housed in an old building with weird winding hallways and cramped classrooms).

Space is just one issue; it happens to be something that triggers me psychologically/emotionally. Your mileage, as they say, is definitely going to vary.

The upshot? It's impossible to be totally objective. I'd like to think that the more we can recognize and acknowledge our biases, the better we'll do in making school choices, but even that is a lofty goal. At least human nature gives us the power to rationalize our choices both before and after we make them!!

bus queue

I also like to watch the kids from various schools as they wait for the bus at the apartment complex in the mornings and how they get off the bus in the afternoon.  Of course there are individual personality differences, but those with a spring in their step and enthusiasm both going to and coming home from school gives me a clear indication that something good is going on inbetween.

It's also a great time to chat to the mums about the pros and cons of each school and to compare notes.

You're under a vest

One thing I hadn't thought to ask about was the school's underwear policy!

After just two weeks at the new primary school, our daughter's brought home a note from teacher: MissB was found to be not wearing a vest - a clear breach of the school dress code...

Given that it was 33 degrees that day, the school uniform is a pinafore dress over a blouse, and MissB kicks the covers off the bed even in the middle of winter, we thought the vest could stay home. Obviously not!

MrsB has written back, explaining our desire to avoid MissB melting into a puddle, and we'll see what's the reply. But is it a common requirement in local primary schools, or have we picked a fussy one?


school or bootcamp?

Sounds like a typical jobsworthy piece of HK bureaucracy to me. More to the point - who gave the teachers permission to check the students underwear? A very worrying practice.

We're still reeling from the cost of buying three summer uniforms for my daughter (also just started primary school) - a normal one, a sports one AND a formal one. The latter she gets to wear once a month (someone is making a lot of money from this gig)!!!

BUT, no need to wear a vest. I think you have picked a fussy one.

It's nipple phobia

I fear it's early onset nipple phobia.  You never can be sure when they'll sprout so you have to wear a vest until you graduate to wearing a padded bra ...

Our school started 1st day today and the PTA held a 2nd hand uniform sale - it was a runaway success.  My eyes nearly dropped out since every since I've moved here 3 years ago everyone has been telling me that chinese people do NOT buy things 2nd hand. Especially not clothes!  Perhaps you could suggest something similar to your school's PTA?

After all, reuse, recycle and all that good stuff.


Never was a thread more timely! I didn't mention this issue to anyone at home, but sure enough, this morning Daughter Tall pitched a fit about having to wear a vest under her uniform. She said it's extremely hot in her school, she's always sweating, etc., etc.

I took the situation in hand by immediately asking Mrs Tall if the vest was necessary. She said no, so we'll see if we get in trouble . . . .

Re: You're under a vest

Hi there,

Some schools are very rigid when school uniform is concerned and that depends on whether the item is listed in the students' handbook or not.  But I'm not familiar with [undies] being considered sort of a uniform.

Back in my days I have only experienced the strict rule of bring along your school blazer in winter even if it was a hot day, which is part of the winter uniform.  The Principal said you don't have to wear it, but you have to bring it along when you step into the school entrance.........

Best Regards,


Vested interests

Phil & T, we were just as surprised to have anyone paying attention to vests. It's not as though teachers don't already have enough to keep them busy.

Gweipo, I wondered whether it was a schoolwide nipple-phobia too, but MrsB says the boys are supposed to wear vests too! (And I hope your suggestion for 2nd-hand sale was aimed at Phil & uniforms, not me & vests. Vests are bad, but 2nd-hand vests....)

Mr Tall, do you forsee the start of a new liberation movement, with piles of burning vests in the playground?



Ha ha ha ha ha. Burning vests at Daughter Tall's school -- no.


back in my day - you know when the dinosaur's roamed and Brahms was still composing (the latest from my kids) - my primary school had an underpants policy.  I guess it was in the days before skorts, and girls were required to wear regulation ugly acrylic brown underpants.

I remember distinctly being called into the female vice principals office for wearing the wrong undies one day.

And if your hair touched your collar it had to be tied up.  And your fingernails weren't allowed to be seen if you held your palms up.

But we didn't have to wear vests.  Except the PE vests for PE.

How are your schools on hats policies with the current heat wave?

Hat policy?

Not sure there is one. But then I didn't know about the vests...

I expect it's up to the parents to decide. Whereas international schools are likely to be enforcing hats and sunblock, it's not something I've heard so much about in local schools - probably because the risks of sunburn are lower with asian skin.

How does it work for your two?

Re: Hats?

Hi there,

I don't think there are any local school putting any policies concerning hats or caps.  Back in my days it was a grey area concerning hats.  It is not considered an item of the school uniform, and most of us boys didn't bother to wear hats or caps except on picnic day.

OK, back to reality.  If I wasn't being posted to Los Angeles by my former employer 10 years ago I wouldn't catch up the habbit of wearing a hat.  You need a just that under California Sunshine in order to prevent sun burnt to a certain extent, but it still takes time getting used to.  Now if you see some local bloke wearing an Aussie woollen hat (Indianna Jones/Crocodile Dundee style) in town that would very likely be me.  :-P

Best Regards,



no policy

ISF doesn't have a hat policy. Which is a bit annoying as it gets really really hot in Cyberport.  I make my kids take hats to school and insist they wear them on their honor.  My daughter stopped in tears last year as she was being teased too much by the (local) kids.  

For some reason the school refuses to enforce a hat policy.

At HKA it was a "no hat no recess" policy, which was pretty clear and well enforced.

I noticed that Glenealy kids have suddenly appeared wearing what looks like a very practical hat, so was wondering if ESF had stepped up to the plate.

I don't get it - most asian women walk around with a parasol the minute the rain stops - they don't feel the need to protect their kids. 

Hat policies

Skin cancer just doesn't get the coverage here that it attracts in say Australia or even the UK. Mainly because the risks are much lower for asian skin types. A caucasian in the UK is over 100 times more likely to get skin cancer than an asian in Hong Kong. And the caucasian in Australia is over 1,000 times more likely! (See point 7 here).

Of course, that's no use to you if you're a caucasian child in a predominantly asian Hong Kong school. Some ammunition if you're going to raise it at school is the Hong Kong Cancer Fund's Sunsmart Campaign.

And you're right about Glenealy school. Their May 2009 newsletter writes:

At Glenealy School we are taking steps to make our school a SunSmart school. When our year one students start the new school year in August they will have a Glenealy school hat as a compulsory part of their uniform. Mr Wood is talking about the wearing of hats to our students at assembly. All students are currently being encouraged to wear hats at play.

In the new school year we will expect all students to wear a hat at playtime. Students in years 2 to 6 will have until the end of Term 1 to be using the new school uniform hat. There will be more information following in the next few weeks about the ordering process to be followed for the purchase of the school uniform hats.

ESF hats

Hats seem to be a required part of the uniform for Clearwater Bay (primary school) and Renaissance College primary section. Clearwater Bay also requires vests.

Hats do not seem common at our son's local primary school, probably for the reasons Mr. B. mentions, and perhaps also because there is little expectation the kids will be playing outside much? On a happier note, vests have never come up either.