A class of their own
If parents think the education system in Hong Kong isn't right for their children, they will likely look abroad for alternatives. Rarely would they set out to establish a school to meet their personal criteria, as former executive councillor Bernard Chan and his wife Yeo Peck Leng have done. Then again, the couple have an unconventional approach to child-raising.
Last September, the couple launched the Almitas Academy, a modest operation in North Point with three classrooms, five teachers and just two students - their sons Brandon and Bradley, aged 12 and nine.
The idea isn't to have personal tutors groom their sons for entry to the elite schools that are usually seen as stepping stones to success.
There is 'absolutely no need' for their boys to attend top schools, says Chan, who heads his family's banking and insurance group, Asia Financial Holdings.
'Graduation from elite schools is no guarantee for a good life. Many people serving time in the United States for commercial crime come from elite schools.
'We put greater emphasis on character and moral development.'
Instead of teaching, say, the International Baccalaureate programme, lessons at Almitas are based on Accelerated Christian Education, a US curriculum for grades one to 12. They cover the usual subjects such as languages, general knowledge, sciences, physical education and art. But there's also plenty of scope for learning life skills and Bible studies. Lessons are conducted in English and Putonghua, with simplified characters used for written Chinese.
The school is largely Yeo's brainchild. She didn't want to subject the boys to a high-pressure learning environment and heavy workload, so when they were younger, instead of sending them to kindergarten, Yeo home-schooled them.
'In Singapore, kids start kindergarten at the age of four. But for some children here, lessons begin at two. It's heart-wrenching for a child to leave their mum and dad at such a young age.
'Some children find it hard to adapt to mainstream education. Lacking concentration, they are seen as naughty and even laggards. But they have their own talents and potential,' says Yeo.
Brandon later studied at Kau Yan, a private institution in Sai Ying Pun, before he switched to Gaia School, an alternative, nature-oriented school in Tuen Mun that Bradley also attended.
However, their home-schooling experience piqued Yeo's interest in an alternative curriculum, and after extensive research she was ready to start when Brandon advanced to Primary Five.
Chan says his wife's idea of setting up an alternative school worried him at first.
'Theory is just that. It might not work when put into practice,' he says. 'But after [investigation] she felt that it was feasible. I wanted to support her.'
Chan's liberal attitude has surprised even his wife.
'My son once told me he wanted to become a missionary and spread the gospel at the North Pole. I was worried my husband would be upset if he found out,' Yeo says. 'But [Brandon] mentioned it again in the presence of his dad, and to my surprise, Bernard said it would be OK as long as he was happy.'
Almitas is an expensive way to school the boys. The couple has already invested HK$1 million to get the school going (although cost may be a minor consideration for Chan, whose grandfather, Chin Sophonpanich, founded Bangkok Bank). Their biggest hurdle was navigating the complicated education regulations which even temporarily stumped Chan, who is dubbed the king of public duties for the many positions he holds in statutory bodies and NGOs.
'My wife said I should know my way around red tape,' says Chan. 'But getting a licence to run a private school involves many procedures.'
Yeo is determined to nurture independence in their children early on. Coming from a business family in Singapore, she reckons her coddled childhood made her overly reliant on others.
'There are four siblings in my family and each of us had a helper. I developed a bad temper as I grew up and relied on the helper for acts as simple as pouring a glass of water.'
But at the age of 18, she suddenly had to learn to stand on her own two feet after her father passed away.
'Being the eldest child, I had to suspend my marketing studies at university in New York to take charge of my family's trading business in Hong Kong. And after becoming a mother, there was no time to pick up my studies again.'
Yeo says the lack of a degree has not hindered her learning.
'Learning should not be confined to classrooms,' she says.
That's why the couple has made learning everyday skills an important component of their family life, as well as the school curriculum.
'We stopped employing a domestic helper two years ago; after the last one left, we didn't seek a replacement,' Yeo says. 'The kids now have to take up the chores. We teach them to cook and wash dishes. In the process, they learn to be responsible.'
Their boys are already taking care of the laundry. 'With the exception of suits, which are ironed outside, all my clothes are washed and folded by my sons,' Chan says.
Brandon has turned out to be quite a handyman. 'He repairs our telephones and light bulbs at home,' Yeo says. 'Once, when I wanted to call a repairman after the toilet broke down, he stopped me and said he wanted to do it himself.
'Bernard and I make time for an evening out together once a week. When we go out, Brandon will cook for his little brother and tuck him into bed.'
While Almitas was conceived as an alternative because Hong Kong law requires their sons to be educated in a recognised school, Yeo hopes to offer the choice to other youngsters, too. 'We will hold admission talks in June. We have approached the Education Bureau to look for larger premises. Vacant school buildings in the New Territories are a good option, as they are close to nature.'
Chan emphasises that it is important that the life skills training that Almitas offers continues after the children return home from school.
Although he chairs the Council for Sustainable Development, which promotes the importance of energy-saving habits such as switching off electrical appliances when they are not in use, Chan says he realises it has little meaning if he doesn't practice it at home.
'There must be consistency between home and school. That's why our school places such emphasis on parental involvement. We coach the parents as well. The annual tuition fee [of HK$60,000] is not only for the children, but for the parents as well.'
Almitas may not see long queues when it opens for enrolment next month, but Chan believes there's demand for a school which can help youngsters who cannot adapt to the mainstream system. They have received a number of inquiries from parents and the opening of the Gaia School has also piqued people's interest in alternative education.
Yeo says they encourage at least one parent to be actively involved - observing lessons and joining parent workshops organised by the school, so that what is taught in class can be reinforced at home.
With a maximum capacity of 30 students, Yeo says the small class size at Almitas allows teachers to give more attention to each child.
'We emphasise an individualised approach,' she says. 'Learning is conducted at the pace of each student. A fast learner can skip grades and a slower one can take his time.
'But there won't be too much homework; we don't want the children to be working on weekends.'
For all their emphasis on character development, Chan and Yeo will be putting their sons through more traditional education when they reach secondary level.
But Chan says he is confident that the boys will be able to adapt to a mainstream system geared towards academic attainment.
'What matters most in primary school is building a values system. There's plenty of space to explore alternative education in the primary stage.
'The through-train school system [where students must compete to enter elite schools that run classes from Primary One to Form Six] exposes children to competition early on. Even kindergarten kids have to fight for places now. Is this the way things are supposed to be? I don't think my children will be at a disadvantage when they apply to secondary schools.'