Don't forget the option of an adventure abroad

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 17 June, 2006, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 17 June, 2006, 12:00am

Not all families can find the school of their choice in Hong Kong. Many look much further afield, with the UK, Australia and North America the popular destinations for thousands of students.

There are also new options closer to home, in Thailand and the mainland.

There are many reasons why children go. Places in the top international and English Schools Foundation schools are in short supply, leaving many disappointed parents. The most sought-after Direct Subsidy Scheme and aided schools are even more competitive.

For parents determined that their children should learn in English and have the opportunity to study at university level, going overseas may, in the end, be their only option.

They may make the move for the early secondary years or be among the many thousands whose teenagers fail to get Form Six places in Hong Kong.

Many believe that boarding is best to ensure their children's all-round development, even if this means them leaving their families. Busy working parents who travel a lot may also think children are better off being fully extended in boarding school than having narrower lives in Hong Kong.

No one should pretend it is easy for young children to adjust to boarding school far from home and it can be a traumatic experience for some. Parents need to be aware of this and, for younger children in particular, choose schools that genuinely care about their students.

It is not an option that suits all children, and schools that are honest admit this. They also say they see students from Hong Kong who are not independent enough to cope and don't have adequate English skills.

That said, it is also rare to find people who later regret going to school overseas. Most come to enjoy boarding school life - the space, facilities and extra-curricular activities that are often more extensive than schools in Hong Kong, even among international schools. They also value the friendships they can make within closely knit boarding house communities.

There are many types of schools to go to. In Australia, New Zealand and Canada, there are the options of attending cheaper state schools, though this involves living with families in home-stay arrangements rather than in boarding houses. This is a more affordable option, but the quality of schools varies enormously and children will have less pastoral support than in good-quality boarding schools.

Most children going overseas attend private schools with boarding facilities. These tend to be more academically rigorous and traditional than their state counterparts, regardless of country. Many have long histories and are supported by Christian organisations.

In recent decades they have modernised to create more comfortable, student-friendly environments than the more austere discipline that characterised them in the past.

Schools cater for a range of abilities - some more academically demanding than others. But the quality in the private sector varies almost as much as in the state. It is vital to choose carefully and not rely only on agents' recommendations. Learn as much about the school as possible - its performance, location, student composition, culture and facilities. Much information is readily available, as our panel on the opposite page indicates.


Its environment, climate, links with Hong Kong and many quality schools make it a popular destination.

As a country with large immigrant populations, Australia has solid systems for English language support. This happens either within schools or at language centres. And as a country with many immigrants, most schools are strongly multi-cultural.

The curriculum in Australia differs in each state, but public examination results obtained by school leavers are recognised by universities across the country for admissions purposes. At upper secondary, curricula are broader than that for British A-levels. In New South Wales, students study six subjects in Year 11 and five in Year 12. English is compulsory and they can choose higher levels within maths, English and science strands.

Sports activities are very much part of boarders' lives.


Independent schools in Canada tend to have long histories and are characterised by a British outlook, often matched by historic, colonial-style architecture. Many have boarding houses. But there are relatively few independent schools. Most foreign students go to public-sector schools and stay with families in home-stay arrangements. Schools follow the curricula of individual provinces - unlike in the UK, there is no national curriculum. All lead to secondary school diplomas that are recognised by universities world-wide.


Students do not need to cross oceans and continents for high-quality boarding education. There are several internationally renowned schools, some linked with top schools in the UK, in Thailand. Parents can choose boarding schools offering the British or International Baccalaureate curricula.

Harrow International School is one example in Bangkok, while Chiang Mai has Prem Tindulanonda International School and Phuket the British Curriculum International School, the latter having parted company from its former namesake, Dulwich College.

The best schools in Thailand are comparable in quality with UK schools, but cost about half the price. They also have the advantage that students can more easily return home for holidays.

United kingdom

Britain, with its large private sector of more than 1,300 independent schools, has long been an obvious choice for Hong Kong parents, particularly because of the education allowance for boarding there that civil servants have been entitled to.

The number of Hong Kong students going to the UK has remained stable, exceeding 7,000 annually since 2000, and now includes children from a wider range of families.

The British curriculum, leading to the GCSE and A-level qualifications, is popular among Hong Kong parents who trust the recognised public examination system. They also welcome the fact that this is balanced with access to a wide range of extra-curricular activities and school life is less pressured than in Hong Kong.

United States

The private sector in the US is growing rapidly. Traditionally, the top independent schools have been based on the east coast, but now they are opening across the states.

There is no national education system, resulting in a wide variety of schools in each state, although broad national standards have been developed for different subjects. Schools may also be affiliated with accrediting bodies such as the Western Association of Schools and Colleges (WASC) to ensure their quality.

US education has traditionally focused on honing skills now sought-after in Hong Kong such as critical thinking, rather than preparing children for public exams. Students have scope to pursue their own interests, including in extensive extra-curricular activities. However, schools offer SAT and ACT tests for university entry. Many also offer Advanced Placement courses, which have a learning style similar to that of the International Baccalaureate, that qualify students for university credits. University places are offered based on school and SAT results.