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

Hong Kong has a dizzying choice of schools for the parent with children approaching school age.

Information is now more abundant and accessible than ever. Schools produce brochures and many have useful websites. But the task of choosing is still time-consuming and potentially overwhelming.

Basic information such as class size and level of facilities obviously is important. But first and foremost you need to decide on the type of education you would like for your child.

Consider these two key issues:

First, Hong Kong has an impressive range for such a small place, including international schools from around the world. You need to decide whether you want an English, Chinese - Cantonese or Putonghua - or bilingual education.

Second, the approach to teaching and learning is the crux of a successful education. Schools range from the traditionally academic to those offering a child-centred, hands-on approach that takes into account different learning styles.

Much educational research advocates learning through play in the early years. It suggests that children who learn in this way are happier, more successful and develop the skills they need.

It is also important that children are taught to be higher-order thinkers, risk-takers and problem-solvers - attitudes they will need for life. Inquiry-based learning encourages them to be responsible for their own learning rather than being simply spoon-fed.

On the other hand, many parents believe their children need a more tightly disciplined environment to meet the rigorous demands of mastering Chinese, English , maths and other subjects to high academic levels.

Once you have decided on the approach you favour, there are other important questions to consider:

What is the average class size (is this likely to change in the near future)? Are teachers given any adult support in class?

Is there a separate support system in place for children with individual needs (learning or behavioural)?

What type of curriculum do you want? Are you looking for a broad curriculum that celebrates the arts, drama, music and physical education, encouraging 'whole person' development, or a curriculum that focuses mainly on academic achievement?

What is the provision for Information and Communication Technology? In an increasingly technological world, ICT skills are becoming more important. Is technology incorporated within the curriculum or taught only as a separate subject? How much access do children have to computers in and out of the classroom?

What are the strategies teachers use for teaching those children who are learning in their second language? How are all the different cultures in the school recognised and celebrated?

How often are tests administered (school-based and external)? How are the results followed up to improve the progress of your child? Do children have individual targets set with the teacher which are frequently monitored?

What communication channels are open to parents other than official parents' evenings? How are parental worries or questions dealt with?

What is the homework policy? This can vary considerably. Consider how much pressure you want your child to be under and how much time you would like available for other activities. Homework has an impact on family life.

Does the school offer a wide range of extra-curricular activities? Note that these can be provided by teachers or commercial operators at extra cost.

How stable is the school's staff? An annual turnover of more than 10 per cent of its teachers should prompt questions as to why so many are leaving.

A personal visit to your short-listed schools is vital, preferably on an individual basis or in a small group. Try to arrange your visit during school hours and see a class in action. This is a good way to get a true picture.

Decide beforehand on questions you want to ask and ensure you ask them.

Soak up the atmosphere and ethos of the school. This may well give you an instinctive feel as to whether it is the right place for your child or not. Ask yourself if the school has an open and welcoming attitude. Observe if the children are happy, on task and genuinely engaged in what they are doing. See if they treat each other with mutual respect and are polite and responsible.

Gauge if teachers seem to genuinely care for the children, encourage them and interact with them. Look around to see if children's work is celebrated and valued in the form of thoughtful, colourful displays. Check for evidence of book corners and play materials.

No school is perfect. Speaking to existing parents could be useful, as they will have a long-term picture of the school, but remember their expectations may be different. Have a clear view about what you are looking for and remember that the ethos of a school and its approach to learning are paramount to an effective education and your child's happiness.

Get these things right and you are likely to be satisfied with your choice.

Julie McGuire is a primary school teacher