Looking abroad? Think before you pack their bags

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 14 June, 2008, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 14 June, 2008, 12:00am

Packing your teenage children off to a school halfway around the world is not an easy choice, but it is one considerably more popular here in Hong Kong than in many other parts of the world.

Parents from this city have been sending their offspring to boarding schools in places like Britain, Australia, the US and Canada for decades. So many thousands do so every year, it has long since ceased being seen as out of the ordinary. Yet it should never be a decision taken lightly, and the choice of destination and school deserves careful consideration based on the individual personality of the child.

Leaving home to study far from the protective cocoon of support from family and friends is likely to be the adventure of a lifetime - or the first such adventure, at any rate.

During the formative years, such a trip is likely to have a life-changing impact. In most cases, the outcome is overwhelmingly positive, boosting maturity, developing independence and increasing the developing adult's sense of self-confidence and self-worth.

But it is important to be aware of possible pitfalls, and that the experience may present challenges and frustrations before it bears fruit. It is also worth bearing in mind that not all children will be ready to cope with life away from home.

There are many reasons parents choose to send their sons or daughters overseas. In most cases, placing them in a total immersion environment for English tops the list. Some parents may hope their child will go to university in that country, so attending school there may boost their chances of gaining a place.

Some parents lack confidence in the local schools system - despite the repeated strong performance of local students in international assessments - and feel systems abroad offer more chances for an all-round education and a healthier attitude to learning.

With globalisation meaning careers in the future are increasingly less likely to be locally focused, exposure to another culture early on can be an important head start.

Spending time away from the comforts and security of home can force children to take care of their own needs and solve problems for themselves. This engenders self-reliance skills and a sense of resourcefulness that will serve them well in adult life.

But not all children enjoy being packed off to school in a distant land, particularly at a young age. The naturally outgoing will embrace the new experience, but less-confident youngsters may be pushed further into their shells. Boarding schools in Britain and Australia have remarked that many Hong Kong students have been unprepared to do household chores, expecting to have things done for them.

The reality is that in many traditional boarding institutions, students are very much expected to look after themselves.

It is essential to ensure your child is properly prepared for this challenge. If your son or daughter is a typical home bird, you will need to begin readying him or her months before the departure date.

Start by increasing the amount of self-autonomy you give them. If you make sure they are accustomed to pulling their weight around the house you will ease the shock of adjusting to the new regime.

Be sure that they are mentally prepared for the possibility that there is likely to be a period of adjustment when they first arrive. Feelings of loneliness and homesickness are common before students settle in and begin to make friends. It will be important for you to support your child as much as possible during this time.

One thing to be aware of is the large Hong Kong emigre populations in some cities, such as Vancouver or Melbourne. There is the chance less-confident students could end up in a 'Cantonese clique'. It is only natural for speakers of the same language to gravitate together, and the sharing of similar frustrations about an unfamiliar culture can be a positive, bonding experience.

But if you are keen for your child to make the most of the opportunity for language learning, you will need to explain to them the benefits of being adventurous and using English to communicate as much as possible.

If you are considering sending your child overseas, it is important you involve them in the decision. Go through the options and discuss what sort of school they would like to attend.

Of course, this will not be the only factor to consider, but making them feel they had a say will go a long way towards ensuring they get the best out of this character-building experience.

Any child who feels he or she is being 'sent' overseas to a place they know little about and have no enthusiasm for is almost bound to have a negative experience. With a sense of ownership and control over their own future, a more positive approach is all the more likely.

The choice of destination has a big impact. Different countries offer very different experiences, partly in terms of their education system but also the environment, culture and extra-curricular activities on offer. Would your child prefer to go to school in a rural or urban setting? Are there any sports he or she is into or keen to try out?

As mentioned above, Australia, Britain, the US and Canada top the list of favoured destinations. But other options are growing in popularity, including New Zealand, Thailand and the mainland.

Growing numbers of teenagers also choose to join a one-year exchange programme on the mainland, European nations or even more exotic countries.


Due to its large immigrant population and well-established position as a destination for international students, Australia has developed diverse and effective support measures for non-native English speakers. This happens either within schools or at language centres. The pleasant climate and relative familiarity to Hongkongers make it popular, and schools tend to have a multicultural feel.

The curriculum in Australia differs in each state, but public exam 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 sciences. Sports activities are very much part of boarders' lives.


Independent schools in Canada tend to have long histories and 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 state schools and stay with families in homestay arrangements.

Schools follow the curricula of individual provinces - there is no national curriculum. All lead to secondary school diplomas that are recognised by universities worldwide.


There are several internationally renowned schools, some linked with top schools in Britain, 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 Tinsulanonda International School and Phuket the British Curriculum International School - the latter having parted company from 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.


With more than 1,300 independent schools, Britain has long been an obvious choice for Hong Kong parents, particularly because of the education allowance to which civil servants have been entitled.

The national curriculum in England and Wales, 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.

State schools in Scotland operate under a separate education system, which is well respected by educators internationally. It leads to Standard Grades, Highers and Advanced Highers - exams taken in years four, five and six in secondary school. Many private schools, however, opt to use GCSEs and A-levels, in line with south of the border.

United States

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

The constitution's separation of church and state means all publicly funded schools are banned from promoting religion. But there is no such rule governing private schools, a large number of which are run by faith-based groups.

Some of the more evangelical of these can be quite fundamentalist Christian in their approach, basing their entire educational philosophy around a literal interpretation of the Bible. Some parents may embrace the spiritual side of such an approach, but others may shudder at the thought of Creationism being given precedence over Darwinism.

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, 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 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. Places at universities are offered based on school and SAT results. Schools providing English as a second language programmes are also available.