Lofty goals fuel demand for teachers
Local parents are known for the high academic goals they set for their children, and expat families ambitious enough to relocate to Hong Kong are also unlikely to settle for second best when it comes to education.
Those in search of a top-notch education for their children, and who are willing to pay the sometimes considerable fees, will find a wide range of international and elite schools in Hong Kong.
Their teachers often come from overseas and so, in their efforts to recruit and retain the very best staff, these schools are in competition not only with each other but also with institutions around the globe.
American Michael Dempsey explains how he came to work as a lower primary teacher at Hong Kong International School (HKIS).
'I attended an international school job fair in Cambridge, Massachusetts back in 2007 and interviewed with schools from Bangkok, Ho Chi Minh City and Beijing, to name a few. Hong Kong was not on my radar at that point. Once I sat down with the principal and got to talking, I was sold. I've renewed my two-year contract twice now and feel Hong Kong is a great - and easy - place for a Westerner to make a life.'
Gilbert Halcrow is head of drama at Island School, an English Schools Foundation (ESF) secondary school. The Australian and his wife Belinda - head of art at Island School - had a romantic connection with the city before they moved here from Britain. 'We always liked big cities and we had our honeymoon in Hong Kong.'
Australians make up 14 per cent of the 869 teachers and principals at the ESF's 21 kindergartens, primary and secondary schools. Not surprisingly, given its roots and the fact that its medium of instruction is English, more than half the ESF's employees come from Britain.
However, the search for staff is conducted on a much broader basis. 'Applicants are applying for ESF jobs from all around the world - from the United Arab Emirates, United States, Vietnam, Singapore, Poland, Tanzania, Germany and Egypt, among others,' says Ada Yeung, ESF's human resources spokeswoman.
Halcrow says the pay and benefits packages are one of the key motivations for teachers to relocate to Hong Kong. 'The pay and conditions, as well as the low level of tax, are significantly better here than in Britain.'
Dempsey agrees. 'From my experience, and from what I hear, Hong Kong salary packages for teachers are much higher than most other regions in the world - excluding the Middle East.'
'We offer a competitive compensation package,' says Joy Okazaki, director of human resources at HKIS, pointing to the school's career structure. 'This provides a recruiting edge, not only because of our focus on professional development, but equally due to the potential for teachers to significantly increase their compensation in the second year of employment, based on their knowledge and skills as revealed through performance.'
Teachers at ESF schools are paid a basic annual salary of up to HK$632,000, with additional payments and allowances depending on their responsibilities and completion of their contracts. Along with continuing training, the ESF and HKIS provide staff with housing subsidies and educational opportunities for their children, among other benefits.
But the reasons for teachers to relocate to the city go beyond pay and conditions. 'It's possible to have a great lifestyle here,' says Halcrow, who is attracted by the close proximity of town and country. 'If I was living in Sydney or London, I'd probably be commuting for an hour or more to get to work, but you don't have that here.'
Yeung thinks new arrivals are also impressed 'by the efficiency, the highly developed transportation network and the reliable banking system'. Plus, she adds, 'expatriates pay a much lower rate of income tax here'.
While the figures seem to show that neither the ESF nor HKIS have significant problems recruiting, their HR departments are aware of two major disincentives.
'Hong Kong's air pollution is one of the most prevalent reasons teachers cite for selecting another location to live,' Okazaki says.
Accommodation is another bugbear, according to Yeung. 'Apartments in Hong Kong are smaller and more expensive than in many other cities,' she says.
But once here, staff tend to stay. The average tenure for teachers at HKIS is seven years, while more than half of those working for the ESF have been employed for four or more years.
For Halcrow and Dempsey, the quality of their students and their working environment are key reasons to stay.
Halcrow spent nine years at the ESF's King George V School and has been at Island School for the past 21/2 years.
'ESF students are very switched-on learners and demanding in a very good way. It is hard work as teaching goes - with exams coming up, I just did two, 10-hour days on Saturday and Sunday. But you want to do it because the kids motivate you.'
Dempsey finds his move from the United States a positive one. 'Working in a school that incorporates Chinese language and culture into the curriculum, I've learned so much.
'Teaching in a private international school has provided me with an environment where I can focus on education, my professional development and I can grow as an educator.'
Ten per cent of ESF teachers come from Hong Kong or the mainland, partly due to the increasing importance placed on the teaching of Chinese.
At their Repulse Bay and Tai Tam campuses, the four school divisions of HKIS cater for students between the ages of four and 18 years old.
While most of HKIS's 250 teachers come from the United States, the rest are a similar mix of nationalities to those working for the ESF.