Call for groom service
Dorothy Lo Yuen-ki is still shy and mumbles a little as she describes her daily routine of nursery school and piano practice.
The four-year-old slouches in her seat, scanning the room while she is quizzed by her coach, Charles Wong Chor-fai.
Her halting response prompts Wong to explain patiently the importance of sitting upright and maintaining eye contact with her interviewer.
The interview season has begun for applicants to primary schools, and Dorothy and other children are being signed up in droves for prep courses in the hope of gaining an edge in the stiff competition for places; there may be more than 2,000 youngsters vying for 100 places at top private institutions, and many undergo a couple of rounds of interviews before making the cut.
Dorothy has a busy schedule, with several appointments lined up at elite schools, so her mother, Rita Chan Shuk-yan, enrolled her for a course at Learning Key Educational to familiarise her with the process. Chan paid HK$2,400 for the 10-session programme.
'Children at such a young age are the same; it's difficult to tell who's smarter,' she says. 'However, if Dorothy has a taste of the interview procedures beforehand, she will be able to perform better.'
Christy Lee Ching-yee, education manager with the Learning Plus Language Centre, estimates that interview training is now available at more than 50 tuition schools across the city.
'Many centres did not have such classes when they opened,' Lee says. 'They jumped on the bandwagon as they saw more and more subsidised schools join the DSS [Direct Subsidy School] scheme.'
DSS schools operate as semi-private institutions, so they can set their own rules in areas such as student admission and also supplement the money from public coffers by charging higher fees. When the government compressed the five-band classification of students into three 'bandings' in 2002 (education officials insist they have done away with the band system), many elite subsidised institutions switched to the DSS scheme because it allowed them to select students with better grades.
'Places at subsidised schools are awarded through [computerised] central allocation, with no interviews allowed. But a DSS school can screen students through admission interviews, sparing them the possibility of enrolling students who would have been classified as Band 2 under the old classification system,' says Wong, who is also the director at Learning Key. About 80 pupils take interview classes there, a tenfold rise from a decade ago.
'The boom in business is caused by the mushrooming of DSS schools,' Wong says. 'Entry to top public schools, which don't conduct interviews, depends on the luck of the draw and whether children have ties [such as a sibling who has attended the school or the family's religious affiliation]. To hedge their bets, parents apply to private and DSS schools while their children are in kindergarten. Such schools admit children through interviews, which run until November.
'Admission results for public schools are announced in June, just two months before Primary One classes are due to start. If they fail to get a place at their preferred public school in June, they still have offers from private schools as a backup. As more and more public primaries join the DSS scheme, the demand for our services has increased sharply.'
Teacher Kennis Lau Wai-ling, whose son Ethan Cheung Hin-yuen has been preparing for interviews, says applying to DSS schools gives her some peace of mind.
'The allocation system for public school places is like a lottery. I don't want to lose sleep in the days before the results are announced. If you can't get a place at your preferred school in June, it is too late to apply for private schools then. You will be helpless and rushing around the city in search of schools that still have one or two places on offer.'
Lau is glad she sent her son for interview classes at Learning Key. 'He didn't have much confidence. He used to need a long warm-up period before opening up to strangers. He is much better now.'
Doing well in Primary One interviews is all the more important because it paves the way for future education: many elite primary schools have linked secondary sections, so graduating pupils can advance directly to the affiliate school without going through the hassles of screening again.
For youngsters such as Dorothy, the results have an impact on the entire family.
'How she fares in interviews will affect her younger sister,' says Chan, her mother. 'If the first-born child can enter a top school, the path for younger siblings will be much easier.'
Admission interviews typically include group sessions, during which teachers observe how children interact with one another, and one-on-one meetings, during which a child is quizzed on general knowledge and asked to complete set tasks. It's no cakewalk, says Wong.
'Ying Wa Primary School asked who the first female astronaut in China was. Diocesan Girls' Junior School asked a question about the difference between today and yesterday. Such questions would not be out of place in an admission interview for secondary schools.'
Even group sessions, when pupils are usually invited to play with Lego bricks or other material, can be tricky, Wong says. Teachers at one school collected the completed Lego models and asked the children what they had made.
That's why children in Learning Key's programme get to play a lot of games and do puzzles. Items such as a chessboard for solving maths problems and cardboard cut-outs of various sizes for making geometric shapes are designed to prime youngsters for the interviews.
Dunn's Education, launched in 2009 by television host Patrick Tang Chi-fung, also reports plenty of demand for its interview preparation programmes; a 24-lesson Primary One admission course, comprising one-on-one sessions and group activities, costs HK$4,880.
'Interviews can be intimidating for such small children,' says Dunn's chief marketing officer, Catherine Cheung. 'Some are really shy when they first come to us. Others burst into tears and refuse to go into classrooms. If they act like that during interviews, they won't stand a chance.'
But Dunn's Education is able to turn crybabies into confident and well-mannered children, Cheung says. What's more, it develops teaching material based on information collated from parents whose children attended interviews.
As interview season continues into November, parents have been fanning out across the city to attend school admission briefings. Many waiting for their offspring at Learning Key were poring over newsletters for dates for briefings, applications, interviews and results announcements at elite schools.
Wong says interview preparation is essential even though the exercises may seem stressful for small children.
'It's common for a parent to apply to 10 schools,' he says. 'With an interview divided into two or three stages, a child can wind up attending more than 20 sessions. Everybody should receive training before the interviews; you will be at a big disadvantage if you don't.'
However, the propensity to rely on such drilling has aroused concern among some principals that it stifles children's creativity.
Wai Yin-wah, principal of St Stephen's College Preparatory School in Stanley, is dismayed at how some children have turned into robotic answering machines.
'They launch into a spiel - introducing themselves, greeting teachers and talking about how they get to our school. If a teacher interrupts to ask other questions, they continue reciting instead of responding to the queries.'
Wai says the school looks for qualities such as lively, inquiring minds, and courtesy.
'Children are not actors. Instead of reciting sophisticated answers, we want the kids to be themselves. Parents are too materialistic nowadays. With little time to spend with their kids, they enrol them in such classes and expect quick results. But a course won't help a child build up his [or her] value system, which is nurtured through day-to-day contact with parents.'
St Stephen's conducted two rounds of interviews last year to select 99 children for Primary One from 1,200 applicants. Even so, Wai says there's no need for youngsters to undergo special training.
'We never ask knowledge-based questions; we just ask students to tell us about their daily life. We might also give them a story and ask what they would do if they were one of the characters. We appreciate creative answers that prompt more questions.'
Wai's comments are unlikely to sway parents who are determined to get their children into a top school. Many families have relocated to Kowloon Tong, an area with a high concentration of elite schools, simply to gain points in second-round allocations, when priority is given to students living in the school's catchment area. Some are known to have changed religious affiliations to secure a place in sought-after, church-affiliated schools. Last year, a kindergarten sparked a public outcry when it charged parents and children for a religious conversion course.
Chan Wai-man, who has a daughter in private school and a son at Diocesan Boys' School, a DSS school, says it's tiring to enrol all her three children in good schools.
'There were 5,000 parents at the admission briefing session for DBS last year. The competition for the limited places was so fierce,' says Chan, whose youngest daughter, Athena, has begun her interview marathon.
'The schools expect the parents to do a lot. They assume the children are bright, well-trained and well-rounded. I spend HK$6,000 every month on ballet, piano, poetry reading and swimming classes for Athena. I keep all the certificates for her portfolio. I had a portfolio compiled by a specialist agency, which set me back HK$2,000.'
Yvonne Chan Chin Mo-chun, principal of St Paul's College Primary School, appeals to parents to give children more space to develop their own interests.
'We get swamped by portfolios overflowing with certificates, and have made it a rule that a portfolio should be no more than five pages. There's no need to clutter a child's schedule with all kinds of interest classes. An ordinary upbringing with activities that are good for the mind and body is all that matters.'
Do portfolios have an impact?
Compilation of r?sum?s starts early in Hong Kong. Parents anxious for their children to make a good impression at admission interviews often submit portfolios stuffed with testimonials and certificates.
Standard portfolios include:
Reference letters from kindergarten principals and teachers
Description of interests and family background
Academic reports and certificates showing awards and other achievements in nursery school
History of extracurricular activities with attendance record in interest classes and prizes won outside their kindergarten
Copies of art and other creative work such as writing samples
A 20-page folder from girl now in Primary One says that while in kindergarten, she learned Japanese, English and Chinese. Outside nursery school, she learned to use an abacus, joined science workshops and, to round it all off, took classes in painting, skating, swimming, gymnastics, piano, singing and dance. But thick portfolios may have little impact on school admission. A number of top primary schools say they give little credence to them and place greater priority on character and social skills. Moreover, because agencies can produce polished files for students, some schools limit the size of portfolios. Camoes Tan Siu Lin Primary School rejects portfolios altogether.