Schools that blend the rules

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 15 January, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 15 January, 2012, 12:00am


For the past three years, mainland-born investment banker Yan Shen has been commuting weekly from Hong Kong to Shanghai, where his family has relocated. His three children are attending the YK Pao School there, and his wife and helpers have gone to care for them.

YK Pao is an international school, but it has a more ambitious goal: to nurture global citizens well-versed in Chinese language and culture. This mission reflects the belief of its founders - including Anna Sohmen, daughter of the late shipping tycoon Sir Yue-Kong Pao, and Tan Fuyun, former chairwoman of the Shanghai Women's Federation - that the rise of China as an economic powerhouse is spurring parents to seek a truly bilingual education for their children.

'We thought that the combination of Western and Eastern cultures - not just language skills, but also the cultural aspects - is very important,' says Yan. 'Chinese and English are crucial in this increasingly competitive environment. It is not just the language but more about your ability to adapt in different cultures, to think like locals, to think the Chinese way while you are dealing with the Chinese government and yet being able to switch and speak and communicate another way when you are in a Western community.'

Others share that view. Although her twin daughters are only three, Anna Wong Hiu-wah was among about 100 parents attending a recent information session that the school held in Hong Kong. 'The founders, like Sohmen, sent their children to study abroad and developed an interesting view on how to expose children to two cultures as they were growing up,' she says.

Wong and her husband, Anthony Che Wang-kin, are considering relocating to the city or having their children schooled there.

Che was attracted by YK Pao's use of simplified Chinese characters, which he believes will eventually be adopted worldwide. Another plus is the school's proximity to Hong Kong. 'It is an overseas boarding school, and yet I can visit my children on the weekends,' he says.

In Chinese the school is called Shiyan Xuexiao ('experimental school'), which points to its more progressive approach to teaching. YK Pao enjoys considerable flexibility although it still comes under the supervision of Shanghai education authorities. The school body is drawn from a broad cultural mix, and unlike most mainland schools, students are encouraged to ask questions and engage in discussions.

'You don't feel as if it's a Chinese school,' says executive principal of the school's secondary section, Tony Jaccaci, an American. 'One of the greatest challenges for us is coming up with what is best in Chinese education and Western education and, where they don't necessarily mix, how to find a balance.'

The school opened with a non-residential primary division in Changning district five years ago. Its secondary, boarding division was launched only in October in Songjiang district, in the Thames Town development, and has enrolled two boys from Hong Kong.

From Grade 7 (the equivalent of Form One in Hong Kong), the school puts an equal emphasis on Chinese and English teaching, with subjects such as humanities and science taught in both languages. Tailor-made language programmes are provided for students from overseas or non-Putonghua-speaking background.

But for Grade 11 and 12, the school will adopt the International Baccalaureate (IB) curriculum, for which English will be the main language of instruction.

'Studies have shown that the bilingual brain is a much more flexible tool for people to look at the world and to set and create understanding. If a child can do that for two cultures, I think they are able to see the world far more holistically,' says Jaccaci.

In Hong Kong, international schools have also responded to parents' growing desire for an education that emphasises a dual language environment for their children. The International Baccalaureate curriculum, which features strong components in culture and languages, is a strong component of that.

At the ISF Academy, principal Malcolm Pritchard says demand outstrips its capacity to accommodate students.

'The demand for bilingual education from our perspective is growing rapidly. Many of the families seeking to enrol their children at our school have already come to the conclusion that their children will need more than one language in their adult working life to be successful. Increasingly, they are also concluding that Putonghua and English are the two languages their children will need professionally in this region,' Pritchard says.

'We take the view that five-year-old children entering our school in 2012 will be 40 years old in 2047, at the peak of their careers and earning power. In the lead up to that transition and in the years following 2047, Putonghua skills will be valuable, if not indispensable, attributes for leaders and professionals in Hong Kong.'

The Chinese International School is set to open a study centre in Hangzhou, Zhejiang, next year in August for its Year 10 students - the second last year of their IB Middle Years Programme - integrating Chinese language and culture into their lives in a year-long residential programme.

The school's deputy head, Li Bin, expects a transformative experience for the students. Character building aside, she reckons their understanding of contemporary China will be hugely enhanced after the year and they will become more mature and independent.

'The culture, history you learn about China does not come alive in textbooks,' Li says. 'You really need to communicate and interact with the local community to have an understanding of the nation.'

Though immersed in a Putonghua-speaking environment, students will continue to pursue a rigorous academic programme in English under the IB framework. 'The programme will be built on four pillars: China, challenge, character and community,' says Li.

The school is already running week-long or two-week programmes in Taiwan and the mainland for Grade 5 to 8 students to give them an authentic language learning environment.

Yew Chung International School, where 80 per cent of Year 12 and 13 students are pursuing IB Bilingual Diplomas, is the city's only school with co-principals for primary and secondary sections. The principals for its English and Putonghua streams take turns leading school assemblies, and correspondence with parents is bilingual.

'The kids are quite comfortable with switching languages,' says Anna Chan Yuk-fung, co-principal of the primary section.

'For subjects like culture or life education, there are two teachers, one teaching in Chinese and the other in English. In class, they can be taking turns using the two languages. When students discuss, they can use either of the two languages. It is really nurturing the respect and understanding of different cultures.'

Of course, they stick to one language during language classes.

When the school launched its Chinese-language programme in 2004 to support students from a non-Chinese-speaking background, it had only three enrollees. By this year, the number has grown to almost 70. Those enrolled in the programme learn simplified characters as opposed to the traditional characters learned by students in the mainstream curriculum. Chan is not worried about the gap in students' understanding of written Chinese, saying the vast majority of Chinese characters are easily recognisable when converted from traditional to complicated forms or vice versa.

It is the knowledge of either form that matters, after all. 'In Hong Kong, everyone thinks English is an international, important language. It will continue to be, but I can see a rise in parents seeing the importance of Chinese. The majority of the parents who come to our school say they see how important it is for their children to get bilingual skills to be competitive,' Chan says.

Businessman Peter Ho, whose two children attend international schools in Hong Kong, has been looking for options to improve their proficiency in Putonghua.

'Everyone speaks English in the playgrounds of their schools. I try to speak to my children in my mother tongue, but they won't respond. I want them to be able to read and write Chinese. If you can do that, you can deal with 1.3 billion people.'