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PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 04 April, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 04 April, 2012, 12:00am


Recently, a student from a leading international school shook her head with dismay as she confided that she did not believe in her school's mission statement. She asked: 'How can my school attempt to fulfil its mission, one which speaks of compassion and service, when my school offers no financial aid?'

It broke my heart to hear her words; at the same time, I was never more proud of her. Frankly, in one question, this 16-year-old pinpointed the greatest problem our city's international schools face.

Having a strong financial aid programme is essential to any school that cares about diversity. In today's world, a school that offers no socio-economic diversity is not providing a complete education. To me, the purpose of education is to provide insight.

In Hong Kong, nearly one in five people live below the poverty line. There is also a huge population of qualified children who get priced out of international schools because their highly educated parents simply chose careers that are not high-paying. Simply reading about these people in textbooks while international school students go skiing in Switzerland for spring break is not enough.

As an educator, I feel that, yes, without socio-economic diversity in my classroom, we can still probably cover all the topics. But there will not be depth to the discussion because, without diversity, our scope of vision and experience will always be limited. It's like learning history exclusively from watching the History channel.

I have got into many heated debates over this. Some people say diversity is overrated, and international schools are already competitive in Hong Kong without giving slots to those who cannot afford the full price. Such students wouldn't feel comfortable or be able to cope with the rigours of the programme. So why bother? Whenever I hear such criticism of financial aid, it feels like a slap in the face, given that I would not be where I am today if it were not for such assistance.

It's easy for schools to question the need for financial aid and socio-economic diversity. It is easy to just sit back, do nothing and say 'well, that's life' when qualified students cannot afford the tuition. But the great universities of the world don't think this way. The best schools offer 'need-blind' admissions. So why is lack of money a hindrance here in Hong Kong when we want quality English education at primary or secondary level?

It's not all hopeless, though; some international schools in Hong Kong are starting to share my thinking. Most offer a few free or half-price spaces a year for qualified applicants who cannot afford the tuition. In particular, the ISF Academy has an extremely robust programme; around 10per cent of their students are on financial aid.

The road to diversity is not easy, nor is it paved with gold. However, the alternative is a dead-end street. Children learn as much from each other, if not more, as they do from their teachers. If international schools want to produce future world leaders, we can't let our children live in a bubble.

Kelly Yang is the founder of The Kelly Yang Project, an after-school programme for children in Hong Kong. She is on the financial aid and scholarships committee at Chinese International School.