It pays to know what your school fees do and don't cover

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 29 April, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 29 April, 2012, 12:00am


My husband and I have a modest income, and after my son recently enrolled in an international school we have already been asked for more money for basics. Other parents there are now telling me that we'll need to pay out yet more for trips and other extras. Shouldn't the fees cover all the costs of his education?

Hong Kong is a crowded educational marketplace with a staggering range of styles and costs of provision designed to meet almost every need. While you have already made your decision, the first thing to bear in mind is that there are always alternatives available and the more information you are able to gather on these, the more options you will have in the future.

The circumstances you describe, however, are far from unusual. It is natural to assume that fees - often very significant ones - should cover everything that is needed for a student to attend a school. That this is rarely the case, as you are now painfully aware, is due to a number of factors.

First, different schools use different methods to calculate fees and will choose to include many non-essential costs to avoid asking for more. Others take a more pragmatic view and appreciate that various requirements change and want to reserve the flexibility to charge fairly for these as needs arise or as various opportunities crop up.

Let's take excursions as an example. Schools that have a rigid and structured programme from which they never deviate may choose to include the costs in the fees or perhaps present an itemised bill at the start of each year to avoid asking for money in instalments. These may range from a simple, cheap day trip with minimal transport costs to longer and more costly experiences, including residential camps in Hong Kong or sometimes overseas.

You do not specify which basics you have been asked to fund, but this is another area of wide disparity. Although some schools want to provide students with all the paper and supplies they will need, others will take the view that the choice of pens, rulers, erasers and the like are best left to individual choice. Exercise books and ring-bind folders also fall into this category and may be more easily adapted by individuals to suit student needs and personal styles to reinforce their own sense of identity.

Similarly, with textbooks; it may be inappropriate for schools to provide readers and textbooks if their curriculum is more open-ended and inquiry based, but they still may suggest suitable supplementary materials.

In this regard, parents often ask about personal computers and personal digital assistants. Schools that provide hardware have the advantage of being able to negotiate bulk prices and can then implement cost-effective maintenance and replacement strategies. But as students get older, they may prefer alternatives and to possess their own technology rather than depending on the more generic provision.

Refer your specific queries and concerns to your son's school and ask them for a breakdown of costs and the fee structure to avoid any future nasty shocks. Fees make up a significant proportion of many family budgets, and while many things in education can never be measured by financial standards, value for money, a cost-benefit analysis and general satisfaction with the service provided do apply - and rightly so.

Julie McGuire teaches at a Hong Kong international school