Wilson Chan, who worked in Shanghai for several years, had always wanted to send his three children to a bilingual school. That opportunity eluded his two sons, now studying in Britain, but was possible for his youngest child, Jenny, now in Year Eight at the YK Pao School.
Founded in 2007 by Anna Sohmen, daughter of the late shipping tycoon after whom it is named, the Shanghai-based school provides an opportunity for professionals working on the mainland who want their children to be well versed in both English and Putonghua. Jenny, who joined the school in 2007, has developed a keen interest in languages and sports.
YK Pao has 800 students - 500 of whom are in its primary section and the rest at secondary level - in a boarding school that opened in 2011. About 25 Hongkongers attend its primary school and 15 are enrolled in secondary education. It is dubbed an international Chinese school.
Chan allowed Jenny to remain in Shanghai, at her wish, after the family returned to Hong Kong last year. "The school has given her a lot of exposure and leadership development opportunities. I had always wanted my children to receive a bilingual education; China is the future of the world's economy. Students in Hong Kong are not immersed in a real Putonghua environment," he says.
There are increasing opportunities to receive schooling on the mainland. The Chinese International School is taking the bold step of transferring its Year 10 students to its new campus in Hangzhou in the coming academic year. Spending an entire school year in China's emerging cultural capital, they will continue to pursue the International Baccalaureate Middle Years programme while acquainting themselves with the local culture.
CIS principal Ted Faunce believes the students will be inspired to become fluent in Chinese and to understand its culture. The school will give existing students a choice of whether to head to Hangzhou in Year 10, but it will be compulsory for new recruits entering in the autumn to join the programme, with places for 144 students. It is also open to students from other schools in and outside Hong Kong.
Optimistic about the outcome of the programme, Faunce describes it as "part and parcel" of CIS efforts to upgrade students' learning of Chinese language and culture. In Hangzhou, it is partnering with the private Greentown Yuhua School, which has 3,000 boarders. "We are in the centre of the campus of a very engaged school. It took us three years to find the right partner. In 2007 we developed the strategic vision to explore the possibility of creating a study centre for the students; it makes no sense just to 'airlift' the CIS programme and put it down somewhere in China," Faunce says.
The partnership will give students access to music, sports and other facilities, and wide-ranging extra-curricular programmes at the mainland school. They will also be able to take part in a host of activities and social projects. CIS is also eyeing partnerships with community organisations in the city.
The extension programme will free up space for CIS to take in extra students. "We are talking about a maximum of 20 new additional places in Year Seven and some in Year Eight … we believe we can take in more students without a loss in quality," Faunce says.
Richard Pratt, director of CIS Hangzhou, says students aged 14 or 15 are best suited for the residential programme. "It is the key time for the development of some important personal qualities such as emotional resilience, adaptability, independence, maturity, identity. Year 10, at the age of 14 or 15, is when adolescents are most rapidly evolving in the transition from childhood to adulthood, the stage when a growing teenager is most adaptable and responsive to positive influence."
Pratt says another advantage of the programme is that it nurtures "China-readiness", through the "study of the language and familiarity with life and people on the ground in China". It's a quality that will be in high demand in the workplace, he says. "Graduate employers in Hong Kong and the UK are fairly consistent in saying that they need people who are China-ready, who have the kind of emotional intelligence and personal character that we seek to foster."
English will be the primary medium of instruction in Hangzhou but Pratt says they will seek to include elements of Chinese in all subjects. "The walls between Chinese and the rest of the curriculum will come down," he says, citing as an example a comparative literature project in which students can look at how translation from a work of Chinese literature into English can become an exercise in creative writing.
Or students may be asked to collect data for a survey in the city using Chinese as the means of communication.
The concentration on one single-year group gives the school flexibility in timetabling, allowing for more off-campus learning activities.
The Hangzhou campus boasts an exceptionally low teacher-to-student ratio of 1:7. In the residential units, 24 students will be under the care of one head of house. There will also be mentors and fresh graduates enlisted to support teachers and sports coaches. "We have attracted applications from potential teachers, many of whom are bilingual and have lived and studied abroad," Pratt says.
At YK Pao, two-thirds of the students are from across China. In its primary section, Chinese is given more emphasis, whereas English and Chinese are given equal importance in its secondary section in Thames Town, a tranquil setting resembling an English town in Songjiang district, about 45 minutes from the city centre.
With half of its teachers being native Chinese speakers, students commonly chat in Putonghua, if not English, says Philip Sohmen, the school's vice-chairman.
"They are getting maths and science taught in Putonghua; at lunch and in sports they speak the language; when they go into the neighbourhood they get full exposure and more cultural understanding as well.
"There is still a big cultural gap between Hong Kong and mainland China. Hong Kong students who spend a longer time there understand the culture, the different mindset and attitudes."
Short study trips are also available for international students during summer programmes at YK Pao School. Participants engage in sports, arts and other activities at the camps, some in English, some in Putonghua, and others conducted in both languages.
Sohmen says achieving equal competency in both languages is challenging. But he has no doubt about the value of bilingual education, which is borne out by research. "It fires up different parts of the brain, and exposure to Chinese at a young age helps build a good foundation in the language," he says, acknowledging the difficulty in learning Chinese.
Sohmen believes that non-native speakers of English in grades six to 12 at YK Pao will reach a sufficiently strong level of the language. "We have a support system for students with difficulties; eventually they will do the International Baccalaureate, which is in English."