Winning a primary school place: it's a lottery
Securing the primary school of choice for your child is akin to winning the lottery, parents tell Cynthia Chan and Linda Yeung
Next month is an important one for parents across the territory: it's when they find out if their children will be able to attend Primary One at their preferred school, under the government's Primary One Admission System.
Some have adopted a laissez-faire approach, but the allocation scheme has proved frustrating for others. Parents have even been driven away from the public sector to international and direct subsidy schools, the de facto private schools. But rising demand has led to intense competition for places at these, fuelling training centres that feed on parents' anxiety about getting their children into a good school.
The scheme has two stages: discretionary places admission and computer-programmed central allocation.
Parents can apply to a government or aided school in or outside their school district in the discretionary stage, and be offered a place based on a points system. If dissatisfied with the result, they can go through central allocation for schools mostly within their school net, the results of which are released in early June. Public schools are banned from conducting tests or interviews.
But the central system has long been criticised for lacking transparency and for being cumbersome.
Parents compare the second stage to a "big lottery". Cases have emerged of parents applying using false addresses. Serena Cheng, mother of five-year-old Ching-hei, has opted for an alternative route - spending HK$3,000 a month on English and Putonghua lessons to boost her son's chances of getting into DSS schools instead. Cheng also conducted research on interview questions on the internet, and submitted the application complete with a 20-page portfolio listing Ching-hei's list of extracurricular activities, school results, and awards.
"No parents apply without a portfolio," she says. To her delight, Ching-hei has been given a place at the International Christian Quality Music School. Cheng turned her back on the central allocation exercise because she believes the chances of gaining entry into a favourable school are slim. Most public schools are too "pushy" and "inhumane", she says.
"Some public schools are inhumane in their teaching approach. They make their pupils so busy by assigning tons of homework. Many of them have a poor teacher-to-student ratio. Is there any happy learning in this kind of environment?"
"I am not labelling public schools or private schools. But the chance of landing a public school that meets our expectations through the allocation system is like winning the Mark Six," says Cheng.
Ms Mak, an information technology professional and mother of two girls, has spent HK$13,000 on six months of MBA-style training course for her firstborn, Nicole, in preparation for admission interviews at two top schools. Nicole was taught problem-solving skills in "case studies" such as what she would do if she dropped her ice cream.
During the weekly 90-minute training session, toddlers as young as four were asked to memorise characters and animals mentioned in a story and answer questions about an English poem read to them.
On top of the interview drillings came ballet, drama, drawing, piano and English phonetics lessons to fill up Nicole's after-school hours. The efforts paid off. Nicole has been accepted by a DSS primary school, which her mother considers a good backup.
Mak will join the central allocation system to try and get Nicole into Maryknoll Convent School, an elite public school.
The drillings, and the huge competition for places, have prompted calls for a review of the system.
"Most people are unhappy with the way the allocation system works because it's treating education as a free market economy, pitting family against family," says a native English-speaking teacher who asked not to be named. The teacher described it as a "dog fight" in which crazed parents fight for a good place.
He said he had "begged around" Hong Kong to get his daughter, now in Primary Three, into a DSS school, after she was allocated to a public housing estate school through the central system. Hoping that she would learn both Chinese and English, he preferred a local rather than international school.
He succeeded, but he thinks the system should be reviewed to cater for different types of families: "Hong Kong is getting more people from other parts of the world, who might not have the money to put their kids into international schools."
Maria Lam Woon-sum, principal of Ying Wa Primary School, a popular DSS school, agrees. "It is unfair right from the beginning," she says. "Most places in top public schools are snapped up in the first stage by families with siblings or parents who work there. The second phase of the allocation process is even more unfair. It is all determined by luck."
Lam insists her school does not look at portfolios, and she warns against forcing a child to overlearn at the expense of spending quality time with parents. Not all famous schools expect portfolios either, she says.
Her school has received 3,557 applications for 155 Primary One places in the 2014-2015 academic year. "We don't expect students to have versatile skills. As a primary school, we like to accept a variety of students. We believe we can help them grow."
What she looks for in interviews, she says, are a child's character traits, such as unselfishness and politeness. Some parents apply to up to 15 schools as insurance, she adds. It is common knowledge that some parents even put their children in two kindergartens - one local and one international - so as to improve their child's English, and their chances of getting into a top school.
The English Schools Foundation holds play-based admissions interviews mainly to screen whether an applicant possesses the necessary level of English proficiency.
Lam believes the allocation system needs to be reviewed so that it gives parents a real right of choice.
Chris Yeung, a parent who is prepared to go through the central system for his five-year-old daughter, is one of the lucky ones. He has freed himself from the anxiety. He has not enrolled his daughter in any interview drilling classes, and has not developed a portfolio.
"Many other parents started doing that long ago," he says. "There is little time left for us to do it anyway. It is fine for her to go to an ordinary school here. My daughter was born in the US, and we plan to send her there for secondary school later."
An Education Bureau spokesman said the system had balanced the views of various stakeholders and there was no plan for a review.