Parents are snubbing top-rated local Hong Kong schools
Hong Kong has been judged to have one of the best education systems in the world. In international assessments, such as the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development's Programme for International Student Assessment, our students come consistently near the top.
The city has even been praised as a model for others to learn from. The influential McKinsey study, "How the World's Most Improved Systems Keep Getting Better", flagged Hong Kong as a "sustained improver" that had moved from "good" to "great".
But at home the middle-class elite have shown what they think by voting with their feet, moving away from local schools.
Recent Education Bureau data speaks for itself. International school places increased by 59 per cent, from 30,982 in 2001-02 to 49,183 in 2011-12. These include English Schools Foundation, private international schools and Private Independent Schools that offer international curricula.
In its analysis of growing demand for international schooling, the McKinsey study noted the increasing desire for non-local curricula from local parents. The proportion of local students taking up those places had increased from around 11 per cent in 2001-02 to 26 per cent on the primary level, and 23 per cent on the secondary level.
With local families defined as those not holding any overseas passport (excluding a British National Overseas document), the numbers are likely to be much higher. The minimum figure is around 12,000 children, but it could be at least double that if those with foreign passports are included. Those who are better off are sending their children overseas - more than 5,700 Hong Kong children are studying in British boarding schools.
This growth in international education has happened even as the number of school-aged children has plummeted over the past 10-plus years, and is reflected in a 23 per cent decline in the number of public funded and other aided schools since 2000.
The government has responded by turning over redundant campuses to international school operators seeking to expand. Three sites were allocated in April, and a fourth is pending.
And still the supply of international school places cannot meet demand.
But with local schools so highly praised, why are parents unhappy with them? A key reason is that however good the schools are, competition remains fierce to get into so-called Band One English-medium schools and the more prestigious Direct Subsidy Scheme schools. Together, these are the schools regarded as most likely to lead to good public exam results and a place at a high-ranking university.
Parents are keen to ensure their children are well-placed to secure the best careers, so they are willing to pay for that education. With couples having fewer children, they are more able to make the investment.
The ESF's report on the higher education destinations of students graduating last year shows that 91 per cent went on to university and 16 per cent won places in the world's top 30 institutions in the Times Higher Education's global league table.
This compares with a 31 per cent success rate for those completing the Hong Kong Diploma of Secondary Education - with 23 per cent securing local degree places, and around 8 per cent leaving Hong Kong.
The challenge for policymakers is to ensure those who can't afford to pay for this advantage don't lose out.
Katherine Forestier is the director of the consultancy Education Link.