• Sun
  • Sep 21, 2014
  • Updated: 5:26pm
NewsHong Kong

Parents in Hong Kong struggling with rising cost of English-language education

And local system makes few allowances for non-Chinese speakers, leaving children struggling to learn, comes warning from expatriates

PUBLISHED : Monday, 21 April, 2014, 10:58am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 22 April, 2014, 8:49am


  • Yes: 76%
  • No: 24%
22 Apr 2014
  • Yes
  • No
Total number of votes recorded: 665

After almost 20 years in Hong Kong, English teacher Amanda Chapman may soon be forced to leave the city because of difficulties in finding a suitable and affordable school for her daughter.

Chapman, who works at a government-funded school, pays HK$8,600 every month for her seven-year-old's schooling at Renaissance College, a private independent school in Ma On Shan set to provide an alternative curriculum for local families.

The monthly fee will rise to HK$9,230 in the coming school year, says Chapman, and she will not be able to afford it any more if it continues rising at this rate.

But for non-Chinese speaking pupils like her daughter, there are few cheaper options. She said she had contacted schools recommended by the government to families like hers, but many did not admit children who could not speak, read or write Chinese.

"English-language education in Hong Kong is increasingly becoming a privilege exclusive to those who can afford it," said Chapman, who came from Britain 16 years ago.

"If you don't speak Cantonese, then you have no choice but to go to international schools. And the government refuses to acknowledge there is a problem and so does nothing about it," she said.

After the government's decision to phase out the English Schools Foundation's annual HK$283 million subsidy takes effect in 2016, ESF schools will become more expensive for middle-class expatriate families who are not too well-off.

"The government's argument that it should not have to support a non-local curriculum is nonsense when you consider that senior civil servants' children are educated either overseas or in international schools here at taxpayers' expense," Chapman said.

"Education Secretary Eddie Ng Hak-kim sent his two children to the Australian International School."

The Education Bureau's website lists 83 direct subsidy schools under the category "Education services for non-Chinese-speaking students". Direct subsidy schools, unlike government-funded ones, can charge fees and have greater freedom to implement different curriculums.

The South China Morning Post called all the schools on the list to find out their admission requirements for non-Chinese-speaking children.

Of the 62 secondary schools, 38 said they did not admit such pupils because either most of their lessons were taught in Chinese, or the subject was compulsory in their curriculum.

Ten out of the 21 primary schools said the same, but many of the remaining 11 that did enrol non-Chinese-speaking pupils said parents should expect their children to encounter difficulties with the subject.

A bureau spokesman said the list was meant to give expatriate parents information on all types of schools to facilitate their decision-making process in applying for places for their children. All public-sector schools, including direct subsidy ones, are to receive extra resources to give non-Chinese-speaking pupils school-based support, he added.

Even if these children do enter the local school system, they face daunting challenges in handling the language.

Joao Vitor Passos dos Santos is an exchange student at CUHKFAA Chan Chun Ha Secondary School in Ma On Shan. The 16-year-old came from Brazil last year hoping to learn Cantonese, but has not managed to pick up much so far.

Most people in his school are too reticent to communicate with him in English or to teach him Cantonese, Santos said.

He cannot learn much about his other school subjects either, because most of his teachers - except his maths teacher - use Chinese as their teaching medium, he said.

Tanya Hart, who came to the city from Australia 12 years ago, has put her seven-year-old son through the local school system since kindergarten because the boy was interested in learning Cantonese.

Although her son has been doing well, Hart said she felt a lack of support from the school for non-Chinese-speaking parents, citing Chinese-only school reports, notices and homework.

Hart and Chapman agreed that it was possible for non-local children to study in local schools if the schools made more effort to respect their cultures rather than coercing them to integrate into the local system.

"There will come a point where it is impossible for us to pay those high fees," Chapman said. "We … can leave Hong Kong. But many local people don't have the option of a good English-language education because they cannot afford it."


Squeeze on international-school locals

International schools that reserve at least 80 per cent of places for non-local children may be given priority in the government's land grant scheme, an education official says.

Wendy Chung, principal assistant secretary for education, said yesterday on the Education Bureau's website that the government would not be following suggestions to increase that proportion to at least 90 per cent.

International schools currently operating are required to have at least 70 per cent non-local pupils - although the average proportion is 85 per cent, according to Chung.

Last month, the Education Bureau earmarked two vacant schools in Ap Lei Chau and Tai Po and three undeveloped sites in Tseung Kwan O and Tai Po for international primary school development.

Successful applicants usually enjoy a nominal rent or land premium and interest-free capital loans.

The move is set to relieve an expected shortage of 4,200 primary international school places by 2016 - a shortfall partly caused by an increasing number of local parents choosing international schools for their children.

The two vacant schools are expected to provide 1,200 primary international school places by 2016. Together with other schools in the pipeline, it should help limit the shortage of primary places to 1,500 that year.

Chung said it was important to leave places for some local children in international schools, and it would be "arbitrary" to ban children of returning emigrants or overseas families with permanent Hong Kong residency.

"In addition, we need to … uphold freedom of choice for local families who wish to have their children learning in an environment outside the public sector school system at their own cost," she said.

But Civic Party lawmaker Kenneth Chan Ka-lok said affordability was a big problem and if the additional supply meant more "elitist places", it would not help expatriate or returning emigrant families who belong to the middle or lower-middle class.

He said that in return for granting these schools cheap land, the government should have a say in determining the level of fees they charged.

Chung countered that the schools were self-financed and market-driven.


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I think there are plenty of international school cash cows that can cater to the upper class, and their fees are reasonable for the top % who can afford such things. Certainly, they are not charging any more money than international/private schools in other countries.
the real issue here is the utter lack of investment in the non-Chinese youth in Hong Kong. Chinese people who move abroad attend local schools which:
1. are required to accept them into the school
2. are required to pay for ESL support staff to assist the child until it has a strong enough grasp of the language to carry on without help
Hong Kong is a little different, because principals are allowed to turn down applicants who don't meet their standards, and they often hide behind language issues to reject children and families who have little or no grasp of written Chinese. If they are forced to accept the child through the "lucky draw raffle" system misnamed "allocation", they are provided no resources (manpower or money) to provide appropriate CSL support. Non Chinese speaking kids, regardless of color, are simply left to sink or swim, if they are even allowed in the pool to begin with. Without proper support, they usually sink, and their Chinese never becomes good enough to be considered bilingual/bi-literate, so they may be attending school, but they are not learning much at all. This is a much bigger issue than British expats who can't afford ESF, one that needs to be addressed seriously.
To say that English should not be incorporated shows how close minded poeple are here in HK. People need to wake up. When you travel to most countries overseas, you will still need to be able to converse in some level of English. And its no wonder why Singapore is taking over as "Asias World City". We are fast becoming a city like Seoul.
Excellent, if Hong Kong would become a city like Seoul. Then it would be a cool city, at least. ;-)
We have been watching Hong Kong's English levels decline steadily over the years. More ominous in this story is the exchange student who says that 16 year old Hongkongers in a supposed EMI school are unable to talk to him. They are 16, meaning hey have had 10 years' worth of English lessons in the HK system! We find that students who have gone through the education system - and passed English - are unable to converse, read or write in English. It is patently obvious that there is something wrong with HK's English teaching to Cantonese speakers. And yes, it is important. English isn't quite dead yet.
It seems that wherever you look, English is being squeezed out of the system. This completely undermines Hong Kong's competitve edge on a global scale. I would think we need whatever we can get just to hold our status quo instead of being made completely irrelevant as China continues to rise.
One way is to reform the whole education system with a school voucher system - where students or parents can choose their school of choice ; private of otherwise public. However, our elitist , non-redistributive mindset will not make this happen.
'Egalitarianism' is simply not in HK's dictionary.
The only thing in our culture and society here wants is segregation between the have and have nots.
But when there are more have nots - they will one day revolt.
In third world country's people take to the street from rising food cost-as a hungry man is an angry man. Here our anger is towards rising education cost.
Looking at the number of responses in this thread, hopefully someone in the government wakes up and realises that the schooling of our children is one of the hottest and most important topics Hong Kong people are concerned about.
Hong Kong wants to be Asia World City, wants to be internationally recognised, wants to play a larger part in the Asian and the World's economies, wants to attract international workforce etc .
For all the above the government has to start to support international curricula much more than it does now. Cheap land leases are just not good enough.
To make the officials start to act fast and in the right direction, all private and international schools should expel all children of government officials and government employees and refer them to the government schools. They can come back once the government supports private and international in a sensible way.
That would be the kind of wake-up call that could make government officials start to move quickly.
I don't understand some of the comments I am seeing. As a native Chinese speaker in Hong Kong and someone in the capacity of recruiting new talents from HK / China for a large Chinese company, the biggest problem I am facing right now is the shortage of staff who have a deep understanding of the culture and way of thinking of the West. If you think that just because China is on the rise there is no need to cater to local families with a non-Chinese background, know that many companies here in HK / China actually need good English speaking staff to run most of their meetings and business dealings with people who speak little or no Chinese. Having native English speakers on board a Chinese company bring not only an added level of trust and competence when engaging with foreign clients, but the different way of thinking and the deep understanding they have on the Western culture can bring such a tremendous advantage that many far-sighted employers now realise their companies cannot live without.
I sincerely hope the government can fix this issue - and soon. Our connection to the West is one of the few competitive advantages we hold over our rival Asian cities.
ABCDEFG...you and some of the fellow delusional parents got tricked into thinking that high price equates to quality of education. The truth is, most of the very best students in Hong Kong comes through the local system. They get merit scholarships and go on to study in some of the world's most prestigious universities. There are many parents spending millions on their children's education but their kids are just not up to it. It is not about the curriculum. It is about changing the culture of the HK parent to not see privatized education as a way out for their kids. That's why the government need to turn the tap off for ESF and other subsidized private schools and let them survive off the backs of the "real elites". Okay - a few children of ex-pats will be left out in the cold. Well, you can always argue for a better pay package to pay for their expense. It's part of calculating whether you should have made the move to HK in the first place. If you can't afford it, then tough luck. HK's education strategy caters to the people of HK, not to small pockets of people with special needs.
You should go to some of the band 3 schools in HK and see just how well the HK school system is working for them.
Dear m2leung, I did not insult you, so please return the courtesy and do not insult me. You are also attributing things which I did not say. Please read my posts carefully.




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