• Thu
  • Dec 25, 2014
  • Updated: 11:36pm
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: 667

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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This isn't a case of whether international schools are this or that, racist, local, subsidised or whatever.
The real question should be about why local state schools are SO unaccommodating to non-Chinese speakers, or actually just anyone with a white face.
I am an expat but I am by no means rich. I live in a tiny apartment in Sham Shui Po, and I have children about to enter the education system.
There is absolutely no chance that we can afford international or ESF schools, and our only option is local state schools. Unfortunately, even the few that are 'English-medium' schools in truth do, secretly, teach mostly in Chinese.
I have learnt Cantonese to a decent conversational level, but my written/reading Chinese is very limited. I want my children to learn Chinese (both Cantonese and Mandarin, as it goes...) but it is understandable that I want their education to be primarily delivered in English. It is an official language of Hong Kong and one should surely expect at least some provision for state English language education whereby I can keep up with my children's achievments without having to struggle through Chinese-only reports, newsletters and homework.
Most local schools simply won't accommodate for expat parents or children, refuse admission, and offer next to no pastoral support for students who end up as inevitably the only white face in the entire school.
But pelase don't think all expats are rich and uninterested in learning Chinese.
Ehm. How about the little fact that English is an official language in Hong Kong?
Dai Muff
i guess you should tell that to all those "anti-China" mainland officials, our government officials, and our CE, who send their children for international schooling at public expense.
Skywalker....isn't Hong Kong claiming to be Asia's World City?
Like it or not English is the de-facto language of the world and the language of business.
Mandarin will probably never assume that mantel.
You should control your racism and harness your energy to put it to better use elsewhere.
Why can't the government provide english education at the same cost as locals (ie. in terms of HK$ per pupil)? Is that so hard?
This kind of "locals" versus "foreigners" mentality is seriously narrow-minded and does nothing for Hong Kong in the long term.
There are plenty of "foreigners" here who contribute huge amounts of tax dollars to fund things like healthcare and public services... so providing the option of some English education for that pretty large population (who contribute plenty of tax dollars) shouldn't really be that difficult should it? I understand why cantonese wouldn't want to see more $ per pupil spent on English only education, but.. do you think Hong Kong would be the huge financial centre that it is today if nobody spoke English?
Rising school education cost, mostly owing to rising rents, pay cuts in offices or no raise owing to rising rents, diminished lifestyle owing to curtailed spending power due to rising rents, increase in retail prices owing to rising rents is what is causing the expat community to decline in Hong Kong whereby the talent relocates itself into other major cities which has already led to decline in Hong Kong's position in Asia.
The government fails to see that Rising Rents benefits only a single group leaving the rest of the community high and dry. The government appears to have deliberately kept compulsary Chinese in the curriculum to keep expat kids of local curriculum leaving them with the only option of expensive International School education which is quickly getting inaffordable due to lesser spending power causes cited above. A serious situation can emerge with brain drain out of HK both local and expat. This is high time for the administration to wake up and install rental curbs as well as offer affordable education to all local and expat kids desiring English as the medium of Education. The poor education options in HK befit only third rate places and third world countries.
The state of affairs is totally in despair and dismay.
I will be leaving Hong Kong after 16 years of NET teaching when my contract expires next year. My principal and department chair want me to stay on, but what is the point if all my savings go towards school fees? I am already forced to pay $14,000 for 2 children in ESF but will need pay $21,000 next year. (Our third child will soon be entering ESF kindergarten and will not get the subsidy in 2016). Hong Kong was fun and I feel I have made a real difference with my students.
I have just been offered a post in another country once my contract expires where two international school places are a part of my employment package.

'These people' are tax payers in HONG KONG. English provision is enshrined in the basic law. Perhaps the answer is massive tax breaks to offset this international education necessary to keep HK competitive that the government won't provide. Amanda Chapman herself is an educator of some renown. You really want 'these people' to go home?
It's time to stop pulling the "colonial" and racial cards but to focus on the real issues and facts.
Fact is that the majority of the pupils in international schools are actually Hong Kong born children. And within this group the majority are coming from a well-off background, implying being the offsprings of our local talent. And yes, a large percentage of high up government employees send their children to international schools as well. Why is that ?
The government saves lots of money for each student they don't need to accommodate in government schools. Why these savings are not passed on to the international schools ?
It's fair to say that the majority of parents of international schools are from the higher and top income bracket . Further is it fair to say that they probably feed 50-75% of the personal income tax bill in HK. But they don't receive the same education subsidy from the government as any other taxpayer having children in government schools receives.
@Skywalker: You are correct that e.g. in Germany you need to go to an international, private school for non-German curricular. BUT - the German government subsidises private schools up to 75% of the cost of a government school.
And what does the Hong Kong government do ??? Probably spending a few years EFS subsidies on studies and consultants for the obvious.
Why does Hong Kong need to provide a school system only for non-cantonese speakers? Go and live in Germany, The Netherlands, France or Denmark and you will be confonted with a school system which firstly uses the main local languange as teaching language and teaches all other languanges as foreign language.
If Americans living in Europe want to educate their kids on the European Continent in an English School System, they either have live in England or send them to one of the few and even more expensive private schools which teach in English.
For Hong Kong, China and Mandarin should be the very first priority not English.



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