The pros and cons of an independent education have to be seen in the context of schooling available in the local public sector. In an ideal world all children would be educated in free, state-funded schools regardless of their academic ability or family income, and would be assured of the best all-round education that meets their particular needs.
In reality, that is not happening. Despite strengths in many schools, both the broader education system and teaching in individual schools have their limitations. And children have very different needs, which cannot be met in one type of school. Some may be academic high-flyers. Others are better in a school ready to celebrate and support their creative or sporting flare.
While standards of achievement in Hong Kong's public sector schools are high by international standards due to the hard work put in by teachers, students and parents, schools have traditionally been weak in meeting the needs of individual children. For instance, catering for the many learning difficulties children have is a new concept in many a school. Until now, independent schools have often taken the lead in supporting children on a more individual basis.
Some children will thrive in the public sector while others will not. For the latter, the chances of fulfilling their potential, wherever it lies, may be higher in an independent school.
For five years Hong Kong education has been undergoing radical reform, with successive changes being introduced since 2000.
Reforms that promote more active, creative learning and that tune in to the needs of young people are undoubtedly leading to a better deal for children. But the implementation varies considerably between schools, and is far from smooth.
At their best, reforms are a huge release for both educators and students, encouraging teachers to innovate in order to do things better than before. Every aspect of the reforms - of school management, curriculum, assessment, quality assurance and the professional development of teachers - is designed to result in better education for our children.
But in many schools the early outcome has not been innovation and improved learning, but overworked teachers burdened by bureaucratic pressures. The learning environment often remains austere. So much depends on the vision of individual leadership and management of schools. Many are run by sponsoring bodies that have more traditional views of education. Moreover, teachers have little experience of the new paradigm.
The language issue
Many parents are more concerned about the need to ensure their children are well educated in English than about the detail of the reforms. Even the architects of the new medium of instruction policy due to be finalised this term, which necessarily goes hand-in-hand with the secondary school allocation system, acknowledge that their plan is a compromise. The demand for English-medium schooling requires competition among students for the limited places in those schools. Yet, in the interests of students, the Education Commission's working group has suggested stringent requirements for schools to teach in English, including a minimum standard of English for their students and teachers. There are fears for some of Hong Kong's most famous schools, which historically have linked primary and secondary sections. If they maintain their links and more than 15 per cent of those moving on to secondary fail to meet the English standard they would be forced to switch to Chinese.
Concern over the future of English-medium schools is already driving some parents to consider an independent education. It has also spurred the increase in schools joining the Direct Subsidy Scheme, part of the fee-paying independent sector. Most of the illustrious and sought after schools in Hong Kong have now done so, Diocesan Girls' School and St Paul's Convent School being among the latest.
Many parents recognise that the best way to ensure their children succeed in English is to enrol them in English-medium schools as early as possible, even in the pre-school years, where they can be assured not only of high quality teaching by native English-speaking teachers, but full immersion in the language. However, this is controversial as such an education comes at the price of their local language and even culture. New private independent schools are offering the alternative of bilingual education which may satisfy parents who want more Chinese for their children than is taught in most international schools.
Into the unknown
Reforms will culminate in the restructuring of senior secondary education, the most radical and exciting change of all. From 2009 A-levels and the Hong Kong Certificate of Secondary Education examinations that now dictate the exam-driven nature of local schooling will be phased out and confined to history. The new single Hong Kong Diploma in Education, which students who have just entered Primary Six will be the first to complete, will take its place. Unlike A-levels, the diploma promises to cater for all students - the two-thirds now denied places in Form Six will all be entitled to complete it. It is also intended to stretch the brightest on a par with other exam systems worldwide that determine university places. And it is being designed to stimulate a more active style of learning through the creation of liberal studies as a compulsory subject.
But the ambition is such a contrast to the passive learning that has dominated Hong Kong education that there must be doubts as to how successfully all schools will implement the new system in its early years. It is more likely that, like other reforms, those most ready for change will run ahead with it, while frustrations from both students and teachers will abound in others. Until the diploma is a known quantity, there must be some uncertainty as to its international currency, crucial for students who go on to study overseas.
Parents are understandably wary of uncertainty over something as crucial as their children's education. Some will be reluctant for their children to be guinea pigs during the pioneering years of new curriculum and exams. The good news for them is that the reforms have also given them increasing choice in the independent sector to help them secure the best for their child.
For more information about public sector schools, visit the Education and Manpower Bureau's website at www.emb.gov.hk