THEY'RE 40 STRONG and growing. They meet in secret and decline to reveal their identities for fear the authorities might track them down. But they aren't criminals or terrorists - they're mothers who teach their children at home.
Formed in August, the group of mostly expatriates meets every couple of weeks to share resources and teaching strategies, or go on field trips with their children. The reasons behind their decision vary and teaching methods may differ but all agree: their life would be easier if home-schooling were a more recognised practice.
'We tend to keep a low profile,' says Vicky, a Chinese-American in the group. All she would divulge about her background is that she's been teaching her children at home since relocating to Hong Kong several years ago. 'Many of us realise that home-schooling may be considered illegal, but we like to think it's subject to interpretation.'
Under the Education Ordinance, home-schooling is only allowed if families have a reasonable excuse. Children aged between six and 15 are required to attend school, and parents who fail to send their children may face a HK$10,000 fine and three months in jail. According to an Education and Manpower Bureau spokesman, the law applies to all residents, Chinese or foreign, and the permanent secretary may issue an order for compliance if parents fail to send their children to school without 'valid reasons'.
Parents in the group say they have plenty of justification, but complain that a lack of transparency makes them wary of seeking permission to keep their children out of a government-recognised school.
'Home-schooling is a growing trend in Hong Kong,' Vicky says. 'Several years ago, we tried to form a support group but there wasn't enough response. Now there seems to be more and more people joining our group. I know there are many others who are interested in home-schooling, but who don't do it because [they think it's] illegal.'
Several factors make home-schooling an attractive option for parents: cost, flexible schedules, the freedom to determine what their children learn and how they learn it, and a belief that local schools, public and private, are often inadequate. 'It's a myth that all foreign families can afford to send their kids to private schools,' Vicky says. 'Our family came [to Hong Kong] on our own and so my husband is on local terms. We live like a typical Hong Kong family. I think the trend is for fewer foreigners to be employed on expat terms with all the perks, especially those who would like to stay here on a long-term basis.'
Paying HK$20,000 or more per term for each child is prohibitive for several members in the group.
More efficient use of time is another factor. 'One of the things we like best about home-schooling is that my kids get to eat lunch with their dad in Central,' Vicky says. Field trips to museums or a recent visit to the Hong Kong Observatory are easier to manage in the afternoons when crowds are thinner. Likewise, families are able to go on holiday in the low season. More importantly, she says, her children can better manage their time, balancing it between study, play and pursuing extra-curricular interests.
Several expatriate families complain that children can miss a year or more of school if they arrive in Hong Kong at the wrong time of the academic year. If the family is here only for a short period, they prefer to keep the children on the education system that they'll be returning to.
A shortage of places in public and private schools means those that are available may be far from home or well over their budget - if they find a place at all.
For another mother, Sarah, her brief stint in a local classroom was an eye-opener. She took up an Aberdeen primary school's invitation to help teach when she applied for a place for her daughter. But within weeks, Sarah realised that it would be chaos. 'A third of my class could not speak English, another third was fluent, so they basically learned nothing,' she says. 'I had my class tell me, 'Don't talk any more; just give us the work. We'll go home and go over it with our tutors; we have to anyway'. There was no teaching and no learning going on.'
Sarah left the school, taking her daughter with her. Her child's education and their family life have both benefited from the move, she says.
According to the group, the greatest advantage of home-schooling is being able to devise a curriculum to suit their children. 'There's a ton of material available out there,' says Laura, who began home-schooling her children a year ago. 'We signed up our kids for Web-based math and English courses, which give certification from an institution in California. There are also many testing centres in other countries - all of which can be contacted via the internet.'
Parents draw from a variety of sources. Popular sites include noeoscience.com and sonlight.com, which accommodates mix-and-match curricula and different approaches to teaching.
Sarah says members of the group often consult each other on curriculum when they meet. 'We have message boards on the Web, so there's a constant exchange of opinion to find what's right,' she says.
Many home-schooling sites, such as livingmath.net, also have message boards that offer insight to parents. The group order their maths textbooks from the Singapore International School, which they say stocks a range of educational material.
A major reason cited by the government against home-schooling is that it may hamper children from developing adequate social skills. But the group says that by not recognising home-schooling as a legitimate alternative, officials prevent them from associating openly as a group. 'When we visit places [such as the observatory], they ask for details about our group and we usually have to make things up,' says Sarah. 'It would be nice to be able to say 'We're an actual group'.'
The government is unlikely to openly allow home-schooling for expatriates while denying that option to local children. For example, Leung Chi-kwong was threatened with prosecution in 2002 after he kept his daughter Dearing out of primary school for 30 months to teach her at home, complaining the local education was inhumane. He resolved the issue by sending her to a mainland school.
Some education experts say there should be a mechanism for recognising home-schooling.
'Overseas families, especially, should be given the freedom,' says Mervyn Cheung Man-ping, chairman of the Hong Kong Education Policy Concern Organisation. '[Hong Kong's school system] has a lot of dissimilarities to their home systems. As long as they're confident to do it on their own, why shouldn't they be given the opportunity?'
But for now, the home-school group plans to keep out of sight. 'So far no one in our group has been confronted by education officials,' Vicky says.
'If we were, we would present our case. It's just that we're not activists; we're busy, stay-at-home mums who don't want to be bothered with bureaucracy.'