Demand for overseas education is booming in Hong Kong, as parents chase stellar exam results and hedge their bets against the uncertainties of the new senior secondary curriculum. The number of new Hong Kong students enrolling in British independent schools jumped by 13 per cent in the 2009-10 academic year to 1,854, while the total number rose 3 per cent to 5,308, this year's Independent Schools Council (ISC) census shows.
These figures confirmed Hong Kong parents' enthusiasm for sending their children to school in Britain, despite the global economic downturn of 2008-09 and local education reforms, said Katherine Forestier, director of education and science services for the British Council in Hong Kong.
More than a third - 36.1 per cent - of overseas students at ISC member schools came from Hong Kong and the mainland, followed by Germany at 10 per cent. Hong Kong tops the overseas roster for the ISC, which represents the vast majority of British independent schools, followed by the mainland, with 3,018 students. Some 858 students came from South Korea and 449 from Thailand.
The ISC figures reflected the increased interest seen at British education exhibitions and reported by agents, Forestier said. And there were up to 1,000 more Hong Kong students at other British schools, such as state boarding schools and international schools.
According to the census, compiled from 1,245 ISC schools, Hong Kong parents tended to be traditional, with 25 per cent choosing single-sex education for their daughters, compared with 15 per cent for all international pupils. Forestier said many Hong Kong parents felt single-sex education kept their children focused on their studies.
It is not hard to see why parents dig deep in their pockets to pay British school fees of up to about ?30,000 (HK$339,000) a year, plus air fares. According to the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, fee-charging schools in Britain achieve the best results of any type of school in the world. They account for nearly 40 per cent of students getting three A grades or better at A-level, although only 7 per cent of British pupils attend these schools.
The decision does not come cheap. Secondary boarding school fees average ?7,968 per term and average primary or prep school fees are ?5,892. Average private day school fees in Britain are ?3,770 and ?3,231, respectively. This represents a 4 per cent increase year on year, but the weaker pound helps considerably.
So what do children get in British independent schools? Small classes, for one thing, with one teacher to 9.4 pupils in every ISC school on average.
Secondly, they enjoy facilities such as theatres, sports fields, tennis courts, gyms and art studios. And traditional values, such as good manners, respect and discipline.
Another reason is that many British private schools now offer Putonghua and the International Baccalaureate, as well as A-levels.
It's not just Britain - Australia, the US and Canada also appeal to those seeking an education overseas.
Australian schools were perennially popular, said Heidi Fung, director of Australia Education International (AEI).
Indications are that this year's crop of parents has been influenced by Hong Kong's education reforms - mainstream schooling switching to the Hong Kong Diploma of Secondary Education, which will be taken for the first time in 2012, and the English Schools Foundation switching to the International Baccalaureate Diploma.
It was still the quiet season, Fung said, although interest was rising. 'The agents report growing inquiries from Form Five students and those as young as Form Two and Three, driven by the changes in the education system.'
Other agents expect an upswing for Canada and Australia in the peak summer post-exam season.
Although Australia is a strong rival for Britain at the undergraduate level, it appears to be less so for students of school age. AEI figures for Hong Kong student enrolments at Australian schools (government and non-government) show 966 enrolments for last year, an increase of 0.9 per cent on 2008.
The Institute of International Education (IIE) in Hong Kong hosts EducationUSA, and is the US government's adviser on US higher education for international students.
IIE's Open Doors November 2009 report shows that international students at US colleges and universities reached a record high of 671,616 in 2008-09, including 8,329 students from Hong Kong and 98,235 from the mainland.
Hong Kong was the 16th-largest source region for overseas tertiary-level students going to the US, behind Britain at number 15, said Ann White, director of the Hong Kong-China Institute of International Education.
So when choosing an overseas education, what should parents consider? Lesley Watson is principal of Moira House Girls' School in Eastbourne, southern England, with boarders and day students of 24 nationalities.
Watson said: 'Consider an environment that is suitable for your son or daughter. Look for schools that offer those opportunities. For example, it could be art, music, dance, drama, sport or even horse riding.'
Robert Morse is headmaster of Perrott Hill School in Somerset, southwestern England, an independent day and boarding school for boys and girls aged three to 13, with several international boarders. He said the level of pastoral care the school offered was crucial.
'A caring, professional housemaster/mistress must be at the heart of this decision,' he said.
'In my view, boarding at prep-school level should be as close to home life as possible and a caring family atmosphere is essential.'
As to what age children should be sent away to school, there were no rules. Watson said children were no longer just 'sent away'. Instead, it was a partnership between parents, students and schools.
'The age is dependent upon each individual and the stage they are at in their academic programmes,' she said. 'If English is a second language, the earlier they attend a school in the UK, the greater the advantage.'
Morse said: 'We have had many successes with young [eight-year-old] boarders from both England and overseas, but once again it is very much down to the individual child as to the best time to begin boarding.
'It is also worth noting that, whilst the initial parting of parent and child is inevitably heartrending, things get easier as time wears on and the longer the child spends at school, the more confidence, self-belief and educational success can be fostered.'
The benefits of a child going to school overseas were significant, Watson said. 'If children experience schooling in another country with a different culture, they learn lessons for life.'
And in the multicultural milieu that boarding schools offered today, they could form lifelong friendships with students across the world.
'I would also add the opportunity to increase independence, self-confidence and the ability to develop social skills far in advance of children of a similar age,' Morse said.
'Building friendships, experiencing new cultures and lifestyles? The list is endless, and all help to prepare the children for a successful career and adult life.'