Our daughter Anabelle almost didn't get into pre-nursery this year. Last November, when I was six months pregnant and unsure when we could go on holiday with two children under the age of two, my husband and I went on a 'babymoon' with Anabelle - during the application period. I hadn't realised she would start school before she was even two; I had only gone to preschool at four. As a Sydneysider unfamiliar with the Hong Kong education system, where does one start?
We got our act together after our holiday. After writing to three schools said to be among the top in our neighbourhood, we nervously waited for replies. The crucial next step was an interview.
Meanwhile, we debated whether it was really necessary to send Anabelle to school and how much she could benefit when she was still so young. However, parents with children of Anabelle's age expressed shock at our laid-back approach, so there was peer pressure to join the herd mentality. We also didn't want to affect Anabelle's chances of enrolling for kindergarten by failing to give her prior schooling.
But could we have been too late? One school said applications were closed; the second placed us on the waiting list for interviews. Thankfully, the third school, which apparently everyone was clamouring for, invited us for an interview early this year. A few weeks later, the second school also offered us an interview.
The nerves didn't stop there: we had heard that the interview was not only to ascertain whether the child was a suitable fit for the school but was also an assessment of the parents. The school would evaluate our interaction with our daughter, and the level of engagement and participation in her life. By putting our parenting skills under the microscope, the school was giving us one of the first 'tests' on whether we were doing a good job.
In the first interview, the teacher asked Anabelle to stack wooden blocks and fit blocks of different shapes and sizes into others. I was a bit nervous as Anabelle hadn't played with such blocks before, but she grasped the concept quickly. During this time, I asked the teacher about the school and its teaching approach. The interview felt more like an informal chat that allowed parents to get a feel of the school and its teachers.
The interview with the other school took place shortly after I had delivered our son, Ethan. This was more of a 'group interview', with all of the children and one parent with each. The teachers observed and took notes. Children sat at different tables and, after about 10 minutes of playing with the toys, were asked to tidy up before listening to a story and singing. The teachers were fantastic and engaging. Using puppets to tell the story, they interacted with the children and got them involved in the learning process. Anabelle was having so much fun, she didn't want to leave.
While waiting to hear from the schools, I learned I could have increased Anabelle's chances by, for example, opting for the afternoon session because it's less popular (I had asked for the morning class), or taking the school bus - a source of income for the school.
One family had even enrolled their daughter into two pre-nurseries last year - one in the morning and another in the afternoon - so that she would get the best of both and boost her chances for nursery classes this year. The 'techniques' were many, and our hopes of getting our daughter into either school deflated. The whole process seemed so calculated; you had to think at least 10 steps ahead. What likelihood did we have going up against such stiff competition?
Recently, the parents of some of Anabelle's playmates (who are looking to switch schools next year after not getting into the pre-nursery they wanted) hired a private tutor who specialised in interview tips. I let Anabelle join the class, as I didn't want to lag behind this time. The problems were obvious from the outset: when the tutor asked Anabelle for her Chinese name, my daughter stared at her blankly; we had never used it with her.
In the next few lessons, which focused on identifying colours, I noticed that unlike the other children, at times Anabelle would not select the colour as instructed by the tutor. Admittedly, she was one of the youngest in the group, and although I knew that at this stage of their development a difference of a few months could show a marked contrast in their capabilities, this did little to quell the questions racing through my mind. I even wondered whether she was colour-blind, instead of my first rationalisation that she was opting for her preferred colour. Thankfully, that theory proved true. But with each lesson designed to shape our daughter into a particular mould via rote learning and strip away her individuality, I took her out of the class: I didn't want to get caught up in the commercialised preying on parents' fears that their children won't get a good education.
As the admission process kicks off for the 2012-13 school year, I strongly encourage parents considering sending their children to school to let them be themselves. Don't try to assume the 'ideal', which you've heard is the way to get in. Even if your child does get into the chosen school, it could end up being a struggle later on. It's also a two-way process: this is your opportunity to find out whether the school is right for your child. Ultimately, what's most important is finding the environment where your child will be happy and which will also nurture them to be their best.
With families opting to have only one child or two at most, coupled with a dearth of venues suitable for toddlers in Hong Kong, starting school early may not be a bad thing: it allows children to socialise with their peers and gives them a creative outlet in a structured learning environment.
As the next admission battle begins, best of luck to you all in finding what's right for your child. Only you know the next best step.
And by the way, Anabelle was accepted by both schools.
Carmen Tao is a web editor