An international school or English Schools Foundation (ESF) education is usually the default choice for expatriate families in Hong Kong. But this may not be the case for much longer. More progressive local schools have begun offering international curricula, and their lower fees coupled with solid academic standards make them a compelling choice for many families.
The leader of this pack is undoubtedly the YMCA of Hong Kong Christian College in Tung Chung. When the school was set up 10 years ago expatriates made up just 10 per cent of the student body. Now they account for 70 per cent of its 950 students, who are drawn from more than 40 countries.
Maddie Leonczek is among the newer students. The 15-year-old Briton had attended an international school when her family lived in Hong Lok Yuen, but she transferred when they moved to Tung Chung. She has settled in well, although liberal studies, a compulsory subject introduced under 2009 curriculum changes, took some getting used to. But Maddie is relishing the greater exposure to Hong Kong culture at her new school.
"Liberal studies is very different from what I learned before as it covers many things ... like adolescence and youth problems in Hong Kong, which I wouldn't pay attention to normally," she says.
Maddie has been learning Putonghua in class and has picked up a smattering of Cantonese from local students.
The broadening of education choices for expatriate families stems from the Direct Subsidy Scheme (DSS), a programme set up to enhance the quality of private school education.
DSS colleges enjoy greater autonomy than government or aided schools and are free to decide on areas such as the medium of instruction, class sizes and curricula. And in the past couple of years they have begun teaching international programmes. too. Seven of the city's 61 DSS secondary schools now offer international curricula such as the International Baccalaureate (IB) and the General Certificate of Secondary Education (GCSE), up from just five schools in 2010-11.
More non-Chinese families are turning to these schools as a cheaper alternative to international schools and educators find both local and expatriate students are benefiting from the greater diversity.
Affordability was certainly the major consideration when airline industry executive Evans Mendonca and his wife transferred their two sons, Manav and Neil, from Beacon Hill School, an ESF school, to the YMCA college.
"ESF is highly overpriced," Mendonca says. "Their tuition fees, costing HK$14,000 per month, used to eat a big chunk of the family income. Now I just pay HK$2,500 for Manav and HK$2,000 for Neil. When we were in ESF, there were significant fee increases and we left just before the capital levy was introduced.
"I don't see any difference in the education standards at ESF and here. The teachers are highly trained and my sons are doing extremely well."
As a DSS school, the YMCA college prepares students for the Hong Kong Diploma of Secondary Education (HKDSE) as well as the International GCSE. But Dion Chen, the school's vice-principal, has taken measures to ensure expatriate students can cope with requisite Chinese modules in the local curriculum. Instead of taking Chinese history, which requires a good command of the language, the children sign up for Hong Kong Chinese studies, which covers Chinese culture and history and gives them sufficient grounding to undertake liberal studies in senior forms.
"Foreign students taking the diploma exam can also take GCSE Chinese, which is an acceptable arrangement for local university applications," he says.
Ngan Po Ling College, a DSS school in To Kwa Wan, also introduced GCSE Chinese and IGCSE French for non-Chinese students two years ago, instead of Chinese history and Chinese language studies that locals undertake.
The move has attracted more expatriates, who now make up 10 per cent of its students, Mukunthan Anuradha, prefect of studies at the college, says. Some came from international primary schools like Kowloon Junior School, while others joined in Form Two or Form Three after their families moved to Hong Kong.
"Our mode of instruction is English. All teachers, even the ones teaching Chinese, passed the English benchmark exams and can speak English well. So non-Chinese students feel comfortable learning here."
Noticing that a significant number of students were leaving for Britain or the US before graduation, Ngan Po Ling is launching an IB programme next year. It's a way to reverse the "brain drain", Anuradha says.
Creative Secondary School (CSS) in Tseung Kwan, which was founded in 2006, was the first DSS secondary school to offer an international programme. And while expatriates make up only about a fifth of the student body, principal Cheung Siu-ming thinks his school is more culturally diverse than many international schools.
The range of bilingual teachers on its staff reflects this, Cheung says. Besides English, teachers speak Dutch, Hindi and Korean. There's also an ethnic Chinese teacher who was born in Venezuela and studied in Canada; so while she speaks Cantonese at home, she is fluent in Spanish and English. Thirteen nationalities are represented on its student body.
"In Hong Kong, the definition of international school is one which does not offer [the] Hong Kong curriculum, but this is totally misleading," Cheung says.
CSS charges range from HK$54,500 to HK$81,900 in the current academic year, which make the fees competitive in comparison with other non-DSS IB schools, he says. "As a DSS school we are non-profit making and do not charge levies and debentures."
With international schools charging hefty capital levies and debentures besides annual tuition fees of up to HK$170,000, Cheung thinks schools like his are growing more attractive.
As far as Direct Subsidy Scheme Schools Council chairman Lam Kin-wah is concerned, the rising intake of expatriate students in DSS schools is a welcome development in local education. "Hong Kong is an international city. DSS schools give more choice to expatriate parents and can reduce the fierce competition for international school places among expatriates," he says.
Business groups have frequently complained of a severe lack of education choices for expatriate families - one confirmed by a recent government survey which found Hong Kong to be short of 4,200 international school places.
Cheung of the CSS argues the Education Bureau can do more to meet the needs of local and expatriate students by easing restrictions on DSS schools.
Bureau regulations require local schools, including DSS institutions, to "offer principally a curriculum targeted at local students and prepare their students to sit for local public examinations". And students in international streams cannot exceed 49 per cent of the total.
With more local students also opting for the IB programme, Cheung says setting such a quota will force some youngsters to leave the school rather than pursue a curriculum that is not of their choice. "We have approached the bureau about the issue, but they are unwilling to discuss a review."
YMCA college's Chen also calls for greater flexibility: "If more DSS schools take in international students, it can help the government attain its aim of turning Hong Kong into an education hub."
Still, foreign students may take a while to adjust to DSS schools, where the culture and teaching style sit midway between the deferential ethos of Asia and the free-wheeling ways of the West.
"Our students stand up to greet teachers at the start of lessons as we prize the Chinese virtue of respect to elders. But we cannot be as strict as local schools as Western parents will feel uncomfortable with too much restriction. A permissive approach with too much freedom will worry local parents. So we try to get the best from both cultures," Chen says.
The YMCA college puts a lot of emphasis on the concept of students assuming leadership roles, he adds. For instance, students were invited to design the new uniforms last year.
Fergus Yiu, 16, certainly found it hard to adjust to his new life when he first transferred to Ngan Po Ling College last year from King George V School. Having spent his early childhood in Canada, Fergus says he was more used to the laissez-faire attitude at his previous school where students were allowed to dye their hair and bring their mobile phones into class.
At Ngan Po Ling phones will be confiscated for a whole term if they aren't put away in lockers during lessons. While he used to learn through group activities such presentations, Fergus now finds himself doing mostly individual work. And from simpler lessons involving simplified Chinese characters, he now has to use traditional Chinese characters and read classics.
"The academic atmosphere here is more robust. There is more homework and after-school tutorials run until 6pm. I care more about my studies here," he says.
His mother, Camay Fong Yuen-kwan, is delighted with the change of attitude towards his studies.