Students in Hong Kong's public school system continue to rack up strong results in international assessments. But that's not enough to stop a growing number of local parents seeking schools that offer something different.
Competition for places at English Schools Foundation and international schools is as intense as ever, while more children have gone to boarding schools in the UK - the top international destination for local students. Beijing has also emerged as an option for parents worried by the ultra-competitive environment and emphasis on grades in the Hong Kong system.
This year's launch of the Hong Kong Diploma of Secondary Education exam - part of a decade-long package of reforms intended to change the ingrained mindset that exam results count above all else - has failed to stem the tide.
Grace Leung Lai-kuen sent her eldest child to an international school in Beijing three years ago, and has since been comforted by the positive changes she has seen. The mother of three was put off by the hugely competitive, high-pressure environment in the local system.
"There is no room for late bloomers; they are easily discouraged from Form 1 to 3 under the local system," she sighed.
Her daughter, now 17, is a case in point. Weak in maths, she barely made the grade to progress to an upper form and kept worrying about not being able to make it to senior forms.
"Up to 20 fifth-formers were not allowed to progress to Form Six when she was there," recalled Leung, a professor of journalism. "The school's curriculum was too demanding. It was much harder than when I was a student. It was so packed that students hardly had time to learn to analyse, only memorise."
For the academically gifted, the local system can pay dividends, but for Leung's daughter, a change of environment clearly helped. She left for Beijing because of the long waiting lists at international schools locally, and the fact that her limited English made it even less likely she would be accepted.
Now living with a family friend in the capital, she is more motivated and happier to find herself under less pressure.
"In Hong Kong there is little way out for someone like her who lags behind in their studies," Leung said.
"Students who are not doing well may feel very bad under the local system and have a weak sense of belonging. In fact, between one-third and two-thirds of the students are struggling academically," said Leung, adding: "No school wants to give the impression that its students fare worse than others."
Leung and her husband, also an academic, have also gone international for the education of their two sons, enrolling them in the new Harrow International School - one at Year 8 and the other in Year 5 - forking out for a HK$600,000 debenture and annual tuition of HK$150,000 each. Being boarders at the school, the pair are enjoying a range of sports and the companionship of their peers.
"My 13-year-old used to hate going to school. He missed school assignments and waited till the last minute to leave home for school," Leung recalled. One reason, she said, was because he was sidelined by classmates because his marks were not as good as theirs. "They did not want to involve him in their group projects, and he felt bitter about it," she said.
The keen competition for top marks among students and schools has helped fuel the city's thriving tutoring industry. It is also no secret primary pupils in particular do much of their homework with considerable help from their parents.
Competition begins even at pre-school level. As one parent puts it: "This is unreasonable. Even kindergartens have made their syllabuses more difficult under the pressure of parents worried about their children losing out, not being competitive."
And educators remain worried about the local system's stifling effect on the all-round development of pupils, not to mention its failing to nurturing the type of creative mindset crucial to success in the 21st century.
"I kind of assumed that things improved a lot after the diploma came in but it is really the same thing, it just shifted the pressure point to Form 6 [as opposed to Form 5 and Form 7, when the former HKCEE and A-level exams took place]. They don't do anything except study in that year," says Perry Bayer, a native-English speaking teacher at a local school.
"I have been in HK for 14 years and have seen changes coming and going as a secondary teacher - there is a lot of gritting, bearing and just getting through. Students need to enjoy study more and explore themselves as people."
Like many expatriate and local parents who have opted for international schools or schools offering international curriculum, he thinks these schools better cater to differences and offer a less stressful environment.
Adding to the pressure on local students is the increased competition for university places, with new admissions requirements under the diploma under which students must achieve passing grades in Chinese, English, liberal studies and mathematics. For that reason, more pupils have opted for the International Baccalaureate or the British GCSE curriculum offered by semi-private, Direct Subsidy Scheme schools.
The University of Hong Kong and the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology reserve up to 20 per cent of their first year degree places to non-Joint University Programme Admissions System (non-Jupas) applicants - in other words, students who studied a non-local curriculum.
More than half of this year's intake for the three-year degree programme at Polytechnic University's popular Design School were non-Jupas graduates - admitted on the basis of aptitude tests and interviews.
Professor Tam Kar-yan, HKUST's dean of students, praises local pupils' maths and science skills, but says their international school counterparts are more proactive and ready to "challenge a professor in class".
The pressure to study an international curriculum is taking its toll on Heep Yunn School, an Anglican girls' school in Ma Tau Wai funded through the Direct Subsidy Scheme. Twenty-six of its Form Five students have left to study overseas this year, up from just three last year. That's despite the fact that the school supplements the local curriculum with GCSE-level English and a maths course for junior pupils who plan to sit GCSEs later.
Its principal, Lee Chun-hung, acknowledges the different approaches between local and international schools, with the former focusing on academic achievement, and the latter offering a more open environment.
But he maintains his school's wide range of extra-curricular activities offers rounded development, part of a growing trend in the local system.
"We hope universities will be more transparent with their admissions criteria and put more weight on the Other Learning Experience component of the senior secondary curriculum," Lee said.
But the fact is there is not a single type of schooling that suits every child.
Principal of the elite Diocesan Boys' School, Ronnie Cheng, said: "The differences between the local and the IB curriculum are not that drastic - IB will generally start with a question, what happens if we do this or that, and the local curriculum will say we study this today and these are the procedures; they are neither good or bad.
"We have students who have gone through the local primary system who went into IB and could not assimilate and came back, while a significant number of students enjoy the IB self-discovery type of learning."
Students also need to change their mindset to pay more attention to the core subjects of Chinese and English and apply what they had learned, he added.
But there is also room for change, perhaps, in the pragmatic local culture. Said Leung, the parent: "We need to destroy the myth that university education is the only way for people to get ahead. You get ahead not relying on a degree but on skills and other personal strengths."