After almost 20 years in Hong Kong, English teacher Amanda Chapman may soon be forced to leave the city because of difficulties in finding a suitable and affordable school for her daughter.
Chapman, who works at a government-funded school, pays HK$8,600 every month for her seven-year-old's schooling at Renaissance College, a private independent school in Ma On Shan set to provide an alternative curriculum for local families.
The monthly fee will rise to HK$9,230 in the coming school year, says Chapman, and she will not be able to afford it any more if it continues rising at this rate.
But for non-Chinese speaking pupils like her daughter, there are few cheaper options. She said she had contacted schools recommended by the government to families like hers, but many did not admit children who could not speak, read or write Chinese.
"English-language education in Hong Kong is increasingly becoming a privilege exclusive to those who can afford it," said Chapman, who came from Britain 16 years ago.
"If you don't speak Cantonese, then you have no choice but to go to international schools. And the government refuses to acknowledge there is a problem and so does nothing about it," she said.
After the government's decision to phase out the English Schools Foundation's annual HK$283 million subsidy takes effect in 2016, ESF schools will become more expensive for middle-class expatriate families who are not too well-off.
"The government's argument that it should not have to support a non-local curriculum is nonsense when you consider that senior civil servants' children are educated either overseas or in international schools here at taxpayers' expense," Chapman said.
"Education Secretary Eddie Ng Hak-kim sent his two children to the Australian International School."
The Education Bureau's website lists 83 direct subsidy schools under the category "Education services for non-Chinese-speaking students". Direct subsidy schools, unlike government-funded ones, can charge fees and have greater freedom to implement different curriculums.
The South China Morning Post called all the schools on the list to find out their admission requirements for non-Chinese-speaking children.
Of the 62 secondary schools, 38 said they did not admit such pupils because either most of their lessons were taught in Chinese, or the subject was compulsory in their curriculum.
Ten out of the 21 primary schools said the same, but many of the remaining 11 that did enrol non-Chinese-speaking pupils said parents should expect their children to encounter difficulties with the subject.
A bureau spokesman said the list was meant to give expatriate parents information on all types of schools to facilitate their decision-making process in applying for places for their children. All public-sector schools, including direct subsidy ones, are to receive extra resources to give non-Chinese-speaking pupils school-based support, he added.
Even if these children do enter the local school system, they face daunting challenges in handling the language.
Joao Vitor Passos dos Santos is an exchange student at CUHKFAA Chan Chun Ha Secondary School in Ma On Shan. The 16-year-old came from Brazil last year hoping to learn Cantonese, but has not managed to pick up much so far.
Most people in his school are too reticent to communicate with him in English or to teach him Cantonese, Santos said.
He cannot learn much about his other school subjects either, because most of his teachers - except his maths teacher - use Chinese as their teaching medium, he said.
Tanya Hart, who came to the city from Australia 12 years ago, has put her seven-year-old son through the local school system since kindergarten because the boy was interested in learning Cantonese.
Although her son has been doing well, Hart said she felt a lack of support from the school for non-Chinese-speaking parents, citing Chinese-only school reports, notices and homework.
Hart and Chapman agreed that it was possible for non-local children to study in local schools if the schools made more effort to respect their cultures rather than coercing them to integrate into the local system.
"There will come a point where it is impossible for us to pay those high fees," Chapman said. "We … can leave Hong Kong. But many local people don't have the option of a good English-language education because they cannot afford it."
Squeeze on international-school locals
International schools that reserve at least 80 per cent of places for non-local children may be given priority in the government's land grant scheme, an education official says.
Wendy Chung, principal assistant secretary for education, said yesterday on the Education Bureau's website that the government would not be following suggestions to increase that proportion to at least 90 per cent.
International schools currently operating are required to have at least 70 per cent non-local pupils - although the average proportion is 85 per cent, according to Chung.
Last month, the Education Bureau earmarked two vacant schools in Ap Lei Chau and Tai Po and three undeveloped sites in Tseung Kwan O and Tai Po for international primary school development.
Successful applicants usually enjoy a nominal rent or land premium and interest-free capital loans.
The move is set to relieve an expected shortage of 4,200 primary international school places by 2016 - a shortfall partly caused by an increasing number of local parents choosing international schools for their children.
The two vacant schools are expected to provide 1,200 primary international school places by 2016. Together with other schools in the pipeline, it should help limit the shortage of primary places to 1,500 that year.
Chung said it was important to leave places for some local children in international schools, and it would be "arbitrary" to ban children of returning emigrants or overseas families with permanent Hong Kong residency.
"In addition, we need to … uphold freedom of choice for local families who wish to have their children learning in an environment outside the public sector school system at their own cost," she said.
But Civic Party lawmaker Kenneth Chan Ka-lok said affordability was a big problem and if the additional supply meant more "elitist places", it would not help expatriate or returning emigrant families who belong to the middle or lower-middle class.
He said that in return for granting these schools cheap land, the government should have a say in determining the level of fees they charged.
Chung countered that the schools were self-financed and market-driven.