Deep down, many people believe they are experts on education. After all, most of us attended one or more schools and it seemed straightforward. The reality is that when choosing a school for one's child a few more doubts start to creep in. There seem to be more questions than answers and there is a driving imperative to ensure that, as a parent, it is necessary to do whatever it takes to choose the best education to maximise the chances of success in the short term in the classroom and to prepare children for the challenges of life ahead. The bad news is that making that choice is not easy or foolproof. The good news is that the factors that should guide your decision are clear and the evidence should be readily available. At first glance, Hong Kong can be a difficult place to embark on this challenging exercise. There are many types of school in a relatively small geographical area that range from exclusive and expensive fee-paying private colleges providing state-of-the-art facilities to poorly funded establishments struggling to provide basic amenities and materials. Somewhere in between are creatively funded schools that combine contributions from tax-payers, charities and parents in the form of fees. Each occupies a unique place in the educational landscape and none can be all things to all parents. The trick is to be clear about what you want from a place of learning as a parent and, more importantly, know your child. Every learner has different needs and being clear about what these are can provide powerful data that can be considered when examining the alternatives. Although modern educational trends are based on sound research, a student's success at school is a complex mix of their needs, psychological make-up and desires. While a school with a child-centred, inquiry-based approach encouraging team skills and personal development may seem sensible and appropriate, remember that didactic methodologies using old-fashioned values may still be a best fit for achieving academic excellence in a narrow field. Thankfully most schools provide easy access to detailed information on the curriculum they teach. Many expatriates stick to one most easily identifiable with their home base, but this may not be the best approach. With few exceptions the variants of curriculum models found in any reputable establishment will conform largely to world best practice. But globalisation and increasing mobility mean that looking at the world using a different cultural lens may pay long-term dividends. English-medium schools in Hong Kong are increasingly offering tuition in Putonghua and Cantonese at primary level. These range from stand-alone lessons to full bi-lingual teaching. Your judgment about which of these options is best may be informed by research that tells us that students who can think in more than one language are at an advantage. But remember that is only true when the first language is strong. You will already have a rough idea of what you want so plan your investigation with all the thoroughness and cunning of a big-game hunter. Preparing the ground involves accessing and studying all the information in the public domain. Check out the school's website, ask for brochures or prospectuses and evidence they can provide of recent achievements. Then judge the claims that a school makes for itself against the reality on the ground, which means a visit to the school is essential. Ask for a guided tour and arrive armed with questions and keep your eyes open. Speak to members of the senior management team to get their perspectives and stay alert for evidence of the school 'culture'. Elements of this may be intangible but look for an atmosphere of learning, sincerity and authenticity. Cross-reference their comments and answers to your questions as you pass through the building. Schools set exams for their students so follow their example. Give the school an examination of your own. Look for what motivates the students. Speak to them in and out of the classroom. Ask them about their work and what they think of it. Young people of all ages are remarkably perceptive and honest, listen to what they have to say. Are they engaged and happy? Happy students learn best when they apply themselves. Do students take pride in their appearance and is this reflected in their work? Ask to see a few work samples. What is their opinion of the type and amount of homework they receive? Excessive amounts can leave students tired and unreceptive for learning in lessons. Are teachers up to the mark? Do teachers treat students with respect and is it reciprocated? Good learning is based on trust. What is the extent to which students can express themselves freely to give opinions or clarify learning points? Are teachers articulate about the curriculum and their teaching aims? Ask if teacher turnover is too fluid or stable. Is there a good range of experience on the staff who are aware of the Hong Kong context and the challenges it presents? Assess teachers' willingness to work with parents to form a productive partnership. To what extent are classrooms student friendly? Take a close look to see if students' work is valued on mounted displays. Is furniture arranged to promote group interaction and are there visible and prominent learning prompts ? Check out the teacher-pupil ratio and ascertain if this is supplemented by the use of helping parent volunteers or paid educational assistants trained to help students with their work. Many classrooms are compact but there should be enough room for the teacher and students to circulate freely. Are the facilities sufficient and appropriate? Don't be fooled by hi-tech wizardry or expensive fittings. An effective learning space should be comfortable but it is what lies behind that is important. Is an adequate range of computer equipment provided with open and safe internet access? Is the library well-stocked with a wide range of multimedia materials and resources that will provide opportunities for investigative inquiry and intellectual stimulation? Ask about the provision for sport in the curriculum and after school. Is there a school nurse and a designated health and safety officer? Are standards high? A good school has a balanced curriculum that provides opportunities for the creative arts, science and basic subjects. But academic standards are essential for all-round success. Ask for any standardised results, internal or external evaluation or inspection reports. In the final analysis, good test and exam results are important, especially if there are plans for further education or seeking entry to a prestigious school outside Hong Kong. What role do parents play? Whether you are a hands-on parent who likes to go in and help or one who chooses to stay away from school, you need to ask about the expectations set for parents. Are parents encouraged to join the PTA or the governing body? What opportunities do parents get to give feedback on aspects of the school or the education it provides? The best schools see this relationship as a true partnership pulling together for the good of its students. More schools are now opting for an internationally recognised accreditation and, while this does not guarantee that every aspect of a school will suit your needs, it may be reassuring to know that it is not just the school passing judgment on itself. Many families will make financial sacrifices to educate their children but value for money is paramount. Check out the basic fees charged and how much extra is expected for trips, camps, uniforms and learning materials. It all adds up.