Education system divides the haves from the have-nots

More local parents – government officials among them – are sending their children to international and fee-charging schools. This is inequality disguised as diversity

PUBLISHED : Monday, 25 June, 2018, 6:43am
UPDATED : Monday, 25 June, 2018, 6:43am

International schools are becoming havens for local students. Most people know the proportion of locals in international schools has been growing steadily. But by how much? Well, they have almost doubled since the start of this decade.

In the 2017/2018 school year, one in four international school pupils was a local at primary level, as opposed to 13 per cent in 2011/2012. At secondary level, it was more than one in five, compared with 12 per cent in 2011/2012. The numbers were collated by the research office of the Legislative Council secretariat.

The rise is despite those schools’ notoriously high fees, whose medians are HK$118,600 per year at primary level and HK$157,800 at secondary level. Some of the most elite ones may require the purchase of debentures or other capital works payments that could run into the millions.

The 229,600 children who are too poor to play with their friends

If local education is supposed to be free, why would any family want to commit so much household financial resources to an international school education?

The Legco study does not offer explanations beyond stating a possible preference for non-local curriculum teaching among more local parents, and a more relaxed learning environment. But it’s clear that more local families are rejecting local-style education, even though it is supposedly free or at least heavily subsidised.

If you talk to senior education officials, most have a love-hate relationship with international schools. After all, the growing popularity of such schools is a clear thumbs down on their education policy.

But as parents, many senior government officials also send their children to international schools, usually those under the English Schools Foundation. The government subsidy for ESF schools is being phased out from now until the next decade.

International schools become hot property in Hong Kong

Officials can counter that 89 per cent of schools in Hong Kong still operate under the local curriculum and are directly paid for by the government.

Locals at international schools are still in the minority. The presence of international schools also shows the diversity available in the education sector catering to the different needs of local and expatriate families.

Another way to look at it is that we have an increasingly stratified education system. Students from the grass roots still attend free local schools, but the more sought-after elite local schools have adopted the direct subsidy scheme. These now charge a median of HK$23,900 a year.

Diversity sounds like another word for growing inequality within the system.