Situated in the fast-changing area of West Kowloon, St Margaret's Co-educational English Secondary and Primary School is an outward-looking institution that sets ambitious targets for its students. Principal Grace Tam, who has been with the school for more than 35 years, maintains that languages and communications are the key to unlocking good prospects for its students in today's globalised economy. "We believe that communication and presentation skills are very important," says Tam. "If you know one more language, you can communicate with more people in the world. This gives you an absolute advantage over the others. That is why we place a very strong emphasis on language and communications in our curriculum." As a Direct Subsidy Scheme (DSS) school, St Margaret's receives government funding on a per capita basis, and enjoys flexibility in admissions and curriculum design. It is one of the small number of such schools that accommodate non-Chinese-speaking students, with about 20 per cent of its 1,000-odd students originating from different countries including Nepal, Pakistan, Malaysia, Italy, France and the United States. The Catholic school became a through-train school for boys and girls from Primary One to Secondary Six in 2000, after it was allocated a new government-funded school building at its campus in Cheung Sha Wan. Reflecting its multicultural nature, the school requires all primary students to study a foreign language - Japanese, French, Spanish or German - on top of English and Chinese, with the latter taught in Putonghua. Students can continue the extra language subject as an elective at secondary level. The language studies are part of a wider plan to connect students to the outside world both during and after their schooling. The school also sends students on exchange visits abroad under a sister-school programme with primary and secondary schools in France and Japan. Plans are afoot to expand exchange opportunities to Germany, Spain and Singapore. Under the programme, students receive up to five months of immersion in the language and culture of the host country, yet only have to pay their air-tickets and insurance, as board and schooling costs are covered by the sister schools and host families Financial assistance is offered to students who cannot afford the airfare to ensure equal access to the programme. Students who continue with a foreign language at secondary level are encouraged to take international language qualifications, such as DELF (Diploma in French Studies), DELE (Diplomas of Spanish as a Foreign Language), and JLPT (Japanese-language Proficiency Test), so that they meet the foreign language requirements of overseas universities. Following the same logic, the school, which teaches the local curriculum, also offers options for students to study the British GCE syllabus when they enter Secondary Four in order to prepare them for alternative study paths whether overseas or in Hong Kong. GCEs are offered in subjects including maths, Chinese, English, history, geography, and information and communications technology (ICT). Vice-principal Anthony Adames, who led the development of the school's curriculum, says the flexibilities it has as a DSS school have enabled it to offer extras on top of the local curriculum. For example, students in Primary Five are exposed to secondary subjects such as liberal studies and integrated science to familiarise them with the enquiry-based learning style that will dominate their secondary years. Similarly, it arranges for all students to try out a variety of elective subjects by rotating between them in Secondary Three, before they go on to choose their senior secondary options in Secondary Four. "As a through-school, we have 12 years in our hands," says Adames. "That's why we can adapt our curriculum in the best interests of our students without any overlapping or waste of time." All students in Primary One and Two are taught the local Chinese curriculum. However, from Primary Three onwards, they can choose to study Chinese as a second language instead. The school offers enhancement classes and activities for those who need to brush up their Chinese skills. For example, summer bridging courses are provided for newly-admitted Primary One and Two students from non-Chinese background. Extra Putonghua classes are run on Saturdays for secondary students Tam said the best policy to ensure that students from different ethnic backgrounds get along well is to treat them all the same. "We offer enhancement classes to anyone who has the need in any subject, not just for non-Chinese- speaking students. They are all my students," she says. In the last Primary One admissions exercise, more than 2,800 children applied to the school and just 66 were accepted. In admissions, students are tested on both their English and Putonghua skills. Tam says the school is looking for students who are not only strong in languages, but also know how to respect people from other cultures, and have non-academic interests such as sports and arts. "We believe that education is for life, and we believe in holistic education," she says. During the admissions interview, students are given games and tasks to complete in a team setting, and teachers will observe how they learn alongside peers from different ethnic and cultural backgrounds. Talks are also held with parents to assess whether their values match those of the school. "We are proud of our mixture of students, which is like a mini-reflection of our society," Tam says. "We are happy with how they are accustomed to communicating with people from different cultures, habits and traditions. They become open-minded about the world that they are in. This prepares our students for a world that is increasingly globalized. They will not be afraid to go to unfamiliar places because they are independent, flexible, adaptable, and always positive in the face of a challenge. This is how we train our students."