Only two years old and already an interview veteran

Our third in a series of reports on the competition in Hong Kong's education system reveals the interview pressures facing two-year-olds

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 29 March, 2014, 2:58am
UPDATED : Sunday, 03 January, 2016, 10:56pm

Jayden is two years old and has already attended eight interviews at different kindergartens. So far he has received seven offers, but his mother's favourite preschool requires a second interview.

Maisy Leung Mei-see wants to see her son get a place at St Catherine's International Kindergarten. It received 6,500 applications for its 2014-15 pre-nursery classes beginning in September, a 62 per cent increase on last year, according to Leung. It has room for just 800 pupils.

"I'm so nervous, because my husband and I will be interviewed, too, in the second round," says Leung, who gave up her job to be a full-time mother soon after her son was born. "My husband doesn't have any experience of this."

Her husband does not go to the playgroup that she and her son joined when Jayden was 10 months old and which teaches parents and children kindergarten interview skills.

WATCH: Year of the Dragon toddlers compete for top school spots

Playgroups have become so popular recently that some even require interviews themselves.

Jayden goes to Fanny's Workshop in Lai Chi Kok, where the youngest child to join was just six months old, according to the playgroup's founder Fanny Lee Li-fun, former principal of an elite kindergarten in Kowloon Tong that she declines to identify.

Lee says the playgroup, which charges parents HK$1,200 for four classes, teaches children discipline and manners as many local elite school principals like pupils who are polite and obey orders.

"When you go to international schools' affiliated playgroups, you'll see they let kids run everywhere, which wouldn't help if you wanted to enter local elite schools," she says.

It also teaches parents how to choose kindergartens; what the principals like; how to answer questions that are likely to be asked during an interview; what afterschool activities are the most helpful, and even how to match clothes - so parents and child project a family identity - when going to an interview.

Some parents, according to Lee, join five or six playgroups at a time, hoping to enhance their children's competitiveness.

Staff at newly opened EtonHouse International Pre-School in Tai Tam have already noticed this trend. During a visit to the kindergarten's playgroup, the South China Morning Post found a mother leaving with her child so they could have a break before attending another playgroup in the afternoon.

Bipasha Minocha, brand director of the Singapore-based EtonHouse group, says some parents in Hong Kong send their children to two playgroups a day - a half-day local one and a half-day international one.

But she says the different philosophies between local and international playgroups could confuse children.

EtonHouse, which is not related to the British boarding school Eton College, does not have playgroups at its Singapore or mainland kindergartens. Minocha says it opened one here because of the demand.

United States-based kindergarten group Safari Kid, which set up shop in Pok Fu Lam in January, opened classes for children aged one to two. But its preschools in America accept only children aged two and older. Director of the Pok Fu Lam branch, Jared Dubbs, says he has also found that some parents were sending their children to two playgroups a day.

Early Childhood Education Association chairwoman Rosa Chow Wai-chun said the lack of full-day childcare services in the city had contributed to this phenomenon, adding it would wear children out.

So how does interviewing a two-year-old go? During his first interview at St Catherine's, Jayden was put in a group of about eight children, who were required to take a bottle of water from the teacher and put it in a basket of a matching colour.

After that, Leung adds, the teacher gave each child a gift to see if they were polite enough to say thank you. The children then played while teachers watched to see if anyone cried, got angry or violent, or grabbed others' toys.

"The second round will be more difficult," says Leung. "I'm so afraid. The pressure is huge. If we perform well, we can pave the way for our son's future."