City Weekend

Hike in Hong Kong families turning to international schools amid fears of pupil burnout

As more local parents opt out of the local school system, the English Schools Foundation says it has seen a 5 per cent rise in applications this year

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 13 August, 2016, 2:00pm
UPDATED : Saturday, 13 August, 2016, 2:15pm

Local parent Raymond Cheng landed a coveted interview for his son to enter the second year of primary school at an English School Foundation institution last year – only to have his hopes dashed when his child did not make the cut.

To secure the interview, he had paid HK$50,000 to ESF through a scheme called “Individual Nomination Rights” which gives admission priority to its participants, who have an admission rate of about 50 per cent. Capped at 150 individuals per year, the fee is only refundable if a child does not pass the interview. Criticised by some for exacerbating inequality, such payments are common among international schools in Hong Kong and not all are refundable.

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“The requirement for reading and writing ability at the interview is high. They need your child to be able to write about five sentences. My son was not up to the level, so they actually refused and rejected his application. I can see ESF is quite fair,” Cheng said, adding that he is not giving up. “I’m still hoping to transfer him into an ESF school, as soon as possible.”

Cheng is one of a growing number of Hong Kong parents who are opting to send their children to an international school rather than a local school, despite the cost. Next week, students entering the first year of an ESF primary school will be paying an unsubsidised fee of HK$101,000 per year – about a 28 per cent increase from last year – as the government begins to phase out its annual HK$283 million subsidy.

Yet even with the hike, the demand for ESF school places for the incoming class rose by about 5 per cent compared to last year, according to an ESF spokeswoman.

Ruth Benny, founder of education consultancy Top Schools, said that the growing supply of international schools in Hong Kong has actually increased competition in the market and caused a decline in overall demand for ESF schools. The greater choice has resulted in an unusually high number of vacancies for students at primary level, compared to previous years.

However, interest from local parents has not only remained strong, but actually surged this year.

“This year it just exploded. We’re dealing with a lot of local parents who want to pull their kids out of local schools,” Benny said.

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The Education Bureau’s requirements state that at least 70 per cent of the total number of students enrolled in ESF schools must qualify as “non-local”, meaning that they must hold an overseas passport, an ESF spokeswoman said. For the system’s two private independent schools, Renaissance College and Discovery College, 70 per cent of the students must have one parent who is a Hong Kong Permanent Resident. ESF kindergartens are exempt from these restrictions.

Even so, the percentage of students enrolled into the ESF system who hold a Hong Kong or Chinese passport grew from 19.2 per cent in the academic year beginning in 2011 to 27.8 per cent in 2014.

From increased competition in the jobs market to rapid globalisation, there are many factors that drive local parents to enrol their children into international schools. But recent reports indicate there is one factor that appears to be the most common: a desire to shelter their children from the culture of overworking that pervades the city’s local school system.

In recent months, Hong Kong’s high-pressure educational system has been widely attacked for being too focused on score-oriented examinations and putting unnecessary pressure on students. Since the start of the last academic year, the city has seen 22 students – including one as young as 11 – commit suicide, with the four most recent cases occurring over just five days. A survey of 10,000 pupils earlier this year also found that over half of secondary school pupils showed signs of depression.

For Cheng, concern about the workload at local schools was the primary reason why he made the decision not to enrol his son in the local system. His son now attends Think International School, and has been in international schools since kindergarten.

“I don’t want my son to spend two hours on homework every day, without any life. The local system is all about homework and examination,” Cheng said. “To be honest at the end of the day, I think when they get into university they are all the same level.”

According to Benny, local and mainland Chinese parents with children who do not meet the language requirements set by international schools like the ESF should be pragmatic and enter their children into a “second-tier international school” for a few years before reapplying.

“Some of these parents might make the decision to speak English to their kids at home...or look for tutors. This is a mistake,” Benny said. “If you’re in a Cantonese speaking home ... really what are the chances that they can pass the ESF interview? How can they provide and authentic English language environment for the child when they don’t possess these skills themselves?”

Not all local parents seem to feel the same way towards international schools however.

Local parent George Yeung enrolled his son into an international kindergarten, but switched back to the local school system because it was too expensive and too far away. Although his son and most of his friends’ children are studying in the local system now, he said that many of them would send their kids to an international school if they could afford the fees.

“I didn’t like the local system - I wanted him to study happily. (But) he is accustomed to the local school culture now (so) I don’t have plans to transfer him to an international school,” Yeung said. “Maybe when he is at a higher level in secondary school … it depends. I may send him overseas.”

What is the ESF?

The English Schools Foundation is a provider of international education through an English-language curriculum

The ESF operates 22 schools across Hong Kong: five kindergartens, nine primary schools, five secondary schools, two private independent schools, and one special education school

Students entering the first year of an ESF primary school this year will be paying an unsubsidised fee of HK$101,000 per year

There are 17,000 students from more than 60 nationalities in ESF schools, private independent schools and kindergartens

About 70 per cent of ESF students have parents who are permanent Hong Kong residents

At least 70 per cent of the total number of students enrolled must qualify as “non-local”, meaning that they hold an overseas passport. Kindergartens are exempt from this rule.

For the two ESF private independent schools, 70 per cent of students enrolled must have one parent who is a Hong Kong permanent resident

Students can only apply to the school of zone according to their Hong Kong residential address. Applicants from Hong Kong and overseas have equal status

Source: ESF