Primary-only schools offer benefits which through schools are unable to match

Smaller number of students and teachers at primary only schools means greater potential to create a close-knit community

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 05 December, 2017, 11:15am
UPDATED : Monday, 05 February, 2018, 4:23pm

Many parents in Hong Kong feel so overwhelmed by the process of choosing a school for their child that they are adamant they will only do once. Early on, many tend to fixate on through-train schools where their four- or five-year-old can stay for 12 or 13 years with the result that they disregard primary-only schools.

Since our children and our circumstances change, the possibility that a child will change schools at least once is high. With the competition for places always greater in primary school - especially the lower years - parents can and should relax about repeating the process later on and give primary-only schools due consideration.

“Parents have a greater choice than ever for secondary schooling, leading to more options and thoughts,” says Simon Walton, principal of the Japanese International School in Tai Po. “Primary-only schools have suffered in the past, with parental anxiety at Year 4 and Year 5.”

A primary-only school offers many benefits such as a focus on the needs of younger students without the distraction of upper years and the boundaries of top down secondary expectations.

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“Schools with a secondary section tend to focus mostly on the older students: they get priority for use of facilities, timetabling, activities and scholarships. For primary-only schools, it is the older primary school students who enjoy these benefits,” says David Priest, principal of the new HKCA Po Leung Kuk School in Tin Hau. “They get the chance to experience leadership or role modelling as ‘big fish in the small pond’, rather than ‘little fish in a big pond’ if they were in a through school.”

Inevitably, a primary-only school will have a smaller number of students and teachers, with greater potential to create a close-knit community.

The largest primary-only schools are the five-form ESF schools such as Kennedy School with 900 students. The smallest, such as HKCA Po Leung Kuk School, have less than 100 (although growing).

To alleviate parental anxiety, primary-only schools are taking a more active approach in supporting parents to select a secondary school as the next step. Some have formed formal associations with secondary schools. Anfield School, Kingston International School and Japanese International School are members of International College Hong Kong. Kingston also has an association with Elsa High School.

They [older primary school students] get the chance to experience leadership or role modelling as ‘big fish in the small pond’
David Priest, principal of HKCA Po Leung Kuk School

Ben Keeling, principal of Shrewsbury International School Hong Kong, will offer coaching as early as Year 4. “We offer an opportunity to select a senior school setting and a suitable academic pathway for each child based on a deep and refined knowledge of their strengths and interests – a positive alignment is one of the most significant influences upon future academic success.”

It would certainly seem sensible to trust that the school your child has studied in for five to six years knows your child best in terms of their learning style and their proficiency.

This, plus in-depth knowledge of the secondary schools and their admissions processes, should make for a relatively smooth process the second time around.

Secondary schools will consider which primary school your child has attended and will read and interpret the reports thoroughly. Therefore, in choosing a primary-only school, it is still important to consider the quality. Important, but not easy.

According to Keeling, a good place to start is the curriculum. “The curriculum offered by a primary school will tell you a lot about the academic focus they offer. Parents should look for schools that are able to offer contextualised information about each child’s performance. More importantly, they should identify schools that actively make use of this information in ensuring that provision is suitably tailored.”

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The curriculum itself may offer accreditation via a recognised programme such as the IB Primary Years Programme (IB-PYP) or International Primary Curriculum (IPC). Some do also seek accreditation by CIS (Council for International Schools) to give them transferable credibility. They also may undertake international standardised tests which validate their own practices within the school.

Priest is also an experienced accreditation team visitor for the CIS, New England Association of Schools and Colleges, and Western Association of Schools and Colleges. “School accreditation takes on the vital role of a ‘stamp of approval’ for high school students,” he says. “Whilst this is not relevant for primary school students, it doesn’t mean that accreditation isn’t important for primary schools as it does reassure stakeholders that the school is being run in a professional manner, which prospective parents should take into consideration when looking for a school for their children.”

Let’s hope that parents can feel assured that a primary-only school can offer a quality, focused education with a seamless transition into secondary and can be a positive choice.

This article appeared in the Good Schools Guide as: primary-only nurture ‘bigger fish’