Global Observer

In Hong Kong, few school spots for English-speaking children

In Hong Kong, few school spots for English-speaking children

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HONG KONG -- A shortage of places at schools that teach in English is forcing some expat families to leave and impacting corporations.

HONG KONG -- In Hong Kong, five-year-olds have resumes listing violin lessons, horse-riding sessions, language classes and more, and interview to get into a prestigious school.

But in the past few years, families whose children speak English have had to face a difficult road of getting their children into any school, especially an affordable one.

“It is extremely stressful not knowing if your child is going to be accepted into a school. It’s not simply a question of finding another school. If your child is not accepted, what do you do? Home school?” said Amanda Chapman, a British teacher who moved to Hong Kong 15 years ago.

Chapman, whose husband is Filipino, raised her daughter to speak English and Tagalog at home, only to realize when she hit age 4 that this decision would affect her ability to find a primary school.

In the city, public schools teach in Cantonese. English-language schools are divided into private international schools, which are expensive and hard to get into, and government-subsidized English schools, which are cheaper -- and extremely selective.

Right now, there are more children on the waiting list to get into a subsidized English-language kindergarten --1,403 -- than the 1,163 who are enrolled, according to Janet De Silva, who heads the education affairs committee of the American Chamber of Commerce (AmCham) in Hong Kong.

Private international schools cost up to US$1,800 in tuition per month, often requiring a one-time entry fee of perhaps US$2,000. In some cases, parents or companies can buy debentures possibly worth US$250,000, which give a child top priority in applying to the school.

The subsidized English schools are significantly more affordable, which has made them very popular — among both expats and local Cantonese-speaking families. In recent years, more local families have sought entry for their children to English-language schools, because they are perceived as offering better educations.

“The view is many of the international or independent schools seem to be offering stronger English and Mandarin language curriculum, which is viewed as key elements that families are looking for for their children,” De Silva said.

The broader consequence of the difficulty for expat families to find school places is that in some cases, they leave Hong Kong or, for those who are trying to relocate here, they decide not to come.

While it is hard to quantify how many corporations have ended up sending their employees elsewhere because of the schooling situation, expats handily pull examples of friends whose relocation plans have been dictated by the lack of English-language school places.

De Silva tells of one North American family whose three daughters, after applying to six different schools, were each placed in a different one. “Even now that the girls are in school, it’s quite complicated for them, because they’ve got schools where the holiday schedules are not aligned.”

She said AmCham’s surveys of its members have shown about three quarters of them say the situation is having an adverse effect on their businesses and their competitiveness in Hong Kong.

Suggested solutions, made by those involved and the local media, focus on pushing for better planning by the government and improving the Cantonese-speaking schools to make them more appealing to locals.

For Chapman, placing her daughter into a public, Cantonese-speaking school would have been acceptable, if only they would have taken her.

While officially children who only speak English may attend a list of Cantonese schools, the Native English Speaking Teachers’ Association, which is headed by Chapman and has surveyed those schools, has found that public schools do not accept non-Cantonese speaking kids as a rule.

And in the rare case where a non-Cantonese speaking child goes to a local school, she said, it is sink or swim, with no support system to help the student integrate or get up to speed.

Chapman's daughter was eventually able to get into a subsidized English-language school, where there were more than 800 applicants for 164 places. “English is the international language. You would never for one minute think that your child was disadvantaged if English was their first language, would you?"

Photo: Vanessa Ko

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Vanessa Ko

Correspondent (Hong Kong)

Vanessa Ko has written for TIME, South China Morning Post and Phnom Penh Post. She holds degrees from Northwestern University and the University of Hong Kong. She is based in Hong Kong, China. Follow her on Twitter. Disclosure