Dr. Maggie Koong, chief principal of Victoria Educational Organization and school director of Victoria Shanghai Academy, shares advice for families facing this dilemma and further insight about the city’s varied educational landscape
By Nan-Hie In
Choosing a primary school in Hong Kong is stressful for everyone involved. Parents contemplating an international school for their child face fierce competition and soaring costs in a sector that is grappling with a deficiency of school placements. The Education Bureau forecasts a shortfall of 4,200 primary international school places by the 2016/2017 year. This reality is not only a headache for families, but also for members of the business community who are trying to lure overseas talent to the city.
Whereas parents considering the local school route have to navigate through the city’s convoluted dual allocation system, which includes a lottery-style process that gives families little leeway in securing their preferred choice. Complicating the decision-making process are the various application time frames, admission policies and more.
Dr. Maggie Koong, chief principal of Victoria Educational Organization (VEO) and school director of Victoria Shanghai Academy (VSA) shares her guide to Hong Kong schools as well as advice for families stuck in the debate on international versus local education.
“Every school suits different children,” says Koong during a recent workshop on the topic at AmCham. A more important question is which school will suit your child’s interests and personality and if the young learner would thrive in the chosen educational environment. “It is about the child’s personality, character and the parents’ beliefs [about education],” she adds.
The educational providers in the city can be defined into four dominant groups.
Government schools are fully funded by public bodies and are free for pupils. Aided schools, run by charitable or religious bodies, receive full funding by the city too. Both government and aided schools offer the local curriculum set by the city’s Education and Manpower Bureau (EMB).
There are also Direct Subsidy Scheme (DSS) schools, a hybrid between a private and public school in that they receive partial funding from the government (a fixed amount per student), yet they can also embark on fund-raising efforts to further develop their premises and so forth. The scheme emerged in the 1990s as part of Secretary of Education and Manpower Fanny Law’s campaign to liberate some of the schools constrained by the public education system and to encourage educational diversity in Hong Kong.
“[Law] thought we should have chartered schools like in the US that give schools subsidies based on the number of students at the organization. Otherwise, [schools] would not be motivated to make good progress at their schools or be more ambitious to offer different types of schools,” explains Koong.
“Fees cannot exceed HK$5,000 per month as DSS schools usually receive around HK$5,000 a month or HK$46,000 per year for primary unit per child of government subsidies,” the education expert reveals.
For decades, schools under the English School Foundation (ESF) were under this scheme so English-speaking students who cannot access the local system can enroll at these institutions affordably. But the subvention to the ESF is being phased out, which explains the regular fee hikes at ESF schools in recent years. Koong says most ESF schools now offer International Baccalaureate, International GCSE or GCE curriculum.
Hong Kong also has private schools, which have much autonomy in setting their own curricula, admission policies and more. These institutions do not receive government subvention. Under this category are also Private Independent Schools (PIS). According to Koong, “The government provides nice land for these schools, for free. They offer innovative curriculum, but these schools also have to accept 70 percent of its students from local children.” Victoria Shanghai Academy is one of over 40 Private Independent Schools in Hong Kong.
A key difference between local and international schools is fees with the latter being more costly. Staff costs are to blame, says Koong. “Teachers are very expensive as we are now in a very competitive world of teachers especially for international educators.” At her schools, for example, around 80 percent of expenditure goes to staff costs.
At international schools, there is also the possibility of debentures, capital levies among other schemes that parents can subscribe to give their child an advantage in school admissions, adds the chief principal.
The admissions process
The popularity of international schools means most spots are oversubscribed. So parents must plan and start well in advance. Applications start in September each year. Acceptance criteria varies depending on the school. Some schools offer high-cost debentures (some in the millions) and other monetary schemes to give the applicant priority in the admissions process.
English proficiency is a requirement at these institutions, which is assessed through interviews. The interviews also check whether the child has reached age-appropriate milestones cognitively, linguistically, physically, socially and emotionally, reveals Koong. “A lot of times, interviews with young children of four or five years of age are asked to read a story, for example, and the teacher will look at the child’s attentiveness and ability to listen to instructions,” she says.
These meetings can entail playing, reading or drawing.
There is also a preference for applicants whose siblings already go to the school.
For local schools, there is a two-stage admissions system: the Discretionary Places Admissions (DPA) and the Central Allocation (CA), which Koong dubs the “lucky draw stage.” Half of students enrolled at local schools were from the DPA and the rest have been selected through the CA.
“The DPA usually takes place at the last year of kindergarten when children are five years old,” she says. Applications start in September and the results are released in November. The school preference does not have to be in the family’s catchment area.
There are two categories under the DPA process. If the applicant has a sibling attending the school or a parent working at the school, the child will get into the government or aided school. At local schools, the quota is to allocate 30 percent of pupils through this category.
The rest of the applicants will be selected based on a point system. Local schools enroll 20 percent of pupils this way. Points are awarded to first-born children, as well as to applicants whose parents or siblings are an alumni of the school, for example.
“Once you accept a school in the DPA stage, one cannot participate in the CA stage,” Koong says. According to the industry expert, parents dissatisfied with the result from the DPA can participate in the CA in January.
In the CA stage, parents select three school preferences. Placements can be based on the family’s residency, as 40 percent of the students enrolled at this stage are within the catchment area. “This is a totally computerized random allocation,” she says, adding that the results come out in June.
As a result of Law’s reforms, admission interviews are banned at government or aided schools as the government didn’t want to put so much pressure on students. However, like international schools, DSS schools and private schools conduct interviews with applicants. For DSS schools, they usually take place before summer and the schools make their decision in December. At private schools, interviews take place around August to November; the release of the results vary depending on the schools.
The local and international education systems adopt different learning styles. Most international schools follow a generalist approach: students are taught many subjects and for specialized classes such as music and physical education, educators expert in these fields teach these classes.
Whereas at locals schools, frequent exams reign. “It is a very difficult way of testing kids to help them revise and memorize content,” Koong says. Based on exam results, students are ranked in their classroom. She says some parents appreciate this approach as it lets them compare their child’s performance to others.
At international schools, there is a less volume of exams as pupils are also assessed through projects, collaborated works, essays and more, depending on the educational program. The veteran educator says this approach is rooted in the school’s holistic view of child learning.
Asked if local schools are a viable option for international families considering the language requirement and demographic of pupils at these places, Koong says it depends on the type of organization, although most local schools are populated by Chinese pupils.
“If there is no Chinese support at home, then you have to think about how to support this language to your kids.”
Number of various schools in Hong Kong, from Dr. Koong
Government schools 34
Aided schools Over 450
DDS schools 21
Private schools 42
International schools Over 50
PIS Schools 8
Nan-Hie In is a freelance journalist based in Hong Kong covering current affairs, lifestyle and entertainment in Asia. A regular contributor to local and international media outlets, she has written for the South China Morning Post, CNN (Business Traveller), the China Daily, HongKong.Coconuts.co, Prestige and more.