Open to all South China Morning Post, Dec 15, 2011
Craughwell says even if claims of a lack of international school places are
true, the best solution isn't to expand the sector; it's to invest more in
local schools to meet demand
Hong Kong faces a crisis of international school places, according to the
American Chamber of Commerce. This is the latest in a series of such alarm
calls from the chambers, which are often backed up by relocation agencies and
even InvestHK. The gist seems to be that, in order to secure Hong
Kong's international competitiveness, the government needs to
expand the international school sector.
The most striking thing about these reports
is not their findings but the paucity of quantitative or qualitative data to
back up their claims. In terms of international school places, is Hong Kong
badly off compared to Singapore
Can we have some actual examples of companies that have moved their head-
quarters to other cities because of schooling issues? The chambers are rather
vague on these points. They need to do better if they expect the issue to be
Occasionally, school waiting lists are
cited as solid evidence of the crisis. Indeed, reputable schools in desirable
residential areas are often oversubscribed. However, any school admissions
officer will tell you that many parents - quite wisely - make applications to
several schools at once in order to hedge their bets. The idea that the length
of school waiting lists reliably indicates the gap between demand and supply is
Expectations are even more skewed than the
data. One human resources manager at a leading investment bank once explained
to me that, when one of their high-fliers gets relocated to Hong
Kong, everything has to be ready and waiting: house, cars, club
memberships and, especially, schools. But hang on, I said, where in the world
is life that easy? London?
Are we perhaps setting the bar too high for ourselves here? Unfortunately,
relocation usually means disruption. It isn't clear to me why this should
be a concern of the government.
Not only is the case made weakly, and
perhaps on the basis of unrealistic expectations, but the "something"
that the government should "do" is undefined. The government has already
made several parcels of land available for international schools, and these
will be coming on stream in the next few years. The majority are in the New Territories:
surely the most demanding human resources manager will accept that Hong Kong Island is rather full?
Let's accept for a moment the chambers'
contention that Hong Kong is in a particularly
bad way regarding international school places. There are two drivers for this.
First, people want to come here because Hong Kong
remains highly attractive - despite the air quality.
Second, most expats don't see local schools
as an option for their children. This is in contrast to Singapore. The
city state boasts - along with urban planning and breathable air - local
schools that expats can access. Many parents will still opt for international
schools, but the alternative is there.
Not so in Hong Kong
- or so the conventional thinking goes. Actually, large swathes of Hong Kong's South Asian communities go to local English-medium
schools, and even some Westerners. Many of these schools, particularly those
under the Direct Subsidy Scheme (DSS), have excellent academic outcomes. Do the
children split up into ethnic or linguistic groups at break time? Possibly, but
do you think that doesn't happen at international schools?
Nevertheless, expat parents worry about
uninspired rote learning and a lack of facilities in local schools. These concerns are understandable, largely
because local schools aren't even trying to promote themselves as an
option. DSS schools, in particular, need to band
together and show what they can really do in terms of a rounded education and
university placement. Whisper it: they need to market themselves. And the
government needs to invest in the weak areas. The expertise is out there
and Hong Kong certainly has the
resources. We might finally see an end to ambitious parents - expat and local -
having to stretch themselves to pay for private schooling they can't really
One can't blame the American and other
chambers for lobbying on behalf of their members - that's what they are there
for. And perhaps they calculate that the government would rather give a sop to
international schools than deal with the bigger issue. Certainly, the
interminable English Schools Foundation funding saga indicates a rather
paralysed bureaucracy. Folding ESF into the DSS system would be one move
towards building a truly excellent local education system.
Does the government have the political
courage to make such bold decisions? If it does, Hong Kong will not have to
worry about its dominant position in East Asia.
If, as I fear, civil servants and politicians would rather duck the issue and
hope it goes away, we can look forward to plenty more headlines about
"crisis" - and not just in education.
Peter Craughwell was head of marketing and
communications at the English Schools Foundation from 2005 to 2010
ESF West Island School, Pokfulam, Hong Kong
_ Hong Kong parents seek alternatives to local schools South China Morning Post, 13 November, 2012
The rigidity of the local education system explains why parents are increasingly sending their children to ESF, international and overseas schools
Students in Hong Kong's public school system continue to rack up strong results in international assessments. But that's not enough to stop a growing number of local parents seeking schools that offer something different.
Competition for places at English Schools Foundation and international schools is as intense as ever, while more children have gone to boarding schools in the UK - the top international destination for local students. Beijing has also emerged as an option for parents worried by the ultra-competitive environment and emphasis on grades in the Hong Kong system.
This year's launch of the Hong Kong Diploma of Secondary Education exam - part of a decade-long package of reforms intended to change the ingrained mindset that exam results count above all else - has failed to stem the tide.
Grace Leung Lai-kuen sent her eldest child to an international school in Beijing three years ago, and has since been comforted by the positive changes she has seen. The mother of three was put off by the hugely competitive, high-pressure environment in the local system.
"There is no room for late bloomers; they are easily discouraged from Form 1 to 3 under the local system," she sighed.
Her daughter, now 17, is a case in point. Weak in maths, she barely made the grade to progress to an upper form and kept worrying about not being able to make it to senior forms.
"Up to 20 fifth-formers were not allowed to progress to Form Six when she was there," recalled Leung, a professor of journalism. "The school's curriculum was too demanding. It was much harder than when I was a student. It was so packed that students hardly had time to learn to analyse, only memorise."
For the academically gifted, the local system can pay dividends, but for Leung's daughter, a change of environment clearly helped. She left for Beijing because of the long waiting lists at international schools locally, and the fact that her limited English made it even less likely she would be accepted.
Now living with a family friend in the capital, she is more motivated and happier to find herself under less pressure.
"In Hong Kong there is little way out for someone like her who lags behind in their studies," Leung said.
"Students who are not doing well may feel very bad under the local system and have a weak sense of belonging. In fact, between one-third and two-thirds of the students are struggling academically," said Leung, adding: "No school wants to give the impression that its students fare worse than others."
Leung and her husband, also an academic, have also gone international for the education of their two sons, enrolling them in the new Harrow International School - one at Year 8 and the other in Year 5 - forking out for a HK$600,000 debenture and annual tuition of HK$150,000 each. Being boarders at the school, the pair are enjoying a range of sports and the companionship of their peers.
"My 13-year-old used to hate going to school. He missed school assignments and waited till the last minute to leave home for school," Leung recalled. One reason, she said, was because he was sidelined by classmates because his marks were not as good as theirs. "They did not want to involve him in their group projects, and he felt bitter about it," she said.
The keen competition for top marks among students and schools has helped fuel the city's thriving tutoring industry. It is also no secret primary pupils in particular do much of their homework with considerable help from their parents.
Competition begins even at pre-school level. As one parent puts it: "This is unreasonable. Even kindergartens have made their syllabuses more difficult under the pressure of parents worried about their children losing out, not being competitive."
And educators remain worried about the local system's stifling effect on the all-round development of pupils, not to mention its failing to nurturing the type of creative mindset crucial to success in the 21st century.
"I kind of assumed that things improved a lot after the diploma came in but it is really the same thing, it just shifted the pressure point to Form 6 [as opposed to Form 5 and Form 7, when the former HKCEE and A-level exams took place]. They don't do anything except study in that year," says Perry Bayer, a native-English speaking teacher at a local school.
"I have been in HK for 14 years and have seen changes coming and going as a secondary teacher - there is a lot of gritting, bearing and just getting through. Students need to enjoy study more and explore themselves as people."
Like many expatriate and local parents who have opted for international schools or schools offering international curriculum, he thinks these schools better cater to differences and offer a less stressful environment.
Adding to the pressure on local students is the increased competition for university places, with new admissions requirements under the diploma under which students must achieve passing grades in Chinese, English, liberal studies and mathematics. For that reason, more pupils have opted for the International Baccalaureate or the British GCSE curriculum offered by semi-private, Direct Subsidy Scheme schools.
The University of Hong Kong and the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology reserve up to 20 per cent of their first year degree places to non-Joint University Programme Admissions System (non-Jupas) applicants - in other words, students who studied a non-local curriculum.
More than half of this year's intake for the three-year degree programme at Polytechnic University's popular Design School were non-Jupas graduates - admitted on the basis of aptitude tests and interviews.
Professor Tam Kar-yan, HKUST's dean of students, praises local pupils' maths and science skills, but says their international school counterparts are more proactive and ready to "challenge a professor in class".
The pressure to study an international curriculum is taking its toll on Heep Yunn School, an Anglican girls' school in Ma Tau Wai funded through the Direct Subsidy Scheme. Twenty-six of its Form Five students have left to study overseas this year, up from just three last year. That's despite the fact that the school supplements the local curriculum with GCSE-level English and a maths course for junior pupils who plan to sit GCSEs later.
Its principal, Lee Chun-hung, acknowledges the different approaches between local and international schools, with the former focusing on academic achievement, and the latter offering a more open environment.
But he maintains his school's wide range of extra-curricular activities offers rounded development, part of a growing trend in the local system.
"We hope universities will be more transparent with their admissions criteria and put more weight on the Other Learning Experience component of the senior secondary curriculum," Lee said.
But the fact is there is not a single type of schooling that suits every child.
Principal of the elite Diocesan Boys' School, Ronnie Cheng, said: "The differences between the local and the IB curriculum are not that drastic - IB will generally start with a question, what happens if we do this or that, and the local curriculum will say we study this today and these are the procedures; they are neither good or bad.
"We have students who have gone through the local primary system who went into IB and could not assimilate and came back, while a significant number of students enjoy the IB self-discovery type of learning."
Students also need to change their mindset to pay more attention to the core subjects of Chinese and English and apply what they had learned, he added.
But there is also room for change, perhaps, in the pragmatic local culture. Said Leung, the parent: "We need to destroy the myth that university education is the only way for people to get ahead. You get ahead not relying on a degree but on skills and other personal strengths."
Clarity at last on future of the ESF South China Morning Post, Tuesday, 20 November, 2012
The die is cast. ESF schools are international schools. As such, government funding will be phased out. That's the gist of education chief Eddie Ng Hak-kim's letter to the Post yesterday to clarify a major gaffe he made in Legco this month.
Bravo! After a decade, the government has come clean and made a decision on the English Schools Foundation. It's not one I endorse but it is one that probably most sides, except those who can't afford unsubsidised international schooling, could accept. The ESF will prosper as it will be free to charge million-dollar debentures and rebuild its ageing campuses to five-star standards, and parents will queue to send their kids there.
This should end all the editorialising over ESF funding. But just this once, it's worth explaining what Ng's gaffe was and why it was made, because the issue involved points to the division of local and international schooling in our system and its future.
Ng apparently told lawmakers that the ESF must introduce a local rather than international curriculum if it wants to keep its subvention. But the government has never made such a demand and the ESF will never do it.
What Ng was really trying to say is: the way for the ESF to receive full funding is most likely via the direct subsidy (DS) funding model.
But only schools teaching pupils based on local curriculums and exams are eligible for DS. Therefore, DS is not applicable to the ESF as it is not - and cannot go - local. (By the way, this local-curriculum-only funding rule on DS is the real reason for the "one-way traffic" of locals going to international schools. It's not because the latter are so superior, but because many locals aim for overseas study while few non-locals would study for local exams.)
But why not relax DS funding rules? ESF schools could then receive funding; and top-notch DS schools could take in more foreign students and locals who want to switch by adopting a new international stream in addition to the local stream. This would take pressure off international schools by creating more "two-way traffic".
This has been proposed by various DS school leaders and yours truly. But in the way bureaucrats think about funding, local is local and international is international, and never the twain shall meet!
End subvention debate so ESF can move on The ESF subvention has become the lightning rod for the confused and contradictory feelings in this city about its colonial past. SCMP
Heather Du Quesnay says that, above all, the ESF needs clarity on its financial future, to allow it to move on and bring to an end the debilitating subvention debate that has been clouded by half-truths and misunderstandings Heather Du Quesnay Wednesday, 21 November 2012
It's that time of year again. The English Schools Foundation subvention is on the Education Bureau's agenda and there is a media feeding frenzy. We welcome the debate because our 13,000 students are important to Hong Kong's future.
Nearly a quarter of last summer's university entrants, including some of our IB diploma 45-point scorers, entered Hong Kong universities. They, together with their peers who have gone overseas for higher education but will in many cases return, are the future movers and shakers of Hong Kong, as their predecessors have been. Ageing Hong Kong needs its youth talent pool and ESF students are an important part of it.
But the debate, if it is to be useful, must be based on facts and not on the half-truths and misunderstandings that have taken on a life of their own in a decade of argument. We have to debunk some of these myths.
Let's start with the notion that ESF exists only to educate the children of rich expatriates. The ESF Ordinance says nothing about expatriates; it talks only about children who can benefit from an English-medium education. Today, we have students of more than 50 different nationalities: 74 per cent are Asian or Eurasian by ethnicity (44 per cent are Chinese) and nearly 70 per cent are from permanent resident families. These are all "local" children in the sense that they are growing up here and most of them stay throughout their schooling. Some of their parents have to scrimp and save to keep them in our schools. In modern Hong Kong, the term "expatriate" is an anachronism that defies definition and certainly does not tell us anything meaningful about the ESF student body.
The second myth is that the ESF Ordinance in some way entitles us to government funding. In fact, the ordinance is silent on finance. The original funding practice was that the government paid an amount equivalent to that spent on local children's education and parents made up the rest of the costs of an international curriculum. But that so-called "parity principle" was unilaterally abandoned by the government 12 years ago and repeated arguments by the champions of ESF have failed to move three governments since then. So we have a subvention calculated by reference to an outdated formula, frozen in cash terms and constantly subjected to question and challenge. The resulting uncertainty has led inexorably to the kind of media debate we are now experiencing, healthy if it happened once and led to a resolution, but debilitating for parents, students and staff alike when it is repeatedly linked to ill-informed criticism and offensive comments that rich Western expats are getting something they have no right to. The ESF needs, above all, an end to this uncertainty and strife so that the board can plan confidently for a sustainable financial future and the professionals can concentrate their energy on educating the children in our schools rather than dodging brickbats.
Then there is the myth of mismanagement. In 2004, the ESF became a pariah organisation after the Director of Audit's review. The audit report was debated brutally in the Legislative Council's Public Accounts Committee. But once it was published, the ESF did not challenge it. We put our house in order, painfully and publicly, and it took four years before our completed action plan was signed off by the committee. Only then did the Education Bureau allow us to discuss the subvention.
Myth number four is that we missed an easy win by failing to seek Direct Subsidy Scheme status. The proponents of this line have simply not done their homework. Apart from the fact the government has categorically ruled out DSS status for the ESF, the current DSS funding formula just would not fit ESF schools without considerable revision and we would lose much freedom and control over our own affairs.
What of the myth of the ESF's vast cash reserves? The accounts show reserves of more than HK$900 million last year, but this is not money waiting to be spent. The rules of accounting require an organisation to show the profit and loss accumulated since its inception. This is all money which has already been spent on building improvements, equipment and other capital items. On the balance sheet, the reserves are matched by the assets which they were used to buy.
More than anything, the ESF needs clarity about its financial future. With the present government, we have at least some signs of a will to bring this protracted public wrangle to an end. After much pressure from the ESF Board, the government seems willing to protect the subvention of all the children currently in the system and we are urging them to go a step further to protect their siblings.
We are also negotiating for a new subvention which would include funding for the teaching of Chinese to non-Chinese speakers and the education of children with special educational needs. The latter is more than overdue because over many years and by default, the ESF has become the government's proxy in the delivery of its statutory and humanitarian responsibilities for the education of English-speaking children with special educational needs. Yet we are woefully underfunded even for our special school, Jockey Club Sarah Roe, the only one of its kind in Hong Kong, which receives far less than if it were a local school.
Given the age and condition of some of our buildings, like Island School, we will also need government support for capital expenditure if we are to keep the facilities in schools up to scratch without imposing an impossible burden on parents' fees.
The ESF subvention has become the lightning rod for the confused and contradictory feelings in this city about its colonial past. That such feelings exist is understandable and they may take many more years to work through. But the ESF must be freed from that vortex of emotion and allowed to take its place in Hong Kong as a modern organisation, educating young Hongkongers for whom the British colonial past will take its place in the history books alongside the Treaty of Nanking and the demise of the Qing dynasty. The subvention debate needs to be concluded once and for all.
Heather Du Quesnay is chief executive officer of the ESF
New School Ties Local colleges offering alternative curricula at lower costs may give international schools a run for their money, writes Elaine Yau SCMP Tuesday, 30 April, 2013
An international school or English Schools Foundation (ESF) education is usually the default choice for expatriate families in Hong Kong. But this may not be the case for much longer. More progressive local schools have begun offering international curricula, and their lower fees coupled with solid academic standards make them a compelling choice for many families.
The leader of this pack is undoubtedly the YMCA of Hong Kong Christian College in Tung Chung. When the school was set up 10 years ago expatriates made up just 10 per cent of the student body. Now they account for 70 per cent of its 950 students, who are drawn from more than 40 countries.
Maddie Leonczek is among the newer students. The 15-year-old Briton had attended an international school when her family lived in Hong Lok Yuen, but she transferred when they moved to Tung Chung. She has settled in well, although liberal studies, a compulsory subject introduced under 2009 curriculum changes, took some getting used to. But Maddie is relishing the greater exposure to Hong Kong culture at her new school.
"Liberal studies is very different from what I learned before as it covers many things ... like adolescence and youth problems in Hong Kong, which I wouldn't pay attention to normally," she says.
Maddie has been learning Putonghua in class and has picked up a smattering of Cantonese from local students.
The broadening of education choices for expatriate families stems from the Direct Subsidy Scheme (DSS), a programme set up to enhance the quality of private school education.
DSS colleges enjoy greater autonomy than government or aided schools and are free to decide on areas such as the medium of instruction, class sizes and curricula. And in the past couple of years they have begun teaching international programmes. too. Seven of the city's 61 DSS secondary schools now offer international curricula such as the International Baccalaureate (IB) and the General Certificate of Secondary Education (GCSE), up from just five schools in 2010-11.
More non-Chinese families are turning to these schools as a cheaper alternative to international schools and educators find both local and expatriate students are benefiting from the greater diversity.
Affordability was certainly the major consideration when airline industry executive Evans Mendonca and his wife transferred their two sons, Manav and Neil, from Beacon Hill School, an ESF school, to the YMCA college.
"ESF is highly overpriced," Mendonca says. "Their tuition fees, costing HK$14,000 per month, used to eat a big chunk of the family income. Now I just pay HK$2,500 for Manav and HK$2,000 for Neil. When we were in ESF, there were significant fee increases and we left just before the capital levy was introduced.
"I don't see any difference in the education standards at ESF and here. The teachers are highly trained and my sons are doing extremely well."
As a DSS school, the YMCA college prepares students for the Hong Kong Diploma of Secondary Education (HKDSE) as well as the International GCSE. But Dion Chen, the school's vice-principal, has taken measures to ensure expatriate students can cope with requisite Chinese modules in the local curriculum. Instead of taking Chinese history, which requires a good command of the language, the children sign up for Hong Kong Chinese studies, which covers Chinese culture and history and gives them sufficient grounding to undertake liberal studies in senior forms.
"Foreign students taking the diploma exam can also take GCSE Chinese, which is an acceptable arrangement for local university applications," he says.
Ngan Po Ling College, a DSS school in To Kwa Wan, also introduced GCSE Chinese and IGCSE French for non-Chinese students two years ago, instead of Chinese history and Chinese language studies that locals undertake.
The move has attracted more expatriates, who now make up 10 per cent of its students, Mukunthan Anuradha, prefect of studies at the college, says. Some came from international primary schools like Kowloon Junior School, while others joined in Form Two or Form Three after their families moved to Hong Kong.
"Our mode of instruction is English. All teachers, even the ones teaching Chinese, passed the English benchmark exams and can speak English well. So non-Chinese students feel comfortable learning here."
Noticing that a significant number of students were leaving for Britain or the US before graduation, Ngan Po Ling is launching an IB programme next year. It's a way to reverse the "brain drain", Anuradha says.
Creative Secondary School (CSS) in Tseung Kwan, which was founded in 2006, was the first DSS secondary school to offer an international programme. And while expatriates make up only about a fifth of the student body, principal Cheung Siu-ming thinks his school is more culturally diverse than many international schools.
The range of bilingual teachers on its staff reflects this, Cheung says. Besides English, teachers speak Dutch, Hindi and Korean. There's also an ethnic Chinese teacher who was born in Venezuela and studied in Canada; so while she speaks Cantonese at home, she is fluent in Spanish and English. Thirteen nationalities are represented on its student body.
"In Hong Kong, the definition of international school is one which does not offer [the] Hong Kong curriculum, but this is totally misleading," Cheung says.
CSS charges range from HK$54,500 to HK$81,900 in the current academic year, which make the fees competitive in comparison with other non-DSS IB schools, he says. "As a DSS school we are non-profit making and do not charge levies and debentures."
With international schools charging hefty capital levies and debentures besides annual tuition fees of up to HK$170,000, Cheung thinks schools like his are growing more attractive.
As far as Direct Subsidy Scheme Schools Council chairman Lam Kin-wah is concerned, the rising intake of expatriate students in DSS schools is a welcome development in local education. "Hong Kong is an international city. DSS schools give more choice to expatriate parents and can reduce the fierce competition for international school places among expatriates," he says.
Business groups have frequently complained of a severe lack of education choices for expatriate families - one confirmed by a recent government survey which found Hong Kong to be short of 4,200 international school places.
Cheung of the CSS argues the Education Bureau can do more to meet the needs of local and expatriate students by easing restrictions on DSS schools.
Bureau regulations require local schools, including DSS institutions, to "offer principally a curriculum targeted at local students and prepare their students to sit for local public examinations". And students in international streams cannot exceed 49 per cent of the total.
With more local students also opting for the IB programme, Cheung says setting such a quota will force some youngsters to leave the school rather than pursue a curriculum that is not of their choice. "We have approached the bureau about the issue, but they are unwilling to discuss a review."
YMCA college's Chen also calls for greater flexibility: "If more DSS schools take in international students, it can help the government attain its aim of turning Hong Kong into an education hub."
Still, foreign students may take a while to adjust to DSS schools, where the culture and teaching style sit midway between the deferential ethos of Asia and the free-wheeling ways of the West.
"Our students stand up to greet teachers at the start of lessons as we prize the Chinese virtue of respect to elders. But we cannot be as strict as local schools as Western parents will feel uncomfortable with too much restriction. A permissive approach with too much freedom will worry local parents. So we try to get the best from both cultures," Chen says.
The YMCA college puts a lot of emphasis on the concept of students assuming leadership roles, he adds. For instance, students were invited to design the new uniforms last year.
Fergus Yiu, 16, certainly found it hard to adjust to his new life when he first transferred to Ngan Po Ling College last year from King George V School. Having spent his early childhood in Canada, Fergus says he was more used to the laissez-faire attitude at his previous school where students were allowed to dye their hair and bring their mobile phones into class.
At Ngan Po Ling phones will be confiscated for a whole term if they aren't put away in lockers during lessons. While he used to learn through group activities such presentations, Fergus now finds himself doing mostly individual work. And from simpler lessons involving simplified Chinese characters, he now has to use traditional Chinese characters and read classics.
"The academic atmosphere here is more robust. There is more homework and after-school tutorials run until 6pm. I care more about my studies here," he says.
His mother, Camay Fong Yuen-kwan, is delighted with the change of attitude towards his studies.