Ruth Benny is Head Girl of Top Schools HK (www.topschools.hk), a team of highly specialised and experienced independent education experts. Top Schools is dedicated to assisting parents secure places for their children in top schools in Hong Kong.
Originally from the UK, Ruth has lived in Hong Kong since 1995, working as a teacher, a teacher-trainer and is now recognised as a local schools expert. She is also mother of two primary school children.
In an exclusive interview with Expat Arrivals she shares her insights about the education system in Hong Kong and offers advice to parents planning a move to Hong Kong with their children.
Q: Would you consider an international school to be the best choice for an expat moving to Hong Kong?
A: As long as the parents are fully aware of what our schools offer, yes. Our international schools offer excellent academics, sports and extra-curricular activities, but not all schools offer all of these, plus, it comes at a price. Schools are expensive and have complicated admissions procedures that require careful planning and proper guidance.
Some families with very young children who may be intending to stay longer, especially those with some Chinese heritage, may consider schools other than international schools. We do have some excellent private schools where the children may acquire both Chinese and English skills to native level.
Q: What factors should expats consider when choosing a school in Hong Kong?
A: So many! Location, budget, curriculum, length of stay, the character of the child… Of course, cost is a major consideration. The curriculum is important, especially if the children are older or the family may relocate again in a few years. We advise on all of these factors and more. There's no exact science to choosing a school but, working through the process, parents usually get a feel for a few top choices.
Q: What are the most common aspects of culture shock kids might experience when they move to a new school in Hong Kong?
A: Our international school kids can really live in a bubble, actually. They may experience local culture as little or as much as they want. They will mostly be expected to learn a little Chinese (Mandarin) and recognise the local festivals, but that’s all.
When considering a school, a family will assess the ratio of locals and non-locals, the language(s) spoken in the playground and how the parents may get along with other parents. Whether the family has been living out of their home country previously will be factored in too. Choice of school will play a part in how much or how little the family will integrate with the local Hong Kongers.
Q: What’s the difference between the public and private schools in Hong Kong?
A: Public schools mainly use Cantonese to teach. They use a little English, but it is usually taught by Cantonese teachers who use English as a second language. Generally, the class sizes are bigger, the facilities are older and smaller and the approach is more teacher-led; more ‘chalk and talk’.
Private schools in Hong Kong are similar, actually – apart from the international schools. The main difference is that private schools have a better reputation for academics and, of course, charge tuition fees.
Q: Can you explain the international curriculum in the context of schools in Hong Kong?
A: We have a variety of curricula on offer. The local curriculum is the dominant one but, in international and private schools, we have the popular IB, as well the UK, US, Australian and Canadian curricula.
Q: Is there a local flavour to the classes in international schools in Hong Kong?
A: Depends. We do have some international schools that cater very much for the local kids. But, on the whole, the mixture of kids in international schools is very diverse, they use English and are very ‘Westernised’.
Q: Would you encourage expats to choose an international school versus a public school in Hong Kong? Why?
A: Generally, yes. As mentioned earlier, if the kids are not proficient in Cantonese it will be near impossible for them to cope in most of the public schools. That said, the government is obligated to offer expat kids free education if they would like it.
Q: Are there scholarships and financial aid available for international schools, do most companies help with tuition?
A: Some schools have financial aid schemes, but it’s not widely embraced. Companies often do help out with the tuition, but it may not cover the whole amount.
Q: What are the average fees that expat parents can expect for an international school in Hong Kong?
A: They range from HKD 60,000 to 200,000 per year. There's really not much under HKD 110,000, so a budget less than this is really not realistic. These figures exclude annual levies and personal debentures which range from HKD 75,000 to 575,000; this is a whole other topic!
Q: Do schools admit students based on any specific criteria? Do international schools give preference based on nationality or company sponsorship?
A: Some do. For example, the Singapore International School gives priority to Singaporean citizens and a fee rebate. Similar priority exists for French, Japanese, German, Swiss and Korean nationals. A lesser priority exists for Canadian and Australian nationals. If a company is willing to ‘sponsor’ a child by covering them with a corporate debenture, they may also earn priority. Otherwise, many of the schools do reserve a few spaces for expat families relocating to Hong Kong at short notice.
~ Interview updated July 2015