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Schooling in the city

Schooling in the city Posted on 10 November, 2020Leave a comment

The start of the school year also marks a new round of admissions for kindergarten (pre-school), primary and secondary schools in Hong Kong. As face-to-face interviews are not feasible during the pandemic, schools with a selective admission process have asked families to send in video clips of their children.

Entrance criteria for one primary girls’ school are listed as follows:

The clip should be no longer than 5 minutes, and include these elements: 1. child carrying activity including hand-eye coordination; 2. child is at her meal, either breakfast/ snack time/ lunch/ dinner at home; 3. child is communicating with her parent(s), for example, a conversation during storytelling time, or while having a casual chat with both parents, if possible, at home; 4. Show and Tell: it can be a piece of work (art work, handicraft, or drawing), a storybook she likes, then ask the child to express it verbally; 5. a skill achieved by the child that you would like to show us… each video should show clearly what the child’s hands are doing, her facial expression and the environment.

As you can imagine, a huge can of worms ensues. In a city where going to a good school for many is a marker of social identity and from an early stage, a measure of success, it is also a multi-million dollar industry thrived by education-related businesses such as tutoring schools. With interviews going digital during this CoVid-age, this business now includes videographers and consultants to help design, take and edit the clips to create just the perfect entry.

Our own experience

We too, have brushed the borders of the selective process in Hong Kong. At the end of 2018 when we moved to Hong Kong, we decided to have a go at my former school of 13 years and have remained connected ever since. Eventually it took 3 interviews – the last was one offered on discretion – to be awakened and understand that we are simply not fit for this selective system.

What we have found most bizarre was the lack of clear guidance throughout the selection process. Even for job interviews, you would at least be told the sort of candidate the company is looking for. But really there was nothing there at all.

On the day of our first interview, we ended up being one of over a thousand other candidates who were already preselected based on their application form and ‘portfolio’ (I later understand that being a former student means my daughter would at least get a first interview).

But what we discovered was how little we had invested in the system.

Turning up at the school, we were told that only one parent could go in, so my husband had to wait around in the vicinity until we were done. So there I was shepherding Audrey amongst many other (mostly) mothers in a familiar yet strangely alien surrounding. The process was clock-work, the school verified Audrey’s identity, and we listened intently to the instructions from older primary students in three languages until it was time for Audrey to go in.

From what Audrey reported intermittently after, it involved queueing up in groups and following instructions from the teachers. I was waiting in the hall all the while watching video clips of some of the schools’ musical productions back in the day, as parents sat quietly but also uneasily as they waited until groups of children were ‘released’ back to their parents.

We shortly received another notice that Audrey got to the second round of interviews, that would take place on a weekday morning. Again there was no guidance on what the girls would be assessed upon. There I bumped into another former student, whose daughter was also trying for the school. Four girls were let in at the same time, during a short 30-minute slot where (Audrey told us after) that they were asked in turn to narrate a story based on some pictures.

The verdict came a few weeks after that we were considered ‘on the waiting list’. I did not know what to expect at the time, but in hindsight, I had perhaps felt quite confident that Audrey stood a pretty good chance of getting in. So this all came quite a shock. Some friends and even family members suggested we write a letter to follow-up, one of them even gave us a template that she used for a younger relation many years back. But what was most surprising was she asked for this to remain confidential. Why would it be all hush-hush if writing a letter is so common after all?

An honest verdict

This is why I said this third interview was completely discretionary, but not at all exclusive. On a chilly Monday morning, we turned up at the school again to be greeted by some of my former teachers who now head the primary school. Audrey had to bring in her favourite Chinese book. We had a chat shortly after Audrey was seen separately. We were asked about our plans of being in Hong kong and my husband’s Chinese ability. It felt being back in school. I was told how being with a new baby (I was heavily pregnant at the time) it would be a lot on my plate to juggle with other school and homework commitments. But we were also told that Audrey was too “babyish” and her Chinese was substandard – she was simply not ready. Then we were advised to try again the following year as Audrey’s birthday actually falls within school intakes for two consecutive years. Being older the following year rather than the youngest, we were told, was always more advantageous.

It was all very well intentioned, and we appreciated the honesty, really. Of course once you are in the process, you’d really wanted to see through to the end of it, and perhaps achieve what you had invested. But what we discovered was how little we had invested in the system. Yes I am familiar with the school, but those were bygone days, we have basically done nothing to get Audrey on par with what the current system asks for. We had not sent her to tutoring schools, done any prep class for her or tapped into any of her extraordinary skills. We were simply complacent, or were we?

At the same time, if older students are considered to have an advantage, doesn’t it make their students demographics completely skewed? But as we began to understand, it simply reflects the hugely competitive nature of Hong Kong’s selective local school system that means parents plan and invest in their children even before they were born. They might time their conception perfectly to yield children to be the oldest of the class. Some would go as crude to say, pick your partners well to make sure you have the ‘right’ conditions guaranteed your children’s success.

Being escorted back to the waiting room by one of the teachers after our third interview, there was another girl who was waiting for a third interview. As soon as she saw the teacher she greeted her appropriately… Good morning, Mrs xxx. How could a five-year-old be so ‘spontaneous’ if it wasn’t for the extent of training and grooming already instilling in her the expected courtesy and behaviour?

parents who don’t send their children to a selective stream does not mean that they had few expectations for their children’s education.

Say ‘international’?

Our journey would have been so different if we chose the ‘international route’ – one commonly assumed as we moved from overseas. Hong Kong students have been found to be miserable due to their school commitments as parents have high expectations for their children’s academic achievements, why bother with the local system then? It’s more diverse and English levels are stronger. International schools in Hong Kong have a long history serving expats as they require their student body to be at least 70% ‘non-local students’ presumably they do not have access to government subsidised schools (this is more of a tick-box exercise – family members would be considered as dependents who are eligible for local schooling). This is why naturally the social aspects of this schooling will be more ‘international’ compared to local schools.

This is a good thing of course, but the cost for international schooling is also astonishing and in many cases include a ‘debenture’ – a hefty deposit that could be as high as millions of HK dollars, to help fund the school’s development. For expat families, some relocation package covers the majority of this cost, which make them an attractive and natural option. The international stream has also become more popular with local Chinese families who looking for a bridgeable path when their children continue their education eventually overseas. Increasingly, this has also been a desirable option for a curriculum that is shaped outside of the government’s guidance.

Going local

But for a majority of local Hong Kong Chinese families, local schools are still the main option. This is not purely a cost consideration, but the emphasis on the Chinese language is unmatched by the international curriculum. That said, there are many different local schools – the selective option I mentioned above is only one of them, also known as ‘directly subsidised’. This is because schools seek their own funds, rather than from the government. This category includes schools which became ‘prestigious’, a majority of them linked with the city’s colonial history being founded by overseas missionaries over a hundred years ago. A robust curriculum in line with government guidelines is still required, and the emphasis on a bilingual education nurtured many high-ranking government officials, professionals such as doctors, lawyers and accountants. This is why schools as such are linked to the city’s elite, and the cycle continues.

A small handful of directly subsidised schools, now also offer government subsidised places to students allocated purely on a lottery basis, dependent on the school’s catchment or district area. This is why it is important to live in a certain area to get into specific schools – not too different from other countries around the world.

But even within government (or state) funded schools, the styles of schooling vary massively. Some schools are associated with churches or founded on faith- or clan-based charities. Some schools are more ‘international’ to cater for expat families who might not be high-flying bankers, lawyers or pilots, that offer a streamed curriculum for non-Chinese families. This is why it is a murky territory where ‘local schools’ are concerned.

What is it for us then?

Following this palava of an experience, we were eventually allocated to a local school within a public housing estate, close to where we live (we had always put our name in the hat that was the government’s system – although during the first round, we were not allocated to any school and had to wait till June before we knew the result). It was considered an unusual choice not only from the perspective of those we know, but also teachers from the school. There are plenty of international schools and local schools with international vibes close to where we live, why would we bother with this school with such local characteristics?

We simply had not been proactive at exploring alternatives, but at the same time, we have come to appreciate the local, non-selective stream. It was at this charity-run pre-school with complete Chinese surroundings that we discovered the kindness of Audrey’s nurturing pre-school teachers. Their English might not be strong, but this did not meant they cared less for the children. Equally, parents who don’t send their children to a selective stream does not mean that they had few expectations for their children’s education.

It was here that Audrey developed an interest in the language not only through the curriculum but also through the friendships that she made in the school setting to this day. It was here that we could speak freely with Audrey’s teachers, without encountering any sort of snobbery from more prestigious pre-schools that I enquired, ‘you are too late (to apply) – we only take children from K1 (first year of pre-school)’.

We are completely aware of our own privilege having already an overseas experience and the ability to navigate between a local and more expat neighbourhood being a mixed family. Schooling is about a whole person’s development, but isn’t it also about learning how to operate on a level-playing field, to work, interact and respect peers from all walks of life?

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