September 12th, 2011
05:12 AM GMT
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Hong Kong  (CNN) – Moving to Hong Kong? If you have school age children, prepare for a prolonged campaign to crack the outer perimeter of the international school system. In the words of one frustrated mother, it’s “harder than getting into Fort Knox.”

I met Heike in the office of a popular primary school. Her 10-year-old daughter Jessica had just disappeared into a room with four other hopefuls for an interview and assessment. My four-year-old was one of them.

Sitting on the couch, we exchanged anxious glances. The school year had started the week before. Any time lost now could translate into marks.

“I didn’t expect the school situation to be so dire, so bad,” Heike confided. She applied to several schools for her two children in February ahead of the family’s planned move to Hong Kong from Dubai. Now here we were in late August, thousands of dollars of application fees later and still no school place.

“It’s very stressful and it slowly wears the children out because they do assessment after assessment and they’re always told they’re not good enough. And they both have very good marks in their previous school. Jonathan was school captain. For them it’s very hard,” she said.

The problem’s not new. In 2007, the American Chamber of Commerce in Hong Kong released a report which warned the city’s “competitiveness is being negatively affected by the inability of incoming investors to find places in school for the children of their expatriate staff members.”

Five years later there’s been little progress in solving the problem. Applications to the English Schools Foundation, which runs nine primary schools and five secondary schools across Hong Kong, have been rising for the past five years. This year, almost 2,000 children applied for 1,000 Year One places on offer. And that doesn’t include those who applied after the cut-off date of September 30 last year.

“We’re at maximum capacity,” says Jonathan Straker, ESF head of student support.  “We don’t have any ability to expand the numbers for that particular year group, or any year group, realistically, at primary. Ultimately it’s a case of no buildings, no space.”

The Canadian International School, one of the largest in Hong Kong, is also full up with a waiting list that winds around the building.

“We’re probably up about 18% to 20% on applications overall,” says Principal Dave McMaster. “There’s no doubt that spaces are very limited on the island and especially in the more established, larger international schools.

“I wouldn’t say it’s a crisis right now but we are close and you might get a different answer from some parents who are desperately looking for quality education for their children.”

The Hong Kong government is aware of the problem and says it’s taking steps to create more places. Schools are being allowed to expand onsite and into vacant buildings, and officials are trying to identify green-field sites that may be suitable for school construction.

The government says 500 extra places have been created for international students this academic year, and 5,000 more will be added in years to come.

Some say it’s progress, but it’s painfully slow.

“When families are considering a move to Hong Kong, schooling is one of the key factors they need to investigate. There are many things they need to consider, obviously a job and housing, but if they can’t find schooling for their children they aren’t going to come,” McMaster says.

Sitting on the couch, Heike admitted she had considered moving her children out of Hong Kong, back to Germany or Dubai, if they couldn’t find a school place.

“I have it in the back of my mind but it would split up the family which is crazy. It’s really the last resort,” she said.

Soon after, the door to the interview room opened and our children emerged. Both had been offered a place to start school as soon as the next day. The stress started dissolve from Heike’s face but was kept in check by the thought that she still had one more place to find for her 11-year-old son.

Two weeks on she’s still looking.

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soundoff (46 Responses)
  1. EM

    What, there's no public school system?

    September 12, 2011 at 6:48 am |
  2. Anon

    Are there no 'normal' schools? Only the fancy international schools?

    September 12, 2011 at 7:57 am |
  3. Chad

    @EM There is, but non-locals aren't allowed to send their kids to it.

    September 12, 2011 at 7:58 am |
  4. Concerned parent

    If you think getting into a private school is hard, try giving birth in Hong Kong. Hk's government needs to stop catering to the neighbor of the north and start reinvesting back into the Expat community that, along with the local population, drives their economy. Otherwise what's the point of calling themselves "SAR?"

    September 12, 2011 at 8:00 am |
  5. MucMuc

    The problem is also that local and mainland Chinese parents are allowed to enroll children into International schools, despite the fact that they have very good public system here.
    I started applying to schools around HK when my baby was 3 months old. This is for Y1. That way, we just MIGHT have a spot...

    September 12, 2011 at 8:12 am |
  6. Michael

    @Anon: I'm a Canadian Expat living/working in Hong Kong. I have never once heard that expat children can't go to so called "normal" schools. As far as I know, students can be accepted into these schools, but because of the language barrier ( curriculum in Cantonese) that unless born and raised here...it would be a detriment to the expat students to go to the local schools.
    Unfortunately, the local schools besides the language barrier...most schools don't have a good reputation..even from the "locals" ...just study study cram cram test test ...all rote learning.

    September 12, 2011 at 8:17 am |
  7. Leo

    These schools are profiteering and that is the reason why they try to make it high demand. People should start to teach children at home by home schooling their kids. Going to school and graduating doesnt give one a job. I had advertise for 2 positions for a people with a Master's in Engineer (electronics). I got 4000 plus applications and none made it because the level of English was more SMS type short sentences and incomplete words. Most couldnt write a 5000 page essay on public affairs or about the internet. All we got was some who could write didnt have the personality or key points that would have gotten them the job. Most had poor command of spoken English... and the fact that some were from prestigeous schools in Hong Kong...? My take... these schools are pretenders.... boycott Hongkong....and boycott paying high fees.....

    September 12, 2011 at 8:22 am |
  8. Michele P.

    Why not use public schools? I'm sure they are very good, and kids could make friends in the neighborhood. Many international schools play hard to get but are really not that good.

    September 12, 2011 at 8:33 am |
  9. expatusa

    There are public schools but most American children don't have the background to do well in those schools. Unless you're child went to one of the better private schools in the major cities (like nyc) or the top tier public schools in the USA, most likely they are behind the HK students of the same age.

    September 12, 2011 at 9:23 am |
  10. Viveca

    Perhaps the older children should go to a private boarding school in Australia during the school terms. Australia has an excellent education system.

    September 12, 2011 at 9:26 am |
  11. Jeff

    Awwwwww, so your company (probably a bank that we bailed out) is paying for your rock-star home, Bentley, and live-in Philippino but can't get you into that "rich-kid" school??? Bummer, oh well, at least you are living in a place where you have zero expenses. Suck it up cry-babies!

    September 12, 2011 at 9:55 am |
  12. reality

    Oh no boo hoo the expats aren’t getting what they want and have to join a queue! No one ever seems to want to focus on how difficult it is for the ethnic minority and the general middle class in hong kong.
    A lot of people within the ethnic community are citizens of the city but find it immensely difficult to scrape through a living (and this includes the middle class).
    As a result, their children have to be enrolled into local public schools that either teach one of the most ridiculous syllabi to have ever graced this planet in english or Cantonese. If the child gets into a Cantonese public school, he/she has to not only learn English, but learn Cantonese as quickly as possible in order not to get left behind, add to this pressure the fact that he/she is subject to a difficult life that gets only worse due to the fact that this idiotic government only wants to cater to the upper class and not focus on helping so many people who are struggling to survive by tackling the ridiculously high cost of living. If the child gets into a local English medium school, the outcome is no better because the teachers are either barely or completely not fluent enough in English to teach, hence, they resort to Cantonese.
    What’s even worse is the way the curriculum and exams are structured. They are no concrete and inflexible that children have no option to open up and be creative, something that only the international curriculums encourage. As a result, when kids sit these exams, there is no leeway in terms of answering an exam question, and so if your answer is not identical to the sample one, you’re effectively wrong.
    Add to this the joke that is the joint university placement programme that these local children have to go through where the government funded seats are miniscule when compared to the number of applicants. Under this, deserving students who cannot afford to pay tuition fees out of their own pockets miss out on a government funded place because the competition is so high. Instead, a non deserving, spolit child from an international school who managed to score something decent in his foreign curriculum exams waltzes into a top class university like HKU or HKUST under the international quota. Please, stop focusing on how the expats are finding it “tough”, focus on how the ethnic minority and the general middle class have to put up with the shenanigans of the government and the rich.

    September 12, 2011 at 10:07 am |
  13. reality

    fully agree with jeff!

    September 12, 2011 at 10:08 am |
  14. Frank

    Is this really news? It concerns such a small percentage of our population. This confirms that The Times panders to the rich. How silly, and how wasteful, and how elitist, to publish the tripe.

    September 12, 2011 at 10:59 am |
  15. José Rosado

    It's really awful that the expat kids would have to learn a new language if they attended a public school. It's so tough on them and so unfair to subject them to the kinds of hardship that their counterparts, the world over, have to deal with when, instead of "expat", they're called "immigrants." Twenty-first century colonialism is cute.

    September 12, 2011 at 11:01 am |
  16. Mac

    Why don't the left out parent get together and start their own school? That way you could hire the staff you want and run it the way you want.

    September 12, 2011 at 11:38 am |
  17. Billie_Holiday420

    Fortunately, they're white.
    In a city like Honk Kong, trutst me, it's better ti be white.

    September 12, 2011 at 11:49 am |
  18. Rodney

    Move a 1 1/2hr trip east to Taiwan. Our kids are allowed into the really good public school system. Ironically here, most of the kids in the international schools are locals and a surprisingly high number of kids in the local public schools are expats.

    September 12, 2011 at 1:21 pm |
  19. Reg

    Growing up in expat environment and going to international schools, where friendships are constantly on rotation (since expat families are moving) is the hardest thing psychologically. I grew up the same way, and all my friends are in different continents now. There is no privilege like growing up in your own country with lasting friendships, suitable values and extended family. I also feel my parents paid way too much for my schooling, much more than a fancy private US college would cost. I'd rather have studied at a domestic school, and used the extra money to pursue higher career goals (after middle school, high school, etc.) Anyway, I guess there are upsides and downsides to being expat in strange lands.

    September 12, 2011 at 1:24 pm |
  20. AJ

    I can see this negatively impacting school kids who DO make it in as well. They're probably under enormous pressure to outperform their classmates so they can stay in the system in the upcoming year. The pressure put on them by parents as well (we're sending you to this expensive school, dont waste this opportunity!) is probably not too great either. But anything's probably better than Dubai

    September 12, 2011 at 2:15 pm |
  21. Emily

    It's not QUITE as bad here in Qatar, but close! All outrageous, I say.

    September 12, 2011 at 2:24 pm |
  22. PNY

    @Frank. Let me guess, you are a US citizen living in the US. Your parroting of popular teabagger sentiment is laughable. If you can't be original please learn the meaning of 'context' and 'accuracy.' This website is CNN, not "The Times" and, yes, if you work for a company that relocates you to HK, you are probably more "elite" than your parochial, underemployed, teaparty parroting self.

    September 12, 2011 at 3:08 pm |
  23. expat in Egypt

    You thank there is a problem there? Come to Egypt! I live and work here, I had two children in an American school and I WAS a Principal in several schools, [with a worthless contract] preparing them for CITA accreditation.
    The system here is a joke at all levels. They have the land, but prefer to take agriculture land because their "partner" farmer can make more renting it to a school then in farming. The fees for "foreign schools" are outrageous simply because they call themselves "American" or "British"! They cater to get accreditation, receive the certificate, then fire the foreign Principal and teachers, reverting to a "national school" style and basic curriculum. The Alexandria school "Mafia" controls almost all the "American" schools, most of the Owners are "Lawyers" [aledged], several have criminal backgrounds, and ALL pay Rushwa [corruption money], to the Ministry of Education. The only school system here that has not been corrupted is the older German schools, which are inspected annually and surprise visitations by inspectors from the German government. Will the government correct the problems? Not as long as the government employees are making 1000% more than their salary in Rushwa, and aiding the owners in avoiding or delaying inspections. Only two ways in Egypt, no matter how intelligent your child is; Pay off the Owner of the school, or home schooling with a reputable provider.
    My take, go the home schooling route, once you are involved with this Mafia here, they try to hold your children's documents hostage for ever increasing fees.

    September 12, 2011 at 3:15 pm |
  24. eddie2010

    Run the schools in shifts if space is the limiting factor.

    September 12, 2011 at 3:21 pm |
  25. mmacphe101

    Hello people,
    There is an entire world out there. A world of international education. My school (in Moscow) has a waiting list of 750 students. When you move overseas, it isn't possible to go to "local schools" You need you child to get into a good US or UK school and they need the IB. That is reality. I sympathize with these parents. We also have parents holding places for students from pre-k because later it is too hard to get in. That is the reality of moving internationally.

    September 12, 2011 at 3:42 pm |
  26. M.K. Pep

    They should go to local school, and if they don't know the language why do they immigrate to a country without learning it first? Isn't this one of the main arguments that people have for immigrants in the states? That they come here without learning the language and expect to be catered to in English? This women would move to an entirely different country just because her kid can't get into an international school despite there being local schools available. If they plan to be working and living in China then they should learn the language and assimilate to the culture.

    September 12, 2011 at 6:11 pm |
  27. Expat Dubai

    I am sorry to hear of your schooling entry problems, however as an expat you enjoy the obvious benefits of living os, more than often schooling is an issue with expats who believe it is their right. Sorry you have no rights at all, so boo hoo boo hoo for little Johnny or little Suzie. Look, if schools are full then look elsewhere, this is a disadvantage you should have considered when moving. I know the ropes, been there and done that, and have no time for this tripe from Jumeirah Janes. If you don’t like it go home and join the time warp.

    September 12, 2011 at 6:20 pm |
  28. sorry

    i believe some of you are definally not Expat, do not know all that as a family we are expose too also the kids at certanly the ones that need to be take care try to get into a system that will be allowed them to continuing their education, adapt to a new culture and definally be happy in a place that they did not choose, as an adult and moder we are the ones that need to make sure that the new school can help us and i can feel the pain when are not so much of then in a particular place that can get us in....to the ones in these place that wrote things that obviusly either do not have kids, never have been an expat with kids and also only can see us as a way to put your own frustrations out somewhere because do not have the life that want well keep going you never be able to take an articule and learn something that maybe can help you in the future so sad for people that it is just irnorant by choice.
    EM, ANON,jeff etc etc etc get the life that you think others have...eny EFF willnot put you anywhere else in the world.

    September 12, 2011 at 7:49 pm |
  29. John Singleton

    Local schools are by and large dreadful.
    I worked in local schools for 7 years and I wouldnt put my dog in a local HK school. There is bullying from teachers, hours of homework everynight and 'English' is taught by someone who can't speak English but knows all the grammar rules only. There is no heating in the schools, and in winter all the windows are open and its freezing, the sight of 6 year olds sitting in front of open windows in freezing conditions, their little faces almost blue with cold, in a classroom with bare concrete floors made me want to cry.
    The curriculum is all from textbooks and all the teachers/principals/local parents care about is if each page of a textbook is filled in completely and each answer has a 'tick'. Teachers spent 80% of their time marking these textbooks as they are assessed by the Principal on the 'look' of the textbook.
    Local schools as a school for expats? Only for those that kid themselves 'It'll be OK". Ive seen plenty of what I consider to be child abuse in local HK schools. I shudder when I think of it all.

    September 13, 2011 at 12:55 am |
  30. Overseas Guy

    Expat- Look before you leap. You like the $$ you make, the house, car and maid, but maybe you should have thought about more than yourself BEFORE you left happy land. Don't whine now that you accepted the position because your kids can't get a school. Man-up and send them back shut up. OR, whine about it until you get your way or go home.
    You get paid $$ to do a job, at least plan for it.
    The world does not revolve around you. Someone better than you without kids could do your job better and at half the cost to your company. Keep whining.

    September 13, 2011 at 2:15 am |
  31. Devalina Mitra

    It is not right always to criticize local schools. That is a perpetual habit with the westeners who think that no system is competitive as theirs. Well, people graduate from these local schools and are doing just as well as their counterparts from the International schools. I am a teacher in an International school in HK, my daughter graduated from an International school from another country and is a IB graduate. My son too spent a good number of years in an International school and completed his last HS year in Canada and found their system far from competitive, leave alone the environment.
    My advice is to make use of what you have and get. All systems have both positives and negatives. After all aren't most of the toppers from the Ivy leagues, public school educated Asians?

    September 13, 2011 at 12:11 pm |
  32. flippertie

    The situation is a lot more complex that most of the commenter above seem to think. There are plenty of "International " Schools offering great education at a high price – mostly filled with expat kids and children of rich local chinese. These often cover the curriculum of the 'home country' eg Korean int, Australian Int etc. Then there are the government "Local" schools that offer Chinese only education. There are also some Govt schools that offer "English" mediium . Most of these are pretty terrible as far as education or encouraging learning. There are a handful that are excellent turning out kids speaking English, Cantonese, Mandarin – But they are incredibly selective and have huge debentures deposits ( eg> 100K US$) etc.

    The Govt recognised the lack of affordable English mediium schools and set up the ESF in the 70s to handle the issue – They provide some subsidy, and parents pay the rest. Trouble is that they are a victim of their own success – everyone who wants good education for their kids, but cannot afford the international fees wants their kids to go there.

    That leaves local English speakers (such as myself) with little choice. We're not all spoilt currency traders and the like – there are plenty of journalists, designers,musicians, programmers, accountants etc earning a normal local salary, with none of the fancy expat benefits who are being squeezed out of the system.

    Saying that we, or our kids should learn the local language, and attend the local schools displays a complete lack of understanding of the realities of HK's schools, and the difficulties of learning a second language fluently – especially one as foreign to western ears as Cantonese.

    The basic points of the article are true:
    - HK lacks decent affordable English medium school places
    - many people who have or could contribute to HK's aim of bein "Asia's World City" are leaving or staying away because of this.

    September 14, 2011 at 6:48 am |
  33. freeman70

    In response to flippertie, they can learn a foreign language. What do you think most of the Asians in the UK, America, Canada, Australia, and New Zealand have been doing for years. Some of them only started studying English in junior high school. If the children are young enough and willing to accept the culture, they should have no trouble. My brother's children can speak Chinese better than they speak English but they can still communicate well enough in English. My own daughter when old enough will study at a local school. Then again, I live in Taiwan and have decided to settle here so maybe my situation is different. However, those who want to work and live abroad should consider costs and benefits of taking a job in a foreign country. That is their responsibility. It is not the responsibility of their host government. I also reiterate an earlier opinion that foreigners like to cast disparaging comments about local schools. As a westerner living in Taiwan, on return trips home, I haven't seen any western graduates that are any better than their Asian counterparts. In fact, I find that education in western countries is inferior in many aspects. At least, most of the Taiwanese are truly literate with only a mandatory grade 8 education. Then again, almost all proceed on to high school and beyond.

    September 15, 2011 at 2:37 am |
  34. John S

    The topic is Hong Kong education, not Asian education, Hong Kong is notorious for its outmoded, inflexible and bureaucracy driven education sytem. No civil servants have their kids educated in HK, from the Minister for Education down. They all send their kids overseas, knowing what the local system is like.
    The thing is, the HK schools are given billions for education, and a lot of it ends up being spent on technology that is never used, facilities the kids arent allowed to use or arent allowed in, lifts in buildings that people arent allowed to use, useless PD that Principals pay for because they have no idea what will help teachers teach better, ELTAS that can hardly speak English, let alone teach kids it, lots of PR for schools ..leaflets, pictures videos, etc etc etc selling the school (western faces must be on them).
    HK opened up a can of worms when they put overseas teachers into local schools...but still, noone will say the emperors got no clothes.

    September 16, 2011 at 1:27 pm |
  35. Kone Zi

    Hong Kong has been losing its relevance as a gateway to China in the last fifteen years. It's a overcrowded, highly dense, overprice place to live. While there are some from the mainland who want to live there, most mainland Chinese don't care to live there. I choose Beijing over Hong Kong on any given day with its many parks, wide open space and more humble and tolerant people. At the risk of generalization, until the late 1990s, people in Hong Kong were known to be condescending toward Chinese mainlanders. Then mainland became much more powerful economically and they started to give more respect. People in Hong Kong have a lot of this colonial leftover mentality – respect the white man and scorn the Indians, blacks, Filippinos.

    Honestly, let's look the situation from another perspective, if a family from China moved to the U. S. or U. K. and posted some complaint about not find international school where the instruction is not in the local language, people will be outrage at their refusal to learn English. Yet for these expats, many of whom came from the U. S. or U. K. suddenly demand their children learn instruction in their own language instead of the local one? Sure it's tough to be a immigrant child and learn a language from scratch at the age of 11 or 12, and certainly he will struggle for 2 to 3 years, but eventually he will catch up. It has been done by millions worldwide who are not so privileged to have access to the expensive international school.

    The superiority of international school is not necessary there and most kids don't come out smarter or more accomplished. What it accomplishes is to get lazy parents to get someone else to take more of the child-rearing responsibilities so they can earn their six or seven figure salaries.

    If the parents are really smart, they would avoid taking their kids to Hong Kong in the first place. Other options in life exist, if they choose to be fettered by the golden handcuff, who is to blame?

    Also, it's true that in Hong Kong, many people can speak neither intelligible English nor mandarin Chinese. Even graduates of top universities are not immune from this. Hong Kong needs to wake up, Catonese (Guangdong hua) is not the official dialect of China and it's no longer a British territory.

    Honestly,Hong Kong is not that great a place to live. The education system isn't that great either. Graduates are physically weak and not mentally much more advantageous either. Slovenia, has more Olympic medalist than Hong Kong. Hong Kong's one dimensional education is truly sad.

    September 19, 2011 at 6:43 am |
  36. Kone Zi

    Hong Kong has been losing its relevance as a gateway to China in the last fifteen years. It's a overcrowded, highly dense, overprice place to live. Even most mainland Chinese don't care to live there. I choose Beijing over Hong Kong on any given day with its many parks, wide open space and more humble and tolerant people. At the risk of generalization, until the late 1990s, people in Hong Kong were known to be condescending toward Chinese mainlanders. Then mainland became much more powerful economically and they started to give more respect. People in Hong Kong have a lot of this colonial leftover mentality – respect the white man and scorn the Indians, blacks, Filippinos.

    Honestly, let's look the situation from another perspective, if a family from China moved to the U. S. or U. K. and posted some complaint about not find international school where the instruction is not in the local language, people will be outrage at their refusal to learn English. Yet for these expats, many of whom came from the U. S. or U. K. suddenly demand their children learn instruction in their own language instead of the local one? Sure it's tough to be a immigrant child and learn a language from scratch at the age of 11 or 12, and certainly he will struggle for 2 to 3 years, but eventually he will catch up. It has been done by millions worldwide who are not so privileged to have access to the expensive international school.

    The superiority of international school is not necessary there and most kids don't come out smarter or more accomplished. What it accomplishes is to get lazy parents to get someone else to take more of the child-rearing responsibilities so they can earn their six or seven figure salaries.

    If the parents are really smart, they would avoid taking their kids to Hong Kong in the first place. Other options in life exist, if they choose to be fettered by the golden handcuff, who is to blame?

    Also, it's true that in Hong Kong, many people can speak neither intelligible English nor mandarin Chinese. Even graduates of top universities are not immune from this. Hong Kong needs to wake up, Catonese (Guangdong hua) is not the official dialect of China and it's no longer a British territory.

    Honestly,Hong Kong is not that great a place to live. The education system isn't that great either. Graduates are physically weak and not mentally much more advantageous either. Slovenia, has more Olympic medalist than Hong Kong. Hong Kong's one dimensional education is truly sad.

    September 19, 2011 at 6:58 am |
  37. Cleo

    Hong Kong has been shored up and glamorized like a five star hotel for one reason: no one in their right mind would live in this geographic location otherwise. It's not China proper, it was never much before it became a colony and only will and Chinese cooperation allows this place to call itself a financial center. There is no reason for this location to be international other than that the Powers that Be wish it to be so. So why invest in Hong Kong long term? The education sucks. I really think that it is a giant shopping mall in the future. The Mainland children are perfectly lovely and courteous individually and will have no problem competing so what is the long term purpose of Hong Kong other than to protect China's geographic underbelly?

    December 28, 2011 at 5:06 pm |
  38. sam

    don't blame the expats or foreigners for not sending their children to local schools, the problem is beyond one imagination, no local school accepts them because their children cannot speak cantonese and hk gov said they cannot do anything about it. Locals dislike their local schools, and their local schools reject foreigners, hk education system is simply a joke!!!

    March 1, 2012 at 8:58 am |
  39. sam

    According to the recent hk gov announcement there are 2 new international being constructed for opening in 2013 but guess what? Because of no ceiling limit has ever been set for local and foreign children at any schools, these new schools will likely be occupied by the local children again, still no places for expats, great huh?

    If the currently policy persists, the only solution to this matter is to demolish all local schools and replace them with international.

    I am not an expat but i cannot accept such a stupid system !!!

    March 1, 2012 at 9:04 am |
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