September 12th, 2011
05:12 AM GMT
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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