Epic Guide on How to Choose the Right School for Your Child Without Fail

Whenever the topic of school is brought up in any conversations, what kind of emotion will you have? Bothered? Worry? Or confusion?

Before your child is finally settled into a good school, you are very likely to be constantly besieged by these emotions. Choosing the right school for your child is definitely one of the biggest and most nerve-wracking decisions for parents, particularly for those who have no previous experience or knowledge in this area.

The pressure is on since pregnancy. Everyone is talking about school.

You would hear other parents-to-be rambling non-stop about schools. Some have even prepared application forms to schools for their unborn children. At first, you thought they are crazy.

But soon fear starts to creep up on you and your mind would begin to race – What should I do next? Would my child be left behind if I do nothing? How can I increase the chance of my child in getting into a good school? But I don’t know my child well enough to make a sound decision! Even if I can afford it, which stream should my child follow, international or local? What kind of education will suit and benefit my child the most in the future?

Time seems to be running out before you could even enjoy parenthood …

I’ve been there. And I hated the uncertainty and anxiety that period of confusion had given me. Having been on this path for over 10 years and finally set foot on the present school where we all love, I have a lot to say about schools which should be helpful to you.

Hopefully, after reading this guide, you can take away something and be able to sort through all the noises and confusions to make the best school choice for your child with absolute clarity and confidence.

The Hong Kong Education System

No, no, no we are not joining the crowd to discuss how effective or ineffective the Hong Kong education system has been. Instead, we’ll be ultra practical. First, we should look at what options are available to us under the system.

Do you know how many types of primary and secondary schools are there? Not four, not six, but SEVEN! I’m sure you can name a few but let’s get to the bottom of it – click here for an overview of all seven types of schools in HK. I strongly suggest you to find out all the differences and research on the type(s) of school that you are interested in. The more you know, the higher the chances you have in making an informed and right choice.

The general rule is private schools have total autonomy on how the schools are operated with no intervention from the Education Bureau but the school fees are very high. The exact opposite would be the government schools while the aided, DSS and ESF schools etc. sit in the middle in terms of school autonomy and school fees. For example, some private local schools can opt out of the much debated Territory-wide System Assessment (TSA) while the government schools do not have this option.

Which Opinion Should You Listen To?

Before we get down to talk about school, let’s take a look at the common opinions below. You should have heard most of these comments, if not all, multiple times from different sources:

  • “Try local school first. It’s easier to move to international stream later. There’s no turning back once your child’s in an international school.”
  • “It takes a full time parent to ensure the success of a child in local school. The burden on parents to keep up the progress in local schools is way too heavy.”
  • “There are full of children from the new riches / tycoons in the international schools. If you send your child there, they will feel inferior when compared with other kids and you could not afford what your child would demand from you.”
  • “Apart from the never-ending homeworks and assessments, it’s hyper competitive in local schools. Your kid will have no childhood life there.”
  • “The international school kids are too relaxed in school.”
  • “The local school kids are poor in creative thinking. The international school kids lack discipline.”
  • “Local school kids are more down to earth.”

Are you sold by any of these opinions? Were you affected by them in any way when considering your school options?

My advice is DON’T TAKE THESE OPINIONS SERIOUSLY!

There are always many “strong opinions” about school choices but I want you to be able to dispel them. I’m not saying these opinions are misguided but the arguments supporting their claims simply don’t hold true to all situations and individuals. In other words, they are no golden rules.

You as the parents are in the best position to make a well-deliberated decision for your child because every child has their own strengths and weaknesses. No one knows your child better than you do. A school decision should be made based on understanding and analysing the gathered information and the unique factors of each child, not by following these generalised opinions.

Besides, on many personality and behavioural issues, the influence from home is way bigger than from school. Don’t throw every problem into the school context. It is the home environment and parents that shape the children.

On Changing Schools

I want to take school hopping as an example and elaborate on the point on why we should disregard generalised opinions.

It is widely believed among parents that it’s easier for kids to adjust from local to international school. So, parents should send their kids to local school first to ensure their Chinese proficiency. Sounds familiar, right?

If you dig a little deeper, the main reasons they made that claim are:

  1. It should be easier for the kids to adjust from a high-stress (local) to low-stress (international) environment, and
  2. Chinese is more difficult to pick up when a kid has grown up.

There is an obvious flaw in the claim. Not only that both reasons provided above can be easily rebutted, they have totally missed out the emotional well being of the children when changing schools.

When a child is moved from one school to another, the transitional period could be very tough and stressful. If the new school’s teaching style and the main language used are drastically different from those of the old school, the child has to be well-prepared in order to adapt to the huge changes without distress.

I have seen a child being expelled from school in just two months after admission because he couldn’t adjust to the relaxed rules of the new school. He became very disruptive in class as he was so used to be bound by tight rules and the watchful eyes of the teachers. When there were no rules and he was free to do what he wanted, he couldn’t control himself. This case illustrated high-stress to low-stress environment can lead to disaster too.

Apart from the academic side of the issue, social aspects may even have a bigger impact on the children. By moving to a totally new environment, they will have to start all over to make new friends and adjust to the very different social circles. They will feel lonely and miss their old friends when seeing other students mixing well with their long-term friends.

Some may argue adapting to new environment is a skill that all kids should learn and the sooner they learn how to deal with it, the better.   

I plead you to shout out loud to whoever saying this to you, “NO!!!!!!!!!!!”

Children need to be in a stable environment where they can feel safe to develop their confidence and thrive. Those who have been in the same school for years would have built deep relationship, reputation and rapport from their friends and teachers. At this early stage of their life, children need the familiarity in school (and home as well) for a safe environment to grow, explore and maneuver and this factor is far too important to be ignored.

To reduce the frequency of moving from school to school, I recommend you to put in all the work and research upfront. Try to place your child in a school that fit your selection criteria (suggested below) and stick with it. Avoid school hopping at all cost.

We All Think This Way

It is easy and very tempting to follow the herd and go behind prestigious schools.

It is a safe choice and gives you so much confidence. Despite the fierce competition, students in these schools have a higher chance to have a bright future. Their academic result will be better; their social status and credibility are higher; the classmates are future leaders of different industries; the graduates get into the “best” schools at the next level and their future success is more or less guaranteed. What a simple success formula!

But is this a foolproof formula and applicable to all?

I urge you to steer your focus away from the glory on stage and check the actions backstage. A lot of things can go wrong in the making of a star student in such a ruthless environment. What are their emotional and mental status? Are they under stress? Do they still enjoy to learn? Are they in a nurturing environment where instant support is available if the children are in troubles? There are many areas to address in order for a child to thrive in any of the highly competitive schools with a healthy attitude.

Before you make up your mind for such a critical decision, I’m sure you can spend some time to gather more information from different points of view?

Don’t let your desire to make your child succeed blind you and stop you from having an open mind in search for answers to this ultimate question – What is the best suit for your child?

Local vs International

To begin with, please spend a few minutes to jot down what you expect your child to achieve at school and what kind of person you want your child to be by the time he/she is graduated from high school. Try to write down as much details as you possibly can.

( Take your time, I can wait! )

Done? You can put your note aside for the moment. We will come back to it later.

From the link I provided above and through your own follow-up research, I assume you have obtained a relatively good idea on what school options are open to you. In general, there are two main streams – local and international.

To make a conscious choice, you must weigh your preferences on the key differences between the two streams:

Cost

Undoubtedly, this is an overriding factor.

The annual tuition of international schools in Hong Kong is, in general, within the range of HKD100,000 – HKD200,000. Private Local School and Direct Subsidy Scheme (DSS) schools fees are mostly below HKD100,000. As for government schools, completely free.

Apart from tuition fees, you should also be fully aware of:

  • Most international schools require students to hold some form of debenture. The amount varies a lot between schools. The difference? From tens of thousands for an individual debenture to tens of millions for a corporate debenture.
  • The annual raise of school fees. Normally, the rate is much higher than inflation.
  • The fees you see now is only the “entry” level. Do check the school fees all the way up to secondary years.
  • Most international schools require students above certain age to participate in yearly overseas trip. The cost is to be borne by the parents.   

If international school is not an option for you, there are still plenty of schools in diverse styles for you to choose from. It just requires a lot more digging and research on your part. You may skim through the below session on the differences between international and local schools but some points remain valid in your quest of the right school.

Language

Language has to be one of the biggest concerns when parents choose between international and local schools.

Again, there are many ill-informed opinions and as you can expect, I suggest you to ignore them and start afresh. Being a serious parent, you will not make such crucial decision based on simple rule of thumb.

First and foremost, language preference is indeed a very personal choice. You may have a very strong desire to ensure your child is proficient in one language over the others. In that case, you should definitely go with your heart.

Take Chinese as an example, if you really want your child to talk and write like a native Chinese, you should not consider international school. Even if you are willing to invest huge amount of money, time and effort to make up the lost hours and training of Chinese from school, it is unlikely that your child will be on a par with the local school kids.

Same case applies to English. It is almost impossible for local school students to be able to converse and write in English like a native.

But If you are pretty open on this aspect, try answering these questions and jot down your answers for further analysis:

  1. Your preference
    • How important is it for you on the proficiency in Chinese / English of your child?
    • What is your priority?
    • Why?
  2. Your expectation
    • What kind of level are you expecting your child to exhibit in Chinese / English? Native, Basic read and write or Conversational?
    • Why?
  3. Language environment at home
    • What language are you going to use at home (I strongly suggest using your mother tongue. You may refer to my relevant blog post here.)? If you place your child in international school while you speak with him/her in Cantonese at home, your child will be able to carry on a conversation like a local Hongkonger but still, their ability to read and write Chinese is another issue.
    • What is the mother tongue of the main caretaker (other than the parents) at home? Is it going to be the language you speak at home? If not, is the caretaker a fluent speaker of the language? Can he/she help you teach the language you prefer your child to pick up at home? Note: Do not regard your English speaking domestic helper as someone who could provide the English speaking environment for your child. Although your child may have to speak more in English, your helper won’t be able to help him/her improve.
  4. Remedies
    • For the secondary language at school which you care about, could you make any arrangement to effectively teach your child that language? Hire private tutors? Attend classes at language centre?
    • Can you to teach the language yourself? How dedicated are you? Or is it even practical for you to do this everyday for years to come?
    • Are you prepared and capable to spare the resources, both time and money, for years to see result?

The more details you give for the above questions, the clearer the picture you will have on the various factors that contribute to your end decision.  You should combine all your answers and check with yourself what is the optimal school choice that works for you.

Of course, if your preference and expectation lean towards a particular language, it is a strong signal that one type of school would better suit your goal – Chinese for local schools and English for international schools.

ONE IMPORTANT POINT TO NOTE: No school can guarantee proficiency in languages other than the main language used in school. Even for the top DSS and international schools, the standard of bilingual ability of their students varies greatly. Reasons? The differences lie in the intensity and length of work at point 3 and 4 above. Put it plainly, the differences are the effect from factors outside of school.

curriculum, teaching and learning style

I will not list out the differences here. These information are easily accessible and fact-based. You should do the research yourself and get familiar with the merits and problems of the curriculum and teaching style of each type of school.

The most important part of your research is to talk to parents with kids in both international and local schools. If possible, meet the children and talk to them. Ask them as much questions as you can think of. Apart from the curriculum itself, ask what kind of roadblocks they have encountered. How do they cope? Ask the child how does he/she find the teachers? Is the child looking forward to go to school everyday? Whatever the answer is, ask for the reasons. I cannot emphasize this one single action more. Surely it will take extra time and effort, but it’s totally worth the hassle.

After the deep research phase, you will gain much insight and insider information beyond the facts at the surface level. You will get to feel what kind of lives, both school and after school, these students are leading and their general mindsets and behaviours. Of course, these qualities are by no means influenced solely by which type of school they are in. BUT, you will have a good general idea.

If you have done the job, put your hand on your heart and ask yourself which style you “believe” in and which type of school will suit your child.

Have trouble making the call? Retrieve the note that you wrote earlier on about what do you expect from the schooling of your child. Which type of school fits your ideology and is more promising in reaching your goal?

Parental Role

You should have known this from your deep research process. In many local schools, students need a great deal of support from parents in handling vast amount of homeworks, revision, tests and …… the associated stress. Unlike the old days, where we were more or less on our own while our parents were busy with their own work and social life and we ended up fine; now your child need close guidance and support from you under the high pressure environment, otherwise, the potential problems can be huge.

I have no intention to scare anybody. But if you have paid attention to the news, there are no shortage of reports of students having problems in coping with the demand from schools and resulting in all sorts of emotional and mental problems and in the worst case, harming themselves.

Are you prepared to do this? Or should I put it this way, do you accept this is the way of life, at least in Hong Kong, and this is how you are going to spend most of your time with your child throughout his/her childhood?

If you have no doubt of your dedication and ability and are ready to do so, sure.

If you don’t think this is how you and your child should spend your time after school, you have two choices. One, opt for international schools or two, critically choose and apply to those private/DSS/aided schools where homeworks and assessments are being administered at a manageable level.

Decision Time

Prioritise Your Preferences -
Language, Curriculum & Teaching and Learning Style, and Parental Role

1. __________________________________________________________________

2. __________________________________________________________________

3. __________________________________________________________________

Once you have decided what factors matter the most to you, you should be able to make a call based on solid reasons. By finding the “meaning” behind your decision, you are more likely to stay strong when facing challenges and instead of doubting yourself, you would make necessary arrangements instead.

In my case, I valued the style of learning over everything. I want my children to enjoy learning, maintain the curiosity for life, and explore everything that interested them by having more free time of their own. International school was the obvious choice. I was fully aware of the trade-off. The biggest sacrifice is their Chinese proficiency. We modestly adjusted our expectation of my children’s Chinese level from “native” to “good-enough”. And to achieve that, it takes a lot of time, sweat and tears.

Choosing the Right School

Now that you have decided which type of school suit your child. It’s time to narrow down the scope.

Remember not to blindly chase the fame and branding of schools. It’s tough not to but for your child’s sake, please keep the options open.

You should have in hand a list of schools that interest you. Step one, you should arrange school visits and attend as many of the open days as possible. If the window is open, go to the school fairs. You will gain a much clearer picture of what the students are like in that specific school. At this stage, you want to take in as much information as you can. So, don’t limit the visits to just the top schools, go see the differences for yourself. I suggest you bring the checklist below for all your visits and try to obtain the relevant information for your own evaluation.

Step two, you should take into account all of the below in making individual school choice:

  • TEACHERS QUALITY, not just their qualification but their drive and passion. This is one of the most important factors, if not the most, and it directly affects your child’s learning. One great teacher can change the life of a student. I was very lucky to have encountered a few great teachers along the way who sparked my interests in English, Chinese poetry and modern history. You definitely want to put your child in schools full of passionate and capable teachers who CARE about their students. And how do you find out? From your research phase with the parents and kids!
  • Is the school being supportive to the staffs and well run? You can tell by the level of organization, staff’s spirit and even the cleanliness of the school during the school visits. Also, the staff turnover rate is a big hint. These elements are immensely important as they give you a good indication of whether the school can “walk the talk”.
  • Pay extra attention to the students of the school; their behavior, discipline level and language proficiency depending on your individual concerns.
  • Track record – What kind of schools the graduates went to? If you have a dream primary school which you want your child to study in, you may want to enrol your child in the pre-school or kindergarten where many of the graduates moved to your dream school.
  • Is it a through-train school? Many parents prefer to choose a through-train school as their child will have a secured place if they choose to stay without having to go through the torture and panic once again.
  • If you child is somewhat special, gifted or talented, you may wish to place him/her in a school where individual needs will be catered for and your child will be challenged and well taken care of. It takes a highly sophisticated school with proper staffs and systems to pull this off.
  • Any big changes ahead planned by the school? For example, new campus which may implicate future raise in school fees, change of curriculum and compulsory overseas studies.
  • Extra curriculum activities. Are they offered at extra cost or free? Range?
  • Cost. Both standard school fees and extra hidden costs like stationery and outing fees. For the extra cost, what is the amount and how frequent is it?
  • Specific syllabus and how a school day is structured (varies greatly between schools even they take the same exam or curriculum).
  • What is the school policy in allocating students in different classes? By year-end result or random? It will be more competitive for schools to separate students by merits. But if it is the case for language and math classes, the teachers can deliver level-appropriate materials to students and the lessons should be more effective.
  • Teaching style (varies greatly even within the same stream of school)
  • Amount of homework
  • Frequency of assessments, dictations and exams
  • Co-ed or single-gender school
  • Cultural diversity

To assist your evaluation, I have prepared a checklist for you – click HERE for access.

One of the central ideas I learned from two of my favourite books that I have read recently, “The Checklist Manifesto” by Atul Gawande and “Thinking, Fast and Slow” by Daniel Kahneman, is that human brain is not as reliable as we think it is and therefore, for crucial decision making, it is better to have a planned out system, or well-rehearsed checklist, for us to fall back on. It has been proven scientifically that we are proned to make mistakes when we are under stress or when the situation is complicated and time and time again, a simple checklist can save the day. This is why I have made this standard checklist for you.

By going through all essential items for each and every school you have interest in, you should be able to make a fair and square overview based on the total mark of each school. Needless to say, the higher the mark, the higher the rank the school should be in your own priority list.

The 3-5 schools on the top of your list are those you should go after.

A Long Game To Play

Relax.

Ultimately, school’s role is to provide a learning environment for your child to grow. And that’s about it, it’s not everything. Getting into a good school doesn’t mean your child’s future success is guaranteed either. It is only the start of a new phase.

As long as you have your child’s education at heart, nothing can deter or slow you down in your dream to raise and bring up a child who will lead a successful adult life.

The most effective vehicle for improving children’s outcomes
is not the school … it is the family.Paul Tough of “How Children Succeed”

You are playing the long game of raising a child and bear in mind, school is only a small part.

 

~ Joey


Also published on Medium.

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