For the majority of expat families living in Hong Kong, the issue of education is always at the forefront of their minds. Along with quality of life and distance from family, education ranks as one of the key considerations in the perpetual question of how long you will live abroad.
The issue of if and when to return home is complex and multifaceted. In regard to schooling alone, it is a finely weighted scale which has to balance age, timing, curriculum, ability and possible social hurdles. For those not planning to relocate but instead wanting to send their child to boarding school, making the decision can be just as tricky.
Hong Kong vs. The World
Aside from the frustrating competition for places, Hong Kong is fortunate to have a strong and varied education offering. Standards are high and results are consistently applauded. Hong Kong is consistently ranked in the top five best education systems in the world, ahead of the US, UK, Canada and Australia.
So if a Hong Kong education is so impressive, is it safe to assume that a child educated here will not encounter any problems being offered a place at a school in a different country?
Unfortunately, no. There is much more to moving schools than academic ranking.
The problem is that whilst the overall academic standard here might be higher than in most countries, the differences in curriculum, teaching style and terminology can still flummox a child when sitting a test. On top of that, competition for places, extracurricular strengths and the time of the transition can also play a part in making admissions to new schools tricky.
So if a family does decide to move their children to school in another country, what are the things that need to be considered? Here are a few pointers that may help.
Education starts at home, and it starts with the parents.
The first step is for the parents to suss out the system that they are moving to and understand the criterion for entry. This requires some thorough research in order to fully understand all the different things that need to be considered – age restrictions, timings and barriers for entry.
Jay Bacrania is the founder of Signet Education in Boston, an education consultancy that advises students applying to US colleges.
He explains, “Parents need to educate themselves on the factors necessary for US admissions; most notably, extracurriculars and the personal essay carry a significant amount of weight in the US system, in addition to the more obvious factors such as admissions testing and grades.”
So the first step in parental education is to understand exactly what will be required - which exams, which tests, which admissions procedure.
The second is to gain a sufficient grasp of each school under consideration to be able to make a confident decision about which might be right for your child and thus, where to apply.
In regard to this, it is important for parents to see past the fog of league tables and reputations; it is not possible to get a feel for a school solely from academic results and websites. Visits are essential.
Josie Cameron-Ashcroft is the founder and owner of Cameron House School in London, a popular Chelsea prep which takes children from ages 4-11. Josie notes that the parents who make it a priority to understand the different personalities and strengths of each school and make informed decisions on this basis, are the parents whose children settle swiftly into their new environment.
“It has to be a decision that takes into account the parents, the child and the school. A school is not just somewhere where a child is educated. Parents are choosing a community and it has to be the right one for every party involved.”
So it is not just the parents who need to see the schools; the schools need to see the parents. They need to be able to put a face to a name and understand whether your family will be a good fit for the school.
So once you have a shortlist, get on the plane and go and visit. Make this a priority.
As an education consultant, timing is the single biggest impediment I see which trips up school transitions - both the timing of when to move as well as when to start applying and preparing. Therefore, mapping out a rough timeline early on will help to avoid unnecessary setbacks.
This is not to say that parents need to start preparing their children whilst they are still in nappies but it is helpful to have a vague plan in place from an early onset, even if that plan is adapted further along the line.
For the British system particularly, there is often a different time frame for those applying from Asia, even if they are from expat families. Registration deadlines, for example, can close sooner for non-UK based applicants so it is advisable for parents to do their research early.
For integration into the US school system, Jay Bacrania recommends transitioning prior to high school, around 7th or 8th grade. “Everything starts in 9th grade” he explains, “so you need a run up to that.” Therefore planning should start sufficiently in advance of that.
With the UK, it is difficult to give such precise guidance as there are numerous possible entry points. Generally the best rule of thumb is to sit down with an education consultant around four years before entry to talk through options and scenarios.
One outcome of this meeting should be a clear timeline, noting all of the key dates for applications, testing and interviews. Once these are established, parents can then visualise the process and start to understand what needs to happen when in regard to preparation time and tutoring requirements.
The Difference Between a Curriculum and a Syllabus
Curriculum is a very broad term; generally decided on by a government, a curriculum is essentially a guide to the program of study. But it does not map out specifically what will be covered. That is the job of the syllabus, which is decided by the school and thus varies from place to place.
To demonstrate this, the national curriculum may say that, in English lessons, an 11 year old should be able to “learn a wide range of poetry and show understanding through intonation”. But it does not say whether this poetry should be in the vein of Roald Dahl’s Revolting Rhymes or Shakespeare’s sonnets. That is what the syllabus would do.
So whilst a British school abroad is normally based on the same curriculum as a British school in the UK, it would be wrong to assume that children at both will learn the same syllabus.
Why is this a problem? Because when children are looking to jump from one system to another, this tests the differences between the syllabi and is often where they first start to encounter problems. Even if pupils are performing well at school, if the entrance tests examine them on things that they have never seen before, they understandably may falter.
Plugging these holes in the syllabus’ gaps - well in advance, not at the last minute – will therefore become a crucial aspect in ensuring that a child does well in entrance tests and hits the ground running on the first day at a new school.
Expat life is a melting pot of different cultures and habits and international education is no different. As such, children often learn alternative methods and terminologies which can cause problems when sitting tests in other countries.
Whilst some may imagine that children would apply logic in these situations and deduce what the alien word means, sitting an entrance test can be stressful and children will find themselves easily flummoxed by things that they would normally be able to work out.
“There are often small differences in vocabulary around specific subjects and problem solving approaches that can trip students up after international transitions; a little tutoring can go a long way here.” says Jay Bacrania.
So whilst this is a small point, it is an easy one to solve.
In a similar vein, Josie Cameron-Ashcroft notices differences in the way that children from international schooling are taught. “They are beautifully taught, robotically parroted. But their creativity is not always as strong.”
She gives the example of asking her young pupils to avoid using the word ‘said’ when writing creative pieces and instead find more imaginative words. “I want to hear ‘yelled’, ‘bellowed’ and ‘whispered’.”
Again, some tailored tutoring can help to solve this.
Keeping Track of Progress
School reports are a helpful update on how children are performing in regard to their current school. However, it would be a mistake to assume that they can also be used as an indication of how they might fare in comparison to their peers at an intended school. This is because standards and benchmarks vary from country to country and school to school.
The best way to understand whether or not a child is performing at the required level of an intended school is to have him assessed by someone familiar with that country’s system and standards.
The assessment should be marked in correlation to the same expectations of the child’s peers in that country. This will give parents a greater understanding of his current ability and an indication of what help might be needed to bridge the gap.
Whilst academic results are crucial to a strong application, most schools also realise the value of a broad range of extracurricular interests. Amongst so many applicants, it is most likely this that will set one child apart from another.
However what some parents do not appreciate is that it is less important which sports, clubs or hobbies children take up but instead what is important is how engaged they are in them.
A few years ago, I helped an eleven year old boy receive an offer to Winchester College, arguably the UK’s most academic boys’ school. Unusually, this boy was fanatical about bell ringing. In his own time he practised it, studied it and was keen to learn more. That might sound peculiar but this curious hobby made him a very appealing applicant for the school because he showed genuine interest in something and was pursuing it of his own accord.
For the most competitive schools, extracurricular activities require more than just involvement; potential candidates need to show real interest and drive. So a tiger mother forcing her reluctant child to sit grade 8 violin may not be as effective as she imagines.
Parents who choose what they think will distinguish their child will choose the same thing that the next parent thinks will distinguish their child. The spirit is to look for those authentically engaged in their interest.
Hugh Gammell, registrar at Charterhouse School, is of the same thought; those just going through the motions but without real interest will be “spotted at interview”.
“It’s not box ticking. We can easily identify those with real passion and those without,” he says.
When the summer holidays approach, I am occasionally asked by parents to help draw up a program of study to ensure that their children do not switch off whilst out of school. Whilst it can be beneficial to keep brains ticking over with a little bit of English and Maths here and there, in fact what is normally more beneficial is to spend the summer concentrating on a sport or hobby in order to really develop an interest and hone a talent. It does not matter whether it is tennis, tap dancing or amateur geology. What matters is finding something which makes them tick and which they can talk about with real enthusiasm.
And finally, a word on tutoring.
This can be a divisive subject and people much more knowledgeable than me have written large books on it. But here is my opinion.
If you have to tutor your child to within an inch of his life in order to get him into a particular school, then that school is not the right school for him.
In addition to that, hours and hours of tutoring will be harmful to everyone and everything involved, save the tutor’s bank account. A little remedial tutoring – fine. Some tutoring to learn unfamiliar terms, practice exam technique or revise some key areas – also fine. But cancelling all extracurricular activities and social events and replacing them with tutoring is inhumane and counter productive.
Children need freedom to spend time with friends, to pursue their own hobbies and to relax. But parental ambition can on occasion cloud judgement. So this is a friendly reminder to keep your child’s mental health at the forefront of this process.
About the AuthorAmelia Sewell is an education consultant who specialises in UK admissions. Amelia provides a one-stop service including admissions guidance, academic assessment, interview practice, school selection and application services for students.
To find out more, please visit http://www.ameliasewell.com/