Finding a school in Hong Kong

Rapid growth in expat numbers, has led to an undersupply of school places for the children of international assignees in Hong Kong. Parents shouldn’t despair, however, as the picture is improving, albeit slowly.

International School children in Hong Kong
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School options for expatriate families in Hong Kong, which have been hugely challenging for several years, look set to improve somewhat in the near future. This follows an extended period of concern about the lack of school places, an issue that has caused a significant number of expatriate families to turn down postings.However, little will change in the short term, which means a continued fight for places. For now, gaining a place at one of Hong Kong’s leading international schools is almost impossible. In the 2016/17 academic year, there was an estimated shortfall of over 4,200 primary-school places.

Demand for school places

Richard Gaskell, schools director at ISC Research, explains the challenge Hong Kong is facing. “The number of English-medium international schools has risen from 92 in the year 2000 to a total of 177 today. However, the number of students has more than doubled, from 34,200 to well over 81,000.“Increasing demand for school places is coming from local wealthy families who want an English-medium international-school education for their children. School fees are affordable for a significant number of them. Combined with already-high demand from expatriate families, most schools in Hong Kong are operating at, or close to, full capacity, and there are long waiting lists at virtually all of the leading schools.”The executive officer of the Association of China and Mongolia International Schools (ACAMIS), which has several members in Hong Kong, agrees. “Demand for space in international schools is indeed a problem. Due to population saturation in the residential areas most desired by foreigners, and lack of land for expansion, most established schools have space limitations and tend to fill quickly in the early spring from waiting lists.“Places for secondary-grade levels are somewhat easier to obtain than places in early-childhood or primary sections. Newcomers should be prepared to apply early and to several different schools. Mid-year admissions are quite limited.”

Change underway for the international schools of Hong Kong

The expansion and development of international schools in Hong Kong is controlled by a government tender process that, in May 2015, awarded sites, mostly in outlying areas, to five operators:American School Hong Kong, an ESOL Education school, opened for kindergarten to Grade 6 in August 2016, and will add a middle school in 2017 and a high school in 2018 at its Tai Po campus.Shrewsbury International School will build a new school in Tseung Kwan O, to open in 2018.Lycée Français International de Hong Kong will open an international stream for reception to Year 5 and a French stream for reception to Year 10 at its Tseung Kwan O campus in 2018.Malvern College will open in September 2018 near the Science Park in the New Territories.
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Harbour School moved to a new campus in Ap Lei Chau in late 2016. These initiatives will create 3,490 more primary places and 780 more secondary places. All the schools have committed 80 per cent or more places for expatriate students.“The government supports the development of a vibrant international-school sector in Hong Kong, mainly to meet the demand for school places from overseas families living in Hong Kong and families coming to Hong Kong for work or investment,” said Hong Kong’s Secretary for Education, Eddie Ng.

Recent international school developments

Some existing schools have expanded. These include the International Montessori School network in Hong Kong, which has renovated its Stanley campus to cater for a further 700 kindergarten and primary-school pupils.Development of a new campus for the Christian Alliance International School in Butterfly Valley, Lai Chi Kok, is underway. The campus, which will offer a Canadian curriculum, opened Autumn 2017, with additional phases due to be complete by 2020.Harrow International School Hong Kong, the first international coeducational day and boarding school in Hong Kong, opened in September 2012 and has grown rapidly. Currently boasting a student roll of over 1,500, it is undergoing a five-year period of strategic development (2013 to 2018).September 2014 saw Nord Anglia International School Hong Kong (NAIS HK) open in the Lam Tin district of East Kowloon. The school has received permission to extent its campus to allow it to take students up to Year 11 (the end of their Cambridge GCSEs). Building work will is soon to be completed.NAIS HK will also open its new campus in Tin Wan, Aberdeen, in the southern part of Hong Island by the end of 2017. As a result, the school will be able to provide a full, all-through education to Year 13. 

Established school options

One of the largest providers of English-medium international education in Hong Kong is the English Schools Foundation (ESF). It was established and subsidised by the government to provide families, particularly local citizens, with access to affordable English-language education.ESF’s schools cater for different ages, from kindergarten to 18. They include two private independent schools, and they are very popular. Over 17,000 students attend, more than 5,000 of them expatriates. The ESF opened its fifth international kindergarten in Hong Kong in August 2016.In 2014, nearly 3,000 children applied for the 1,300 Year 1 places available at ESF primary and private independent schools. Year 1 students entering ESF schools in the 2015/16 academic year were the last group to receive government subsidies, which have now been phased out. In addition, since August 2015, parents of students who are joining ESF schools have been required to pay a one-off non-refundable levy.

Debentures and capital levies

Several premium international schools in Hong Kong also demand some form of capital payment or debenture, either as an attendance requirement or, in some cases, as a route to application priority. Some payments are refundable when the child leaves a school; others are not.Both individual and corporate debentures are allocated. Corporate debentures are limited, to ensure that school places are available to families who do not have access to them. “With the current clamour for places, the best schools are able to ask for substantial amounts of money from parents who wish to gain some advantage in the admissions process,” said Nicholas Brummitt, chairman of the International School Consultancy.“In effect, this gives wealthy parents (or their employers) the opportunity to buy a place at their school of choice. This situation will continue for as long as demand for places
at the best schools exceeds supply.”
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Advice for incoming expats

Even with the planned new developments and expansions, demand is expected to exceed supply for the next few years.But relocating families shouldn’t give up hope of a school place. “Hong Kong is fast moving, with families being relocated into and out of our city with very little notice,”
says the marketing and communications manager, at Nord Anglia International School, in Hong Kong. “So places do become available if you are patient and can move quickly when a place frees up.”The bottom line for parents is whether or not their child will receive an offer of a place at a school of their choice. “The most common question I am asked by parents,” says
Vicky Seehafer, director of admissions at Hong Kong International School, which teaches an American-style curriculum, “is about their child’s chances of being admitted.”With this in mind, the head of marketing and admissions at Yew Chung International School Hong Kong (YCIS) advises prospective parents not to be afraid of asking direct questions about the admissions process. Be sure to be in direct contact with a school of interest, and avoid the scoop on social media. Often, parents like to sensationalise, especially in Hong Kong.“At YCIS, the admissions office can give parents the support and help they need to plan joining the school at the desired time. The process of entering schools and kindergartens in Hong Kong has created a reputation of being ‘out of control’, with extensive waiting lists. To a degree, some of this is over-dramatised.“YCIS is very aware that relocating families need flexibility with timing. International professionals are sought after in Hong Kong, and their accompanying families must
be catered for.”Says Nord Anglia International School, “We aim to be as honest and transparent as possible about the likelihood of places in certain year groups. We can’t always give good news, but we’d rather be honest, so that families can make decisions based on the latest information.“There are a number of companies providing school placement services, but we do still encourage parents to give us a call first, so that they can have a chat with our admissions team and get a first-hand view on whether our school is a good fit for their child, and the availability of places.”
The APAC Guide to Education & Schools is designed to help relocating parents make informed education choices.
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