It's a Hard Life - International Schools in Hong Kong

By: Laura Besley

If you think you had a hard time at school (and maybe you didn’t), you should give going to school in Hong Kong a try. A child’s first interview could be at the age of two-and-a-half to get into K1 (Kindergarten 1). If they fail to get into the right kindergarten, there will be more pressure on them to get into the right primary school. Then they will probably have another interview at five to get into Primary 1. If they don’t do well, and don’t get into the desired primary school, their life is effectively over. Or that’s what the adults around them will have them believe.

There is an inordinate amount of pressure on kids here to do well at school. Everything is about being the best. In class they are ranked and everyone always knows who is the best in the class, but also who is the worst. Alongside normal school hours kids will have afterschool classes, activities and, more often than not, tutors to help them with their homework. I teach at the British Council Hong Kong and afterschool hours, as well as Saturdays and Sundays, are packed with kids coming for extracurricular lessons.

In Hong Kong the local language is Cantonese. However, a lot of children at school will be taught in Mandarin and English. This has got to be one of the few places in the world where you are not taught in your mother tongue (if you are living in your country of origin). Most children will grow up speaking three languages and heaven help you if you’re not good at languages.

The most popular ‘local schools’ are bilingual schools. There are bilingual kindergartens, primary and secondary schools. They are banded A-D (A being the best). Once you are in a band it’s very difficult, in fact almost impossible, to move. There are also international schools and these are extremely hard to get into. I was speaking to a mother recently who had put her two-year old son on the list for the British International School and he was number 55. “Let’s just hope 54 kids move away in the next three years,” she said. “Otherwise I’m screwed!”

Once children have endured kindergarten and primary school, there is the challenge of high school and preparation for university. A lot of students will go abroad to university. America, Australia, Canada and England are the most popular places, for the obvious reason that they are English speaking countries. In the final year of high school pupils will take the HKDSE exams. These are taken in all subjects and what I know of the English paper, they are extremely difficult. The English paper consists of Reading, Writing, Speaking and Listening & Integrated Skills. This paper is challenging for native speakers, let along if you are doing it in a foreign language.

I often feel sorry for the children that I teach. They often complain of being tired or having too much homework and they’re only four or five years old. It makes me really sad that they are not out playing at the weekend, but are in yet another classroom learning more things to store in their little brains.

About the author

Expat Blog ListingLaura Besley is a British expat living in Hong Kong. Blog description: On my blog I write weekly book reviews, travel pieces about Hong Kong and Asia, and Flash Fiction.
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Contest Comments » There are 10 comments

Shona Jhunjhnuwala wrote 7 years ago:

VERY NICE AND TRUE !! I have 5 Children all went to ESF schools 2 are still there.... I Feel the same way about the Languages situation Like why no Cantonese was ever taught even And now straight they jump to Putonghua !!

Geez, and I did think that I had it hard at school- also tons of homework, and pressure, but I think your students have it much much worse! Now I am happy that my children will go to a Dutch school, and maybe not learn a lot but they'll have fun- hopefully! Great post, btw.

Michelle wrote 7 years ago:

Sad and too true. I know my Western values are part of the reason for my opinion. And I know Hong Kong has a different culture. But I do think in both the East and West, some kind of balance needs to be struck.

Hattie Norman wrote 7 years ago:

I really enjoyed reading about your stay in Hong Kong. I get the impression you really enjoy teaching the children. Three languages??? Amazing. Most schools in America don't start teaching languages until ninth grade which seems a bit late. Hope you win. Have your link on my blog.

Chanelle wrote 7 years ago:

I think of my own school days spent riding my bike after school and having to go home when the streetlights came on and I feel sad for these little kids ... You don't know what you don't have ...or do you? Interesting article :)

MaryMaddox wrote 7 years ago:

Thank you for an illuminating articles. I wonder if some of these students come to universities in America and, finding easier studies and a whole different culture, finally have the fun they should have had as children.

DJG wrote 7 years ago:

Thanks for another really interesting article. The system you describe seems particularly harsh for little ones expected to achieve from early on, and for any child who isn't programmed to be competitive their parents are going to be disappointed - however many extra classes their child might attend.

Vuka wrote 7 years ago:

What an interesting article. Makes me feel sorry for these children. So much pressure at such an early age...and then three languages...their little minds must be absolutely amazingly clever, but it's nevertheless a shame that they aren't allowed to just be children and actually have a childhood...

Meenakshi Gupta wrote 7 years ago:

I come from a country where the pressure of studies is way more then here... so in a way children in International schools here have it easy. ESF schools do not give too much homework- kids do have time to play. It is another story with the local schools. Parents also force their kids into too many extra activities in an attempt to manage their time.

Winghang wrote 7 years ago:

Really enjoyed this article. Being an asian (borned and grew up in Holland, now relocated in Hong Kong) from oversea it was a privilege studying elsewhere. Comparing to my cousines and nieces they were having a hard time. The competency for international school nowadays is sad. Likewise in the article: not finding the right one is like game over.

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