With 17 years of experience in education in Hong Kong – first as a teacher of children, then a teacher trainer and now a placements consultant, Ruth Benny, Head Girl at Top Schools Hong Kong, certainly knows enough about finding school places and completing a successful application. As the 2013-2014 application seasons nears, she offers her best tips about international schools and the local system in an interview with biz.hk Ruth Benny is not a top banker or analyst. But when it comes to finding school places and applying to international schools, she is an ace strategist. “I would approach this strategically,” she says. “Instead of a business plan, you are writing an education plan for your child.”
Despite the perception that finding school places is a serious challenge, Benny says Hong Kong does offer a variety of excellent options. However, it would help if the parents can be more open-minded about what schools they want to send their kids to, what curriculum they prefer, and do their planning early considering the competitive local environment.
The opening of the Harrow International School in Tuen Mun and Island Christian Academy in Sheung Wan this year is good news as both schools have indicated that they have reserved places for families who come from overseas. Although Harrow is in faraway New Territories, ICA is on Bridge Street of SoHo – just two blocks from the Central/Mid- Levels escalators.
One of the common problems parents face is the lack of school places – especially at the primary level – on Hong Kong Island. Benny says it is simply not feasible if everyone wants to go to school on the island. “To live in mid-levels and go to school in mid-levels or the south side is not going to be a walk in the park,” she says. “You only make it more challenging for yourself if you insist on these parameters.” The fact that more companies have moved to Kowloon should have made it easier for families to consider schools in places like Shatin and the New Territories. “A lot of companies are now in ICC or Tsim Sha Tsui,” she argues. “There are no reasons why those families can’t live in Shatin or Tai Po.”
Managing expectation is important. “When I work for clients, my role is managing their expectations,” she says. “It is because I don’t want them to be disappointed. If they are happy with a particular school now, they should be happy with that school four or six years later.”
If parents plan ahead, they can consider the local system for their kids. “Personally, I would like to see maybe longer-term expats or people of mixed-race marriages think a little more broad-minded and to be able to benefit from some of the different shapes and colors of the different schools have to offer,” she adds.
But to succeed on that track, Benny reminds parents to make early planning such as sending their kids to local pre-schools. “If you are thinking about this from birth, then you will know if local school is something for your kids. Put your kids into a local pre-school and expose them to Cantonese early because you can always switch back,” she says.
“If you choose a local pre-school, you can always change your mind and go back to an international school but you can’t do it the reverse. If your child is being brought up to the age of six in English, it’s very difficult then to choose a local school.”
Interviews Benny believes playgroups and kindergartens help prepare the child and are a good way for them to become socialized and be ready for going to school. However, it is not “compulsory” because some schools accept children from the age of three or four. “When the children are attending interviews, they need to be social, make eye-contact and smile, and be able to follow instructions (whether those instructions are in their first or second language),” she explains.
“In interview, the assessors will want to find out about the child’s fine motor skills – can they hold a pencil, can they write their names, etc.” “The most important thing is that the kids have to be well-rounded, and the language skills are extremely important because they need to demonstrate that depending on which school they are applying to.”
Moreover, schools take the reports from playgroups and kindergartens into consideration in vetting a child’s application. “They certainly look at the reports. If you don’t put your child into a pre-school, then you don’t have reports to submit to support your application and this is not an advantage,” she adds.
In choosing individual school, parents should consider factors such as budget, location, curriculum, class sizes, education approach, and campus facilities. In terms of language, parents should think carefully if they want their child to be truly bilingual.
“Language is absolutely critical and it’s too late to start considering that when the child is at the age of four or five. If you want your child to be truly bilingual, then you should think about more structured learning from 12 months in both languages,” Benny says.
This article was published in AmCham's Magazine in Sep 2012.