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Hong Kong Moms: School Guru Offers Insights

Updated: Oct 31, 2022

Hong Kong Moms are quick to opine on everything from school bus drivers to too much homework. But when it comes to getting into school here, we leave that to the experts!

Ruth Benny’s consulting business, Top Schools, has helped many families get through the murky and fraught process. She also runs a Facebook group, Hong Kong Schools, that answers questions from desperate and inquiring moms on all things schooling in Hong Kong.

Ruth is a long time resident of Hong Kong and also a “Hong Kong Mom” in every sense of the word. She is a helpful contributor to the Hong Kong Moms Facebook group and a mom of two herself.

It’s an impossible task to choose just a handful of the most popular schooling questions on Hong Kong Moms. But these questions below seem to come up time and again! Ruth Benny is here to set us all straight once and for all — until someone asks again….tomorrow.

Can schools really see early signs of greatness in a two-year old? What are schools looking for when they interview such young tots? I don’t believe they’re looking for ‘greatness’. Many schools do not have rigorous selection at this age but those that do are forced to select due to the overwhelming number of applications they receive. The schools also want to meet the parents as much as they want to meet the child too; sometimes more!

What would you tell a client who has just given birth? Are there schools they should be applying to on the way home from the hospital? I’d advise new parents to consider one or two schools they may like to apply to; that’s all. Then, settle down as a family and come and see us in six months.

I offer the same advice to almost-parents; we have plenty of ladies with bumps coming to our seminars! The earliest application we submitted for a client was when the baby was five days old — the father was at the hospital to clear the paperwork and get the birth certificate ASAP since we’d met with them a few months earlier.

With such a competitive school admissions environment, how do you counsel families who have children with learning delays or challenges? Are there schools in Hong Kong who can support them? This is tough. Yes, some schools will support mild learning needs but quotas are limited. The key here is for the parents to be honest and realistic with us and the schools (and with themselves). The worrying trend is for parents to be economical with the truth. If a child presents at an assessment with apparent needs and this hasn’t been declared on the application, this doesn’t go down well with the school. Needs could be something as simple as English as a Second Language, but they must be declared at the application stage.

There has been a lot of press recently that students in Hong Kong are under too much pressure. Do you agree with this assessment? Is this anything new? Nothing new! I worked with teachers in the local sector for 16 years on and off and it’s not only the students who are under immense pressure; teachers too! This has been well-documented and why we are seeing so many parents seeking our help to help their kids “escape” the same system they went through.

Local primary schools are a good budget option. Which children and families thrive in this environment? And who would you caution against going this route? To be honest, it’s a stretch to say that any family, or individual child, thrives in that system — they survive!! Having said that, there’s a huge variation in local schools and some can provide a more liberal approach to teaching and admissions and therefore, an option to children with proficiency in Cantonese (preferably parents, too). Many families would choose this for the first few years of primary, or the whole of primary, and then look to getting into an international school. The challenge here is for your child to attain the high level of English language proficiency required at international schools. Even children from native English speaking homes in local school will likely need to supplement their English outside of school.

Do you think there is a “right” personality for the International Baccalaureate (IB) program? Who excels in this curriculum? Well, the IB covers children aged three to 18 and it differs greatly from kindergarten to upper secondary. It’s rare to come across children who don’t do well in PYP (Primary Years Programme). The only risk here is a little slippage in basic numeracy and literacy, depending on the school. MYP (Middle Years Programme) is in a state of flux, so let’s see how that goes. Many schools still offer IGCSE (International General Certificate of Secondary Education) at 16 (Years 10-11) at the moment. The final two years — the IB Diploma – isn’t for everyone. It is extremely rigorous. On the other hand, it’s not necessary to aim for top marks and a number of schools are considering the IB Certificate now.

If you could design the “ideal” school in Hong Kong, what would it look like? What is Hong Kong missing when it comes to school choices? That’s an interesting question! Actually, we are missing a few more great bilingual schools that teach English and Chinese (in Putonghua) to the same high standard (and not with crazy fees and debentures). We’re also missing a few English language schools with a low to moderate fee structure. Finally, it’d be interesting to see a school or two dropping Chinese language in favour of a European language; maybe Spanish. Not sure if that’s very politically correct, or even whether the EDB (Education Bureau) would approve it but I think it would be popular.

What is the most commonly question you are asked by clients? Easy. What’s the best school in Hong Kong?

I want my child to learn Mandarin…in a week!?! How can we support Mandarin education as a parent if we do not speak it at home? This is a topic close to my heart and I’ve spoken and written on this extensively. OK, no kid can learn Mandarin in a week, but the best way to get the most learning in a week is immersion — in rural China or Taiwan where’s there’s not much English spoken, if any. Although my kids are fluent and somewhat literate, I’ve taken them to Taiwan for the past two summers. I’m now partnering with Hong Kong University to run camps this Summer.

I say this at my talks; that you should NOT choose an international school if you’d like your child to be bilingual (with a few exceptions). Of course, bilingual is an elastic term and it’s for each set of parents to do some soul searching and decide if this is something worth pursuing, and to what extent.

The good news is that a family has received one acceptance letter…the bad news is that they are still waiting to hear from their top choice and need to respond to the first school before they will find out! How do you counsel families in this situation? Well, this happens to our clients less frequently as we manage the whole process and timing is a huge part of it. In general, once an offer is made, there’s not much anyone can do to defer the deadline or hold the place without deposits. So, I’d advise families to be discerning in which applications they submit and when.

I’m moving to Hong Kong soon and want to apply for the ESF (English Schools Foundation) system. But, I don’t have an address or place to live yet. Help! What can I do? Can I use the address of a serviced apartment? [EDIT] It’s actually pretty simple. Parents will choose the ESF school they prefer and use their overseas address on the application form (the form asks if you are residing in HK or not). If their child is subsequently interviewed and accepted, the family must provide two proofs of address within the zone to confirm the place. A serviced apartment will work if you have two proofs of address. At the end of the day, it does depend a little bit on how keen the school is to have your children enrol; I’ve experienced a lot of flexibility of rules in general.


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