“Which curriculum is best – IB or A Levels?” The query pops up time and time again on Hong Kong’s social media platforms as parents ponder the optimal education path for their offspring. The answer, of course, is far from straightforward and varies from child to child, but the question itself is fundamentally flawed, and not just due to its naïve simplicity. The real issue: not only does it overlook other traditional curricula such as the Ontario Secondary School Diploma and the New South Wales High School Certificate but it also fails to recognise that Hong Kong has numerous alternative routes to secondary school success.
It’s very easy in this city of achievers to get sucked in by the rather elitist view that traditional academics are everything. Sure, the city’s schools boast some impressive exam results and their students often go on to study at top universities across the world. But IB and A Levels don’t suit everyone, so what other options are there?
A focus on career
One increasingly popular alternative is the BTEC (Business and Technology Education Council) level 3 diploma. Described by organisers Pearson as “career-focused courses which equip learners with the knowledge, understanding, and employability skills they need for success,” the programmes focus on specific industries, allowing students to specialise in just one or two subjects and gain in-depth, practical knowledge of their chosen area of study. Grades are based on coursework alone – there are no final examinations with BTEC – so it’s a great option for students who might struggle with exam pressure.
Courses offered include business, sport, creative media and visual arts, among others, and are taught at learning centres across Hong Kong, including five English Schools Foundation (ESF) campuses: King George V School (KGV), Sha Tin College, South Island School, Island School and West Island School.
If you’re thinking these ‘vocational’ subjects sound like an easy option, think again. According to Mark Blackshaw, principal of KGV, they’re every bit as challenging as the more ‘traditional’ routes to university.
“BTEC is an academic pathway,” he begins. “It’s a skill-based application course that allows students to really dig deeply into a particular academic discipline and then apply that in a real-world setting. It requires problem-solving, collaboration, self-management and interpersonal skills – all the things that are required in any academic programme, workplace or career.
“We’ve had BTEC students go on to some of the best universities in the world, including [Central] Saint Martins in London and the University of San Francisco.”
Why does Mark think it’s important to offer an alternative to IB and A Levels? “It links to our school purpose: to be your own remarkable,” he explains. “We feel we have a responsibility to provide programmes that bring out our students’ unique talents. The ability to specialise and really focus on a particular passion and area of study is, I think, BTEC’s greatest strength.”
For KGV student Saloni Mehta, BTEC has proven the ideal programme to complement her true passion in life: badminton. Having discovered a love for the sport at age eight, Saloni now represents Hong Kong at tournaments across the world and says that her studies so far have really helped to enhance her game.
“Plenty of the units that we do, like sports psychology or how to treat injuries, help me with badminton. It’s really interesting learning things like what other players would be thinking at competition time. It’s teaching me a lot about the game – things I otherwise wouldn’t have known.”
Another benefit for Saloni is that KGV has given her the flexibility to spread her BTEC studies over three years rather than two, enabling her to balance schoolwork with her professional training schedule.
Saloni’s former classmate Zain Carrington also studied BTEC sport at KGV, which she combined with a minor in creative media along with additional IB geography modules.
“I looked at multiple different options before deciding which course to take,” says Zain. “Personally, I really enjoy writing and doing research, so that’s why I chose BTEC. I had to adapt at first, as the style of learning was different to what I was used to, but even during the first week, I already knew that this was going to be a fun two years and that I was really going to enjoy it.”
Zain’s hard work paid off, and in summer 2020 she achieved distinctions across the board, which set her up nicely for her dream course: sports coaching at Leeds Beckett University in the UK (with an offer from Bath University too!). “My aim is to do a PGCE after this and then become a PE teacher,” she says. “BTEC has given me the opportunity to do that.”
Something for everyone
BTEC isn’t the only alternative pathway for Hong Kong’s students though. As universities continue to evolve their application processes, some schools are supporting students with additional programmes that help them develop and showcase who they are and what they do beyond the classroom, one example being the Global Citizen Diploma offered by Hong Kong Academy.
Other schools offering alternative courses include International College Hong Kong (ICHK), which developed the ICHK Diploma to support students whose ambitions can’t be realised through the standard IB programme. An innovative approach, the diploma leads to a combination of qualifications and achievements and is designed to give students the opportunity to develop skills that aren’t addressed by typical examinations. A popular addition to the school’s suite of learning, alumni have gone on to great things, including the inaugural graduate, who achieved his dream of studying music at the University of Vancouver.
Another school that recognises the value in flexibility is The Harbour School (THS), where students all work towards one qualification – a US High School Diploma – which requires them to complete credits in core areas, such as English, maths, science, social studies, languages and the arts, but also allows them to curate their own programme through a mix of multidisciplinary courses, internships, project development experiences, online/off-campus activities and Independent Study Modules.
One of the key benefits of this approach is that it caters to all types of learners and offers a real-world slant on each subject’s academic foundations. The modular nature of the programme also means it can both stretch gifted students and provide a supportive, nurturing environment for those who need additional help to reach their academic goals. Students are placed in levelled classes according to their ability rather than age, and they’re actively encouraged to take ownership of their own paths.
“The system we have in place has allowed for various members of our cohort to thrive without the rigidity that may restrict them otherwise”, says Alison Harding, THS vice principal. “For example, we have had students completing calculus in grade 10 (typically a Grade 12 level) and having the opportunity to engage with university math courses from Grade 11 onwards. Our program truly allows the flexibility to cater for a wide-range of needs to ensure all students have the opportunity to achieve their best.”
The perfect fit
The takeaway from all of this: there are lots of options out there. The key is to find a course that fits your child’s ambitions and learning style. Talk to them about what they want to do in the future. Discuss what will help them get to where they want to go. Do they need a portfolio? Do they need to demonstrate practical skills? Do they have to have on-the-job experience?
IB and A Levels are solid courses, but they aren’t right for everyone. Keep an open mind, and do your research – there’s a path out there for every learner.
Watch the Top Schools 'Headtalk' with Ruth Benny and KGV principal Mark Blackshaw
English Schools Foundation: www.esf.edu.hk
Hong Kong Academy: hkacademy.edu.hk
International College Hong Kong: ichk.edu.hk
King George V School: www.kgv.edu.hk
The Harbour School: www.ths.edu.hk