Parent stories: Hong Kong
Jo talks to Winter’s about her experiences as a parent of two children who attended an international school in Hong Kong back in the '90s. What has changed since then? What questions are still the same for all parents? Jo discusses all these things with Winter’s...
Why did you move to Hong Kong, and what were your main concerns at the time?
My husband was offered a contract in Hong Kong, and although we saw this as an exciting opportunity to live in a very dynamic city with a very different culture, our biggest concern was schooling for our children, then aged eight and ten.
How easy – or how difficult! – was it for you to find an international school that you were happy with?
My husband’s firm agreed to pay the school fees, but it was down to us to find the right school for our children. There was very little we could do from the UK itself at that time, so my husband had to do the groundwork in Hong Kong while starting a frantically busy new job, before the children and I could join him. It came down to a choice of three English-speaking international schools, and we had many long-distance phone calls to discuss the options. He was eventually able to secure places at the school of our choice. The rest of us joined him at the end of the summer term, so that we had the long holidays to adjust to living in our new environment and to prepare for the new school: buying uniforms, PE kit, books and so on.
What sources of information were available to you to help you choose a school?
At that time there was no comprehensive online central source of information on international schools; instead we had to rely on local sources and contacts. We were fortunate that we had friends living in Hong Kong whose children attended one of the international schools, and they were able to provide us with advice and recommendations. In the end, our children went to the same school as theirs.
"...the questions are still the same."
Of course, now there are many more ways to find out about international schools – this is something that’s changed, that’s moved on. Even the ways that you can communicate with schools have changed. But the questions are still the same.
What were your main criteria in choosing a school?
We wanted our children to attend an English-speaking school that followed the British national curriculum and where all the teachers had qualified in the UK. Both our children were quite musical, so we were looking for a school where they could learn instruments and where there was an orchestra they could join. We were also looking for a school that provided extra-curricular activities and outings that would enrich their experience of Hong Kong life and so broaden their horizons and understanding of other cultures.
What were your main worries or concerns?
The international schools in Hong Kong were very oversubscribed, so our biggest concern was whether there would be places for our children at the school of our choice. As it was, my husband had to start work in Hong Kong several months before we were able to join him because no spaces were available until the following September.
We were also concerned about how our children would adjust to an international school environment after the village school in Wales they had previously attended, particularly as their new school would be four times larger. Would this make it more difficult for them to make friends, and would they be overwhelmed by the size of the place? Also of course, would they like their new teachers and vice versa?
Added to that were our concerns about how they would get to school, given that we had no car and didn’t want our children to be subjected to the very overcrowded Hong Kong public transport system. Fortunately, the school had its own buses supervised by ‘bus mothers’, volunteer school mums, ensuring that our children could get to school and back safely, with just a short walk from our apartment to the bus stop.
How did your children adjust to their new school?
I needn’t have worried about how my children would adjust as they both settled very quickly, liked their teachers and made friends. It was a very friendly, open, welcoming school and there were many other new children in their classes, so they didn’t feel they stood out as the new kids. They both thrived amongst children from 33 different nationalities, and learnt a great deal about the cultural backgrounds of their fellow pupils, and were encouraged to do so through the school’s projects and activities. For example, our son became very proficient at making delicious samosas as a result of cookery lessons he received at school given by one of the other mothers.
"...they both thrived amongst children from 33 different nationalities..."
Were you pleased with the education they received?
The children were seated in groups in the classroom, which is fairly standard practice, but rather than all the children undertaking the same subjects at one time they were often working on very different areas of the curriculum. We think this is why their Maths suffered, to the extent that we had to subsequently provide additional tuition for them. Other than that, they both did well in all subjects and became avid readers, encouraged by the teachers at their school.
Did the school provide extra-curricular activities?
Both my children took part in the annual school Chinese New Year production, based on a Chinese legend, for which they both had to sing a folk song entirely in Cantonese. They were also able to participate in the school orchestra and received individual piano lessons, as we had hoped.
Our daughter went on a ‘floating’ school trip, eating and sleeping aboard a specially converted Chinese junk for five nights. Their trip included landing on Lantau Island where they visited the giant Buddha and a Buddhist Monastery. My son was lucky enough to go on a school trip to Beijing, where they visited some of the big sites including the Great Wall. This was an incredible experience for him, particularly as China was very different to Hong Kong at the time.
Do you think your children benefited from their experience of international schooling?
All in all, it was a very positive time for them and the whole experience helped them grow in confidence and adjust easily to their subsequent schools. It opened their eyes to other cultures, particularly China, which they say has been key to the particular career paths they have chosen – my son has worked in Hong Kong as a journalist and is now working for China Central Television in the US, and my daughter has just completed a PhD in Chinese foreign affairs, which involved spending a year in Beijing learning Mandarin. We are, of course, immensely proud of them, and believe their time at an international school in Hong Kong has been a huge influence on their lives.
What do you think has changed for parents who are now looking to move to Hong Kong?
Obviously a lot of things have changed. Hong Kong itself has changed enormously in certain ways, and China has, of course, changed enormously too. There are more international schools, and there are also new ways to find out all about them – such as Winter’s itself. This will make a big difference for parents who want to find out about schools in Hong Kong from the other side of the world! So of course there have been a lot of changes. But once you take account of that, I think the main questions parents are concerned about are still largely the same – just as they would also be the same for parents moving to other parts of the world. You want to know if a school is good, and you also want to know if it’s going to be right for your children. How do you find these things out? How can you be confident that you’ve got the right answers? All these questions stay the same.
Thanks very much for talking to Winter’s, Jo. Hong Kong sounds like it was a fantastic experience!
Top photograph: iStock