How to Choose an International School in Hong Kong?
When it comes to choosing an international school, there seems to be a lot of factors to take into account to choose the most ideal school for your child:
Needless to say, location matters. Obviously if the targeted school is very close to home, that not only allows for convenience in commuting to school, but also frees up time for the student to participate in after-school activities and makes the student’s life less stressful. Unfortunately, Hong Kong suffers from the scarcity of land, which means that schools with a bigger campus and more resources tend to be farther away from the city, for instance Hong Kong International School (HKIS) in Repulse Bay, Victoria Shanghai Academy (VSA) in Aberdeen, Hong Kong Academy (HKA) in Sai Kung, etc.
That being said, Hong Kong is relatively small. If a family lives in Tuen Mun, schools in Aberdeen might seem very far away, but in reality it takes less than an hour to get to school. Besides, since all international schools in Hong Kong outsource use external school bus companies, you can virtually commute to any school in Hong Kong through school bus services (excluding outlying islands such as Discovery Bay and Lantau Island, etc.)
2. School Fees, Capital Levy and Debenture:
School Tuition Fees
If you are considering an international school for your child, we hope that one of your primary motivations is to provide your child with a more personalised education with more resources and educational opportunities, allowing them to reach their full potential. However, this comes with a price tag. Most schools charge roughly from $120,000 to $220,000 per year. School fees tend to be below $120,000 to $140,000 for lower years and become more expensive for upper years since they might need more resources.
With international schools, you sometimes do get what you pay for. Schools that charge on the lower end tend to have less additional resources for students, and the school culture seems to be a bit closer to local schools with slightly bigger class sizes. On the other hand, schools that charge around $200,000 tend to be more extravagant, and not just in campus size and resources, but they also tend to cater more to families with a wealthier background, for instance Chinese International School (CIS) and Independent Schools Foundation (ISF). That being said, there are a lot of very solid and academically rigorous schools that fall in the middle price range, for instance English Schools Foundation (ESF), Canadian International School (CDNIS) etc.
Capital Levy or Additional Fees for ESL Programs
In addition to the tuition fee, it is quite common for schools to ask parents to pay an annual capital levy or a one-off levy when an offer is given. This levy allows schools to upgrade their facilities and extra-curricular provisions, as well as recruit and retain qualified teachers from overseas.
This non-refundable amount differs from school to school. For instance, American International School (AIS) might charge an annual capital levy at $12,000 whereas Nord Anglia International School (NAIS) might charge a one-off capital enrolment fee of $100,000.
For students who might need extra help for their English abilities and are given offers from schools with additional English as a Second Language (ESL) programs, there could also be an extra fee for such learning support, which is subject to each school.
A lot of International schools in Hong Kong sell debentures to parents, which gives them priority entry to a school. This is known as individual nomination rights and capital contributions, these debentures range from $100,000 to as much as $5,000,000. Many schools will offer both corporate and individual debenture and, in most cases, the debenture is refunded when the student leaves the school.
It is important to note that however, it is not a 100% guarantee that parents who buy debentures of international schools will receive an offer. International schools have the ultimate say in regards to whether they will give out an offer based on the student’s English proficiency and whether they are a good fit for the school.
Since debentures cost a considerable amount, parents should consider the following factors before committing on a debenture for an international school in Hong Kong:
Is the student’s English ability (Reading, writing, oral) up to par with the school’s standards?
This is extremely important because if they are not up to par, buying a $5,000,000 worth debenture would probably not help the student’s admission chances.
Is this school a fit school for the student to pursue the rest of or the bulk of his/her academic career at?
If the parent’s goal is to send the student overseas to a boarding school, it is up to the parent to decide whether it is worth spending $5,000,000 so that the student could enter a well known international school with a “big name”, just to transfer a few years later.
School system/ Curriculum
When it comes to academics, most parents immediately look at the school system of the international school.
IB (International Baccalaureate) Schools
As of right now there are 69 schools in Hong Kong that are under the International Baccalaureate (IB) world school curriculum and 37 schools that offer the International Baccalaureate Diploma (IBDP), for instance English Schools Foundation (ESF), Chinese International School (CIS), Victoria Shanghai Academy (VSA), etc. The hallmark of IB is its depth and breadth. In addition to choosing 6 academic subjects in Standard and Higher levels - Studies in language and literature (First Language), Language acquisition (Second Language) , Individuals and societies (Humanities), Sciences, Mathematics and the Arts, they will have to take a Theory of Knowledge course which involves researching and writing on a philosophical topic. As well as an Extended Essay course where they do research on a topic of interest based on one of their chosen subjects, and participate in Community, Action and Service (CAS).
The way students are assessed in IB is also drastically different from all the other education systems. Assessments are heavily focused on class participation and assignments, which are mostly research based, with writing proposals, reflections and reports as the typical outcomes.
IGCSE to IB
It is worth taking note that many of the academically rigorous IBDP schools actually follow the British curriculum for their lower years and middle years, adopting the IGCSE exam as the assessment in Year 11 before transitioning students into the IBDP curriculum for Years 12 and 13. This has actually proven to be quite effective as the IGCSE exam, unlike the A-Levels exam (which we will cover next) is just as broad as the IBDP curriculum. There is however, a transitional period that students will have to go through when adapting from the IGCSE curriculum to the IBDP curriculum, namely they will have to go from more straight-forward, objective types of assessments to more research, reflection and report based assessments. This transition can be made quite seamless if the teachers at the school are experienced in doing so. Some schools that follow the IGCSE curriculum and transition to the IBDP curriculum are Nord Anglia International School (NAIS) and most of the ESF schools, for instance Sha Tin College and Island School (both of which have staggeringly high IBDP averages of around 39/45).
A Level (Advanced Level qualifications) Schools
On the other spectrum, there is the A Level system, (the national curriculum of the UK), which is quite the opposite of the IB system. Instead of focusing on depth and breadth, it focuses on the career path of the student and only requires students to take 3 to 4 subjects that correlate to their potential intended university major. It is a suitable system for students who are certain they want to enter university in the UK and know exactly which career path they would like to pursue.
The assessment format is largely traditionally exam based as the A Level score primarily depends on the A Level exam that the student takes at the end of their high school years. In other words, unlike the IB system, if a student performs badly in the final exam, it would have a detrimental effect on their chances for university. Whereas in the IB system, the final exam only counts for 50% of the student’s grade. There are currently 12 Hong Kong schools offering A Level programmes, and to be very honest, there are only very few quality A Level programmes within Hong Kong International schools, namely Harrow International School Hong Kong and Kellett School.
American AP (Advanced Placement) Schools
Then we come to the American curriculum, which offers the same breadth of the IB system, but also the freedom to choose courses that are related to one's university major. In most American system schools, there are only a few rules to abide by, especially in high school: students have to take English in all years, they have to take a minimum amount of math and science courses, as well as history courses. But other than that, students are free to choose electives or Advanced Placement (AP) courses that suit their interests and talents. The assessment methods of American schools are a mixture between IB and A Level. Class discussion is notably important, but there are also traditional end of term examinations that are similar to the A Level system.
When choosing an international school with an American system in Hong Kong, parents should know that there are only 4 American curriculum school choices in Hong Kong, with Hong Kong International School (HKIS) being one of the most sought-out schools in the city. That being said, if you plan on sending your child to an American boarding school or university, it is not a must to send your child to an American curriculum school in Hong Kong first. At the end of the day, when you’re applying to an American boarding school or university, these schools care most about how well the student is performing under their current school system, but less about which system it is. However, it is important to consider that it is definitely more preferred if the student is already in an international school system.
Academic Standing and Matriculation
Choosing a suitable curriculum is only a part of the deal, parents should also look into how particular schools are performing within those systems. For instance, amongst IB schools, German Swiss International School (GSIS), Chinese International School (CIS), Sha Tin College (STC) and Island School (IS) are the leaders in IB average in Hong Kong for many reasons. They are able to retain very experienced teachers, they are able to push students to achieve high scores, and they have the vast resources and network to help students develop extracurricular interests and personal depth (which also factor into the overall IB score). For A Level and American Advanced Placement schools, it is much more straightforward due to the lack of choices. Harrow International School Hong Kong (HISHK) and Kellett School are the leaders amongst A Level Schools whereas Hong Kong International School and American International School are the leaders of the American System.
When looking at academic standing, parents should also take note of the school’s university matriculation. How many students from this school are admitted to Ivy League universities or Oxbridge each year? What percentage of students end up going to a university in Hong Kong? What percentage of students end up going to a top 50 global universities? Schools do not often disclose their exact matriculations every year, but each school does publish certain facts and figures about their current annual academic standing and matriculation, and it is up to parents to decipher the reality from these documents.
4. Personalized Learning and Support System
One of the hallmarks of international schools in Hong Kong is that it provides customized learning catering to students’ individual needs. However, this also comes at different degrees. At academically rigorous schools, such as Chinese International School (CIS) and Hong Kong International School (HKIS), personalized learning could mean that talented students could enter certain “Gifted Programs” and participate in competitions and accelerated learning camps to help them further their goals. At less academically rigorous schools, students are given more support on their English readiness and are often put into English language support programs so that their English level could catch up with the rest of the students.
5. External Resources at International Schools
One thing that we cannot deny is that international schools in Hong Kong have way more resources than normal private schools and public schools in Hong Kong because of their steep tuition fee. Therefore, international schools will definitely allow students to be able to express their extracurricular and academic interests more with the additional resources provided by the school in comparison to private and public schools in Hong Kong.
6. Facilities, Clubs and Societies
This means that international schools tend to have a bigger campus than local schools and offer more facilities for learning and extracurricular explorations. Take Hong Kong International School (HKIS), Malvern College Hong Kong and Chinese International School (CIS) for instance. They not only have the typical swimming pools, football fields, design & technology room and art studios, they also have theater blackboxes, textile departments, virtual reality equipment for science, and outdoor space for agricultural studies. These are just some examples that international schools can cater to students’ special interests, which will become very useful when students apply to university and need a portfolio or body of work to show for. How can you convince university admissions that you want to be an engineer? Perhaps having the opportunity and resources to build a robot at your high school engineer club might help.
7. Global Networks
One lesser talked about advantage that international schools have over local schools is their broad global network. Some newly established schools in Hong Kong might have direct connections with their British mother schools. Take Shrewsbury International School for instance, which only offers a Primary and Early Years curriculum. After finishing their curriculum, students are encouraged to apply to their British mother school in the UK and are given priority in acceptance. However, parents need to be aware of the fact that not all British international schools in Hong Kong have such a connection with their British counterparts in England, although they might share the same school brand.
Some other schools that are under a big education group and have other campuses all over the world include Nord Anglia International School (NAIS), Stamford American International School (SAIS) and Li Po Chun United World College (LPCUWC). These schools have an advantage in sharing teachers, resources and some even allow students to transfer more seamlessly between their global campuses.
Some schools have external partnerships to build extracurricular opportunities for students. For instance, Chinese International School (CIS) collaborates with Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) in STEM and Coding, offering a joint summer camp to teach students how to make smartphone apps. Nord Anglia International School (NAIS) collaborates with the famous The Juilliard School in their performing arts programme.
8. School Culture
As educational consultants, we tend to focus on the intangibles as well, and school culture is not something that is brought up often enough in our opinion. Parents often look at all the above tangibles and determine that a school is suitable for their child, but what about school culture? Even within international schools, there are certain stereotypes and labels that parents should be aware of. For instance, many parents inquire about Chinese International School (CIS) and Independent Schools Foundation (ISF), citing that they are really good schools, but often times what distinguishes these two schools from other academically rigorous schools is the wealth of the parents. CIS and ISF also takes into consideration the parents’ careers, and networks of heavily favoured parents who can spend $5,000,000 on a debenture. This has a direct effect towards the culture of the school, as the students tend to be a bit more well off.
On the other hand, some schools tend to have more expatriate students than others perhaps based on their location. For instance, Discovery Bay College (DBC), South Island School (SIS), Island School (IS), French International School (FIS) all have a large expatriate population, which could mean their school cultures are less pushy on academics (in the traditional Chinese way), and the students might be exposed to foreign culture much more earlier on. Some schools such as Singapore International School (SISHK) for example has a larger Chinese speaking population and has a heavy emphasis on students’ Chinese reading and writing ability. Some schools are generally more cutthroat in academics for instance German Swiss International School (GSIS), and some other schools such as Hong Kong Academy (HKA) is more focused on personal development and it being a family-oriented school.
Unless you have personally visited these schools, met parents and students that have been to these schools, it is difficult to decide which school’s culture is best for your child. There is also the question of whether you would like your child to stay in a more comfortable environment or if you would rather them challenge themselves.
At LEC, we have tutored and helped hundreds of students enter the above schools, and we know pretty much every bit of nitty gritty detail about these schools. If you want to enroll your child into an international school in Hong Kong and do not know where to start, please contact us for a free assessment!