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International school: is it the only option?

Is an international school the only education option for an expat child? Not necessarily. Kate Choyce is one parent who has journeyed into the world of Cantonese-medium education.

Kate’s Story

When people learn that I send my son to a Cantonese kindergarten, I often receive baffled looks. I’ve even been called reckless. Everyone is entitled to their own opinion. But I’ve always been adamant that my children would attend a local school and grow up not only speaking but also writing the native language of the country that is their home.

Kate Choyce and son at a Cantonese School

As managing director of a secretarial recruitment agency, I’m all too aware of how crippling it can be to only speak and write English in a city where the majority of job requirements insist on proficiency in written and spoken Cantonese, Mandarin and English. We interview many hopeful candidates who have lived in Hong Kong their entire lives but at best can only speak Cantonese. Their career prospects here are extremely limited. I knew I didn’t want that for my children.

Many expat parents believe the only educational route for their children in Hong Kong is through the international schools. And I can understand why. I found it difficult to know where to begin looking for a local kindergarten, until I discovered the government education bureau website with profiles and listings of kindergartens and childcare centres in Hong Kong, listed by district and with website links. And the information is provided in English as well as Cantonese.

Doing the legwork

Still, as I only speak English, I couldn’t be understood over the phone. There was no choice but to do the legwork. I went in person to the schools and, even though I hadn’t made appointments, the staff were always more than welcoming and helpful, making it much easier to set up further interviews and ultimately get my son into a Cantonese-medium school.

Children in a Cantonese school

I quickly realised that I wasn’t the only parent who could see the benefits of this, so after enrolling my son, I set up the Cantonese School Parent Group on Facebook. We had nearly 200 signups in the first month and we’re currently at 5,000+ members and growing.

Benefits of a Cantonese School

As well as the benefits of their children being able to communicate in Cantonese, many parents in the group are attracted by the quality education that comes without hefty school fees. This is especially true now that expat packages aren’t as generous as they used to be. Naomi Tempany is a fellow member of our group and she described how the fees for international and private schooling played a significant role in her decision to place her twins in a Cantonese-medium school: “Our employer doesn’t provide tuition in our employment package, so private schooling was never going to be an option for us. We had to choose local public schools.”

Naomi also found it difficult at first. “We looked at several local bilingual kindergartens for our then four-year-old twins but quickly became discouraged when we were turned away at the door. We were finally accepted at Sun Island Kindergarten almost one year ago, after much pleading and a little bit of convincing.”

Having made the decision and broken through the barriers, many parents are surprised to be faced with prejudice from other expats, and we continually find ourselves justifying our decision.

Common misconceptions

Tony B is an expatriate parent in Hong Kong and another member of the Cantonese School Parents Facebook Group. Tony’s three children have all gone through Cantonese-medium kindergartens, Precious Blood and Lin, followed by Kiansu & Chekiang International Section and Independent Schools Foundation. Tony says: “There seems to be this irrational belief that expat kids are somehow different to Chinese kids and that expat kids going to Chinese schools will have a hard time and be unable to handle hard work. There is no problem in putting a Chinese, Indian, African or any other ethnic group child into an English-speaking school but as soon as you try to do the reverse, things apparently go wrong. A lot of misinformation is spread by such ignorance.”

Another common misconception is that local schools are intensely strict and the students are weighed down with academic pressures. I haven’t seen or heard any evidence of this from any parents I’ve spoken to, and I would describe my son’s kindergarten as the most nurturing place for Charlie, who very much loves his school.

Naomi has also had a positive experience at Sun Island. She says that while 70 percent of the curriculum is taught in Chinese, the teachers have been very patient with both parents and the twins. “It has been difficult adjusting to the cumbersome uniforms and extensive homework but I can finally say it has been worth it,” she says.

Getting support

The Facebook group is very supportive and many of us who’ve done the journey are able to sweep away these misconceptions and guide other parents in applying to kindergartens and schools. The most important advice is that to succeed you have to be prepared to put the time into searching for the most appropriate school for your family – one that will meet your individual educational goals and values.

The group also provides practical day-to-day support. For example, one problem is that us English-only speakers cannot help our children with their homework. So we’ve set up a system where I provide free translations through the help of my staff at my recruitment agency. The group is also fun. A recent posting ran along the lines of “You know your child goes to a local school when they say ‘mali mali hong’ instead of ‘abracadabra’”. Even the parents are learning some Cantonese.

Overcoming challenges

I believe many of the others in the group would agree that, for whatever reason, we chose to have our children attend a local school. And while the local education system can be challenging when you yourself do not speak the language, it is not impossible

Personally, the benefits of my son’s schooling in a local kindergarten are already paying off. And he not only speaks fluent Cantonese but is also steadily learning to read and write the language. Reckless? I think not.

Kate Choyce is Managing Director of Choyce (choycehk.com) and founder of the Cantonese School Parents Group on Facebook.

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