School placement in Hong Kong: We chat to Alex Gibbs from the Australian International School Hong Kong about what you need to know

School placement in Hong Kong, Alex Gibbs, Australian International School Hong Kong

Few aspects of life for expat parents in Hong Kong can be more frustrating, bewildering and downright agonising than the dilemmas facing them of finding and placing their children in schools here.

While there appears to be an abundance of educational institutions from which to choose in Hong Kong, the fact remains that there are always more students requiring placement than there are places to be had. The situation is set to get worse.

A few years ago, it was the case where only the traditionally popular schools had such a high demand for places. Nowadays, all schools – particularly at the primary entry levels – are finding it difficult to find a place for all applicants.

I chose my words carefully when I said “traditionally popular schools”. I could have said “top schools” but to be honest there are so many truly excellent schools in Hong Kong, and they are not just limited to ones we always hear about having the longest waitlists.

School placement in Hong Kong, Alex Gibbs, Australian International School Hong Kong

As a whole, Hong Kong has an exceedingly rich educational environment, with over 40 international schools and many real gems among them that you don’t often hear about. Some of the local private schools here have a great reputation and produce outstanding graduates. Unfortunately, demand for those schools also exceeds supply, which is one of the reasons why we’ve had an increase in the number of local students applying for international schools over the past decade.

The result has seen a 20-percent increase in demand year-on-year at most international schools. And while the authorities ponder ambiguous statistical evidence, there continues to be anecdotal evidence that top professionals are now choosing not to come to Hong Kong because their children can’t join them.

It’s a shame because with such great schools and universities, there’s a huge opportunity for Hong Kong to become a true global leader in education.

With the wonderful facilities on offer, combined with a zest for learning, an enthusiasm for success and a respect for educators by both students and parents that prevails here, Hong Kong is in a position to attract and hold top educators who choose to pursue their careers. Our schools are viewed with considerable envy by many teaching professionals around the world!

While we may not have the history, the traditions or the social prestige that private schools around the world have acquired over time, Hong Kong more than makes up for that through the enriching experiences and opportunities students are offered from our unique multicultural environment in the heart of one of the world’s leading economies. We generate students who tend to perform to a high level, embrace a socially responsible approach to life and view a university education as being their ultimate goal.

In turn, students tend to flourish in an “international” cultural environment, supported and encouraged by top quality, motivated and adventurous teachers from different parts of the world. We are lucky to have such conscientious and respectful students. Most come from hard-working families, whose parents have had a positive impact on their children’s learning from day one. They grow up with a global maturity and outlook that I believe is second to none.

Asia is the place to be, they say, and expats are staying longer as they develop their own careers and seize opportunities. The global financial crisis proved that if anywhere can weather a storm, it’s right here in Hong Kong. Many talented business and professional people have now bought property and made this city a more permanent “home”. Consequently, the average length of stay for a student at a school has also increased remarkably, so fewer places become available. Furthermore, many expat parents have chosen to have their children here, so competition at the entry levels has sky rocketed.

But I really feel for anyone currently working in an admissions department at a school in Hong Kong! Not only do they have their hands full with a never-ending tide of applicants to consider, but as pressure for places gets more and more difficult, they need to skillfully assist parents who are understandably stressed and frustrated about actually securing a place for their children.

The majority of our international schools have been established within the last 20 years. Most of these schools have then grown at a tremendous rate and due to the rapid growth they have been very independent in their developments, with none of them following any universal structure.

The influx of students has often outpaced the natural growth of a school. This has led to a variety of admissions procedures being developed which have differed considerably between each school. Testing procedures differ, acceptance procedures differ, rejection procedures differ… little wonder, then, that parents are often left confused and frustrated.

Unfortunately, there is currently no clear solution on the horizon. We continue to turn away great students and wonderful families who would undoubtedly have a positive impact on any school community. Believe me, though, it’s not just parents who are suffering; schools don’t like being in this position and it can certainly take an emotional toll on caring admissions staff.

So, my three tips for prospective parents are: don’t take things personally; there’s usually nothing wrong with your child; and, if at first you don’t succeed, then try and try again!

However, until we are allocated more land on which to build new campuses, find the financial resources to do so and receive support in meeting the needs to expand, we cannot cater to demand – current or future. The students are there, the teachers are available and the government has a huge challenge ahead of it.

The time for action is well overdue.

Alex Gibbs has consulted for and worked at numerous international schools in Hong Kong over the past 12 years and is currently Director of Development and Community Relations at the Australian International School Hong Kong (AISHK).