Opinion

The nowhere kids: Shortage of school places, expats reject HK

Anita Anandarajah

Anita Anandarajah is a stay-at-home-mum who lives in Hong Kong. She longs for the grassy playgrounds of her childhood.

DEC 11 — I met a lovely eight-year-old boy last weekend at a friend’s home. Bright, friendly and able to speak three languages, the Dutch native arrived in Hong Kong with his family in October.

He is now in the midst of packing up to return home — while his parents stay on.

He can’t find a school to take him in.

Expat families who have managed to secure jobs in the Hong Kong glittering financial hub are facing a huge problem — a severe shortage of school places for their children.

There are simply not enough places available at international schools across the island. Primary schools, in particular the lower years, are notoriously difficult to get into. The waiting list can be 18 months long.

There is a severe shortage of school places for expat children across Hong Kong.There is a severe shortage of school places for expat children across Hong Kong.The American Chamber of Commerce has warned the Chief Executive that the problem has reached a crisis point based on findings from a poll by a US relocation company.

Brookfield Global Relocation Services found that although Hong Kong is still a highly desirable destination for companies wanting to relocate their employees, the city also suffers from the highest rates of relocation failure, meaning employees decline the move.

Reasons include schooling, the high cost of living, housing and problems with driving.

There are numerous international schools here but costs can be prohibitive. A popular international school, Hong Kong International School (HKIS) offers debentures of HK$500,000 (RM190,000).

Another hot favourite, the bilingual Chinese International School (CIS), has not issued debentures in six years but in October 2010 a CIS corporate debenture was sold (there is a secondary market that trades debentures legally) for HK$4.95 million (http://guides.wsj.com/hong-kong/guide-to-hong-kong/education/).

The HKIS debenture is not mandatory but debenture holders receive priority placement. Yet another popular school is Singapore International School which recently raised its debenture from HK$100,000 to HK$180,000.

These debentures are non-interest bearing and some are refundable when the child leaves the school. Funds are used for maintenance and daily running of the school. It may be a family-paid debenture or corporate debenture. The latter is used by companies to entice staff to relocate to Hong Kong. Some companies are even restricting their foreign staff to singles or childless applicants.

Debentures only help get your foot through the door. There is still the monthly school fees to contend with which are about HK$10,000.

A trawl through expat discussion forums asiaXPAT (http://hongkong.asiaxpat.com/) and GeoExpat highlight the panic many new arrivals to Hong Kong experience. There is advice to find a school first before searching for a house. Enrol in a local school if the child is aged four or five. Choose a less popular international school but risk spending two hours travelling each day.

My son is three years old and I get asked on an almost daily basis if I’ve decided which primary school I wish to send him to.

Ishan is in K1, the first of three years of kindergarten. We will have to apply for a spot in a primary school next year. With no corporate debenture in our pocket, international schools are not an option. Why, just the application fee (non-refundable) for some of these schools can be as much as HK$2,000!

I promptly answer that I hope we won’t be here long enough to deal with that headache.

As such, the government-subsidised English Schools Foundation (ESF) primary schools are perennially popular for the more affordable international school education. ESF chief executive Heather Du Quesnay said in an interview that they received nearly 2,000 applications for 1,000 places in Year 1.

The thing is, expat children are not the only ones fighting for spots in international schools. Local parents who have the means are also eyeing these schools as they believe the curriculum will a) better prepare their children for an overseas education; b) provide a better standard of English, which some believe has deteriorated since the handover in 1997; and c) remove the burden of the local education system.

You may ask, what’s the harm in learning some Cantonese in a local school? Not to sound like a pansy but local schools are notorious for dishing out six hours of homework daily. I do not want that for my son at age six.

We have “lost” two friends and their families to Singapore in the past three months. Their top reasons for moving? Schooling and rent.

So is it glamorous being an expat? Not if you’re a poor one.

* The views expressed here are the personal opinion of the columnist.

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