Translated version (Chinese version below):
A “headhunting” company for children facing the competition at international schools in Hong Kong
“Getting into a school is an art. Like a headhunting company, we propose a child to their suitable school.”
Within the affluent circles of Hong Kong, Ruth Benny, originally from the UK, is someone to look out for. Founder of an admissions consultancy in Sheung Wan, she works with expats, Hong Kong local Chinese, and mainland Chinese. They are all eager to seek out Benny with one mission — to send their children to an international school.
“Getting into a school is an art. Like a headhunting company, we propose a child to a suitable school.” Ruth Benny, Founder of Top Schools, school admissions consultant
Similar to the shortage of housing in Hong Kong, international school places are limited. Currently, 50 international schools provide 41,000 places in Hong Kong, but this is still not sufficient. According to a research report by Hong Kong’s Education Bureau in 2012, international schools lack at least 4,200 places in the academic year 2016/2017.
“Getting into a school is an art. Like a headhunting company, we propose a child to a suitable school, and say, ‘Hey, we have a strong candidate, would you like to take a look?’”, Benny said.
Families from foreign countries, Hong Kong, and the Mainland all want their children to make it into international schools
After moving to Hong Kong from Shanghai last July with her two sons, 39 year old Chan Fong Chit was quickly intimidated by the fierce competition of international schools. She first applied for her 5 year old elder son. He had two interviews and hoped to start this September, but did not receive good news. She then found out that the seven closest international schools to her were already full.
She noticed mothers in this city are relentless when it comes to putting their children into international schools. They prepare ahead by applying in advance, having their children learn English early, taking classes on interview skills, and even consulting “headhunting” agencies like Top Schools.
Learning her lesson, Chan applied to an international school for her 3 year old boy to start in 2017. The response she received was that 600 children were already on the waiting list, and less than a hundred would be accepted into that academic year.
Chan, born in Shanghai, worked in Hong Kong before relocating to England to study. On returning to Shanghai, she met her European husband and, at the end of 2009, had her son in Hong Kong. This made him a “doubly non-permanent resident child.”
After relocating her finance company and moving to Hong Kong last year, Chan had set her mind on an international school. The local curriculum is something she would “never ever consider.” “It is a big challenge to re-learn Cantonese for a child. Plus, we might not stay permanently in Hong Kong. We aim for our children’s future to be outside of Asia.”
International schools were first established for expat families who moved for their careers in Hong Kong; with English being the predominant medium of instruction. Mandarin is also taught. The first international style school was ESF, established by the then British Hong Kong government in 1967, to provide the British Education System to British expats. This education system soon attracted more and more local parents.
“In recent years, families from mainland China have also joined the “competitive army”. Some have doubly non-permanent resident children, some have invested early to migrate to Hong Kong, and some moved for business reasons.”
With an increased demands from all over the world, the competition for school places is more extreme than ever. Rumours abound of newly pregnant mothers requesting to apply to an international school with the baby’s sonogram photo, and others spending millions to buy debentures for their toddlers to attain admission priority.
Amongst the 50 international schools in Hong Kong, 36 of them issue debentures (sometimes called ‘nomination rights’ or ‘capital levy’). Parents purchase debentures so their children will be granted admission priority. Many international corporations also buy “corporate debentures” for the children of the staff.
This system of buying debentures to secure a priority spot is somewhat of a special feature in Hong Kong. These debentures are self-managed by the schools and the funds raised are used to expand the campus or develop new curricula. They are not regulated by the Education Bureau or The Hong Kong Monetary Authority and every international school formulates their own policies for the debentures, including their fees, whether they are compulsory, whether they can be refunded, whether they can be traded freely in the second-hand market etc.
Currently, the debentures range from thousands to millions, and similar to school places, they are very difficult to come by. For instance, Harrow School Hong Kong (opened in 2012) first issued debentures at 3 million. These have now reached 6 million on the second-hand market. As for Hong Kong International School, debentures are at 2 million, all traded exclusively through the school. According to a statement by the school, parents queueing for debentures may wait about ten years.
Planning for a successful future begins from the moment of birth
Seeing the market’s vast demands, Ruth Benny founded Top Schools in 2012, specialising in helping parents find an international school. Rates range from HK$8,000 to over HK$50,000. Born in England, Benny has lived in Hong Kong for over 20 years and worked at The Hong Kong Polytechnic University as an teacher trainer and at HSBC as a trainer. She claims to have good relationships with many international schools in Hong Kong.
Amongst Benny’s customers, the majority are mixed families. A typical client would be a woman born and bred in Hong Kong who studies in Canada and meets her husband, a Canadian citizen, there, then settles in Hong Kong. In recent years, however, Benny has witnessed an increasing number of mainland and Hong Kong families hoping to make it into international schools.
Mainland families are the most challenging. “They will often say, I’m willing to spend big money for my child to get into a school; a few million is not a problem.” Whereas Hong Kong families are more tense and pushy, “Some Hong Kong parents normally speak Cantonese, but for the sake of their children getting into international schools, they’ll speak Chinglish every day to their children at home.”
The first step to being accepted by an international school is to transform the child into a strong candidate, and Benny’s usual tactic is to first spend time educating the parents.
Facing mainland families, she will explain that, “In Hong Kong, you can’t just buy a place; your child will have to go through an interview first.” 90% of her mainland clients fail to have their children pass the interview stage, with the main reason being that international schools demand native English speakers. On the other hand, with Hong Kong families, she reminds them not to speak English with their children, “as they will only end up learning Chinglish, not their mother tongue.”
The most important thing is to “plan strategically for the future from the moment of birth,” Benny says. “It is important to decide whether you want your child to enter a local or an international school, and based on that decision, decide on a playgroup or a kindergarten.” Both her children’s mother tongue is English, and attended Mandarin playgroup at 4 months old. They are now both studying at a bilingual school running an international curriculum.
“Planning can actually begin before birth. There are 14 international schools in Hong Kong that allow applications as long as the child has a birth certificate. As for pregnant mothers who consult Benny, she frequently reminds them to be mindful of the application time period.”
“It normally takes at least 7 days after birth to get the birth certificate. Some parents ask the hospital to hurry the paperwork to get it early in order to apply,” said Benny. A lot of mothers are more eager than her.
Aside from planning, having connections, money and a bit of luck are also important
“My son already understands that no school will accept him if he doesn’t work hard, and he’s not even six yet.”
Chan blames it on “Hong Kong’s culture.” After returning to Hong Kong, she’s noticed that “planning has to start from pregnancy.” To prepare her eldest son for the school’s interview, she recently transferred her children twice to international kindergartens, and hired a private English tutor for them; three times a week, nearly two hours each time.
“My son already understands that no school will accept him if he doesn’t work hard, and he’s not even six yet. But he’s improving fast, so I’m confident he will be accepted into to an international school,” Chan said.
Another mother found that planning and learning in advance do not necessarily bring success. Cheung Wa and her husband were born in Hong Kong, and now reside in a high-end estate in Sai Kung. She had always disagreed with the local education system, and had planned for her children to study at an international school since their birth. They now both study in an international kindergarten and speak fluent English.
“My sons classmates are all Westerners. My sons don’t speak Cantonese. They reply in English when I speak Cantonese to them at home,” said Cheung.
In January 2015, she applied for her elder son to enter a well-known international primary school for September entry. She realised that many parents had already applied years in advance. Left with no other choice she applied to a third-tier international school, but her son was rejected after the interview.
“I was pretty devastated at the time,” Cheung said.
Just when she thought she had no hope she heard about Top Schools from other mothers. Benny first drafted her a report suggesting which schools to apply to.
“The report wasn’t very useful as I had already applied to most of the schools Ruth suggested. What she knows, us mothers know too,” said Cheung. Not long after paying Benny for the consultancy, Cheung received an interview from a well-known international school that she had applied to earlier. Her son was later accepted by the school. To her, what made it happen was Benny’s connections.
“I asked Ruth if she had any connections with the school to get admission priorities and she didn’t answer me directly. She just stressed that she was on good terms with the school,” Cheung said.
“Think about it, there are so many people applying, but if Ruth notifies the school that the applicant is her client, that might just make all the difference.” Cheung Wa, Parent
After Cheung’s success, she began to introduce this English miracle worker to all the other anxious mothers that she knows. “I’m not entirely sure she is the reason my son got in, but it must have helped.”
“Think about it, there are so many people applying, but if Ruth notifies the school that the applicant is her client, that might just make all the difference,” Cheung said. “But at the end of the day, these things still need luck.”
According to Top Schools, they had 65 clients for the academic year of 2015/2016 with a 100% admission rate. Moreover, googling “international school consultancy” results in at least 10 similar companies, amongst them are international companies, local companies, and mainland companies, all targeting to find schools for newly migrated families.
Just like accommodation in Hong Kong, there’s always a demand for a place in international schools
To ease lack of space in international schools, the Hong Kong Government has been providing rent-free or low-rent land over the last few years to attract major groups to open international schools in Hong Kong. In July 2015, the Education Bureau announced that land was allocated to the sponsoring bodies of 8 international schools.
On April 20, 2016, Malvern College (a British international school) officially announced the start of their construction in Tai Po, New Territories.
“We will open in 2018, but many parents having been asking when they can apply and how the interview procedure goes. There have been more than 100 parents registering to buy debentures so far, with many mothers still pregnant. They are very anxious,” said Kong Kam Cheong, Director of Development and Operations of Malvern College.
The Hong Kong Government sees that the lack of places in international schools will affect international business in Hong Kong in the long run. In 2012, the Education Bureau published a report that showed 8.2% of international companies were unable to hire people from overseas that year, since many of their children were not accepted into international schools.
With more newly opened international schools, it appears that Hong Kong Government’s policy is to first attract children with foreign passports. According to the Education Bureau’s provision, if a sponsored international school receives land allocation or a school campus, at least 70% of the admitted students must be non-local. Sponsoring bodies applying for campuses are given more serious consideration if can pledge to admit over 80% of non-local students.
“It is worth noting that ‘non-local’ students are those with foreign passports. Under this policy, children like Chan’s and Cheung’s who both have HKSAR passports face more fierce competition due to the limited quota for locals.”
The majority of Hong Kong’s international schools are run by non-profit private organisations, so school management, curriculum outline and admissions are unregulated by the Education Bureau. This has resulted in a surging fees, and fees on top of fees.
“The Education Bureau only regulates the tuition fees, which means construction and admissions fees keep increasing. There’s nothing parents can do about it,” Benny said.
Canadian International School (CDNIS) in Wong Chuk Hang has recently had disagreements between the staff and the Board of Direction, which caused this school of 25 years to tumble into crisis that started in November 2014. A year and a half later, two principals and a dozen plus teachers have resigned, with some parents transferring their children to other schools.
Sabrina Maguire, from the US, has three children at CDNIS. She joined over a hundred parents to improve the school management problems and contacted the Education Bureau, without success.
Maguire expressed that parents are vulnerable whenever problems arise in the schools. “Just like accommodation in Hong Kong, there’s always people queueing for a spot in an international school.” She said. “The attitude of international schools is that if you don’t want to study here, there are plenty of others who are waiting.”
Four years after establishment, Ruth Benny has witnessed more clients who are foreigners, locals, and mainlanders, all wanting their children to study in international schools. It is clear that the future holds more stiff competition for international schools in Hong Kong.
(The names Chan Fong Chit and Cheung Wa have been altered for privacy reasons.)
目前，香港50家國際學校中，36家都有發行被稱為「債券」（debenture）、提名權（nomination right） 或「資本證明」的不同名字的債券，購買債券的家長可讓孩子獲得入讀「優先權」。不少國際企業也會為從外國來港的員工子女購買「企業債券」。