The 4th International Schools Festival was held on 15 September 2018, with over 50 schools and over 1,500 parents attending. This event is an important and popular way for parents to find out key details about the international school scene, but it’s only the first step on a much longer journey.
At Top Schools, we counsel parents to trust their own instincts. We often say that choosing a school is an emotional decision and not a logical one. More than a few parents have thrown painstakingly prepared spreadsheets out the window once they start visiting schools and meeting the heads of school. This is testament to the impact that personal encounters with leadership can have on prospective parents. While an afternoon at the International Schools Festival may leave you with an armful of promotional material and a sense of choice-induced vertigo, it’s still no substitute for a face-to-face, informal chat with a head of school. Whether in the rough and tumble of a plush hotel foyer or the corridors of the city’s many international schools fighting for your patronage, the human contact we encourage in our kids can best teach us parents what we need to know about where our children might best learn.
The main event
It’s mid-afternoon on a Saturday and the JW Marriott Hotel ballroom is buzzing, filled with anxious parents and eager school representatives. Parents flit from booth to booth, collecting glossy brochures and souvenirs. Heads of school step into the mass of curious (and often confused) parents, reciting well-rehearsed patter, while admissions teams scribble down names and dish out business cards.
This is a familiar scene from the International Schools Festival which, since 2015, offers the precious chance for parents and students to familiarise themselves with how international schools in Hong Kong profess to offer a point of difference. The amount of information can be overwhelming for first-timers, but Hong Kongers are experienced in navigating busy crowds and competing messages, and the fear of losing a competitive advantage will ensure these events remain an integral part of the school calendar for young families who are keen to put questions to the highest members of senior administration.
Mr David Baird, Head of School at the Canadian International School of Hong Kong (CDNIS), sees events like the International Schools Festival as fundamental to engaging prospective parents.
“Any school can buy into marketing, glossy brochures and fancy literature, but schools are about people,” said Mr Baird. “An astute parent can really cut through and find out what you are really about, what your core values are. Yes, every school will have similar mission statements and buzzwords, but nothing is as powerful as meeting people in the flesh.
“You are the embodiment of the school. You are taking the time to form a relationship. You are buying into what this person who heads this institution stands for. Because that’s the most important thing for a parent.”
It’s the principal
According to Brigitte McNamara, Director of Marketing & Communications at AustralianInternational School Hong Kong, the landscape of education is shifting towards an emphasis on personal relationships. “We see the increasing abundance of schools for prospective parents to choose from,” said Ms McNamara. “However, whilst the ‘hardware’ of schools is important, so is the ‘software’ – the actual learning environment and culture. Parents are very discerning and the ethos, trustworthiness and heart of a school can be very swiftly gauged through face-to-face interaction with school leaders.
“In the case of AISHK, we feel the benefits are mutual. Our Head of School, Mark Hemphill, will be the first to admit he likes to have a good chat! Even before joining AISHK, Mark’s passion for connecting with parents and community was widely lauded. Mark received the NSW Parents’ Council Principal’s Excellence Award for Parent Engagement, for which he was nominated by parents themselves.”
Similarly, Jane Archibald, Director of Admissions & Marketing at Nord Anglia International School, is adamant that Nord Anglia’s presence at events like the International Schools Festival can only work with the support and presence of the school principal.
“Put simply, having the principal there makes such a difference,” Ms Archibald told Top Schools. “It’s huge. It allows parents to go beyond the website to see who is shaping the school. You can ask personal questions in real time, which makes it more valuable and more valid.”
For parent Sarah Foo, attending the 2017 International Schools Festival led to her children being enrolled in a school that her family had not previously considered.
“It was hectic, but a great way to connect with the schools and ask about their values, beliefs and teaching styles,” said Ms Foo. “I found some of the schools that I thought would be a good option for our family weren’t going to be a good fit, and was surprised about others I met that would be. It was a worthwhile experience.”
What happens on tour
A school festival can offer the first step towards building trust between a school and a parent, but it’s unlikely to become the primary reason for applying. The subsequent school tour can have a powerful impact on a family’s decision whether or not to invest in a school community.
CDNIS runs tours every Tuesday right through the school year, despite a lengthy waiting list. “People always ask us why we bother taking thirty to forty people through the school every week,” said David Baird, ”but we honestly love it. And I always make a point of letting parents talk to teachers we pass in the corridors. The teachers aren’t set up, so it’s very authentic and very powerful. Parents can really see how we live by our values.”
Top Schools’ Tips
- Identify your preferences in terms of style of learning, ethos and culture.
- Attend the International Schools Festival in September to see what’s out there and where they may be potential fits.
- Make an appointment to take some school tours.
- On the tours, pay attention to teachers and students. Are they natural and genuinely engaged? Or does it feel staged? What’s happening ‘around’ the school? Compare your child to those in the classrooms – would s/he fit in?Does the head/principal make an appearance? Does the head teach any classes?
- After visiting 5-10 schools, apply to three – at the right time and in the right way. Familiarise yourself with the procedures and follow them to the T.
For personalised support, consider engaging a schools consultant that is knowledgeable, competent, well-informed, ethical, and student-focused.
A variation of this article appeared as ‘Follow the Leader’ in the Winter 2018 Playtimes