Our expert weighs in on the pros and cons of a local school versus an international school
The start of a new school year is encroaching and you have some important decisions to make: Should you enrol your child in an international school or a local (public) school? What will their schooling experiences be like? Are international schools worth the cost? Will you need to supplement your child’s education if they go to a local school? As a former international school student who then taught at a local school in Hong Kong, I present three pros and three cons about each system. Please note that these are insights gathered from my own personal experiences and cannot be generalised to every local or international school context.
Local Schools (public government schools)
Language: You are more likely to gain fluency in the Chinese language (both Cantonese and Mandarin) in a local school. Immersed in an environment where Chinese is spoken among peers, your child will likely speak, read and write with a high level of proficiency. Note: You should strongly consider the EMI (English Medium of Instruction) schools, and will definitely need to hire a tutor if Chinese is not used at home.
Culture: In the local school system, your child will gain an in-depth understanding and sincere appreciation for Hong Kong culture. Beyond surface-level aspects of culture (e.g., food, clothing, traditions), I identified more deeply with the people of Hong Kong as a teacher than I ever did as a student in an international school.
Self-discipline: After teaching for six years in a local primary school, I can confidently say that the children are extremely self-disciplined. Although this trait is cultivated by a need to perform well on tests and exams, self-discipline is an admirable quality that translates well to the workforce.
Homework: Students are assigned copious amounts of homework every day. Although some local schools are beginning to question the use and effectiveness of homework, children can easily spend 3 hours per day completing it, meaning less time for non-academic activities that are equally important to building a child’s character.
Exams: Midterm and end-of-year summative assessments count for a large portion of a child’s grade, resulting in lessons devoted to test preparation. Although formative assessments (e.g., portfolios) are slowly being introduced, children are ranked and streamed into secondary schools according to these high-stakes test results, which may not be the best indicator of future success.
Black-and-White Thinking: The way a child perceives the world is influenced by both the home and school environments. Because schools are dominated by tests and exams with right and wrong answers, children often think that life consists of only right or wrong answers. As a parent, take the initiative to engage your child in more ‘grey area’ conversations.
International Schools (private and ESF-subsidised schools)
English Proficiency: Without a doubt, international schools provide students with a high level of English fluency. Taught by teachers from around the globe, and immersed in an English-speaking environment among peers, students often graduate with native-like English. Note: “native-like” usually equates to a colourful amalgamation of Australian, British and North American Englishes. Students in international schools are often well-versed in popular culture, which makes for easier assimilation in university.
Global Mindset: At “international” schools, students will often have ties to other countries outside of Hong Kong. Interacting with these classmates helps children develop cultural sensitivity. Also, learning to be both from Hong Kong and from another country makes your child a Third Culture Kid – an internationally-conscious and global citizen.
Sociability: Students from international schools are generally more sociable. Schools value well-rounded students who engage in academics, sports and the community. This provides children with rich experiences and also allows them to cultivate a healthy school-life balance that will extend well beyond their school years.
Expenses: Without a doubt, international schools are exponentially more costly than local schools. Although a number of scholarships are available to students, these private schools rely on debentures and tuition dollars to run.
Defiant Behaviour: Acknowledging that all students will be exposed to defiant behaviours at some point in their school careers (e.g., smoking, drinking, promiscuity), I have found that students in international schools are exposed to these issues much earlier than their local school counterparts, who maintain a childlike innocence (for better or for worse) in their secondary school years.
Curricula: This can serve as a pro or a con, depending on the curricula you would like your child to follow. While local schools are relatively standardised in their curricula, international schools often adopt country-specific curricula and examinations (e.g., French International School offers the French Baccalaureate). Picking the most suitable curricula for your situation will allow for a seamless transition into university/schooling in another country.