I met Heike in the office of a popular primary school. Her 10-year-old daughter Jessica had just disappeared into a room with four other hopefuls for an interview and assessment. My four-year-old was one of them.
Sitting on the couch, we exchanged anxious glances. The school year had started the week before. Any time lost now could translate into marks.
“I didn’t expect the school situation to be so dire, so bad,” Heike confided. She applied to several schools for her two children in February ahead of the family’s planned move to Hong Kong from Dubai. Now here we were in late August, thousands of dollars of application fees later and still no school place.
“It’s very stressful and it slowly wears the children out because they do assessment after assessment and they’re always told they’re not good enough. And they both have very good marks in their previous school. Jonathan was school captain. For them it’s very hard,” she said.
The problem’s not new. In 2007, the American Chamber of Commerce in Hong Kong released a report which warned the city’s “competitiveness is being negatively affected by the inability of incoming investors to find places in school for the children of their expatriate staff members.”
Five years later there’s been little progress in solving the problem. Applications to the English Schools Foundation, which runs nine primary schools and five secondary schools across Hong Kong, have been rising for the past five years. This year, almost 2,000 children applied for 1,000 Year One places on offer. And that doesn’t include those who applied after the cut-off date of September 30 last year.
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