Moving from the Local System to an International School

An age-old question for parents in Hong Kong is whether they should send their child to an international or local school. Whilst the majority of expats choose an international education for their children, this has become an increasingly popular choice for members of the local population too.

For some, children start in the local stream and then later move to an international school. This can sometimes be challenging, but never impossible.

Why would someone want to move?

As previously mentioned, the move to international education has become more and more popular for local parents. Some of these reasons may include:

  1. Concerns about the standard of English

For many local schools, the language of instruction is Chinese. Parents may decide that the teaching of English, by a (usually) second language speaker, is not sufficient for their child’s acquisition of the language.

  1. Teaching/assessment style

Local schools are known for their structured approach to learning. However, not every student is best suited to this highly rigid learning style, and some parents feel an international learning environment would better suit their child’s development.

  1. Preparation for international universities

It is extremely common for international secondary schools to receive large quantities of applications, as parents want their child to be immersed in an international education system prior to university. For those planning on going to a university outside of Hong Kong, having international qualifications such as an IB Diploma, proves more attractive to overseas university admissions departments.

When is the best time to move?

It is hard to know when the best time to move is, as the local and international school year levels do not coincide exactly. There is a one year age difference, so it’s difficult to pinpoint when primary school ends, and secondary school begins. For example, as Year 7 is the start of secondary school, in the International system, this is considered a good time to start. For local students, this means applying soon after the child begins P5.

Depending on what public exams international schools offer, gives a good indication as to when the optimum times to enter are. Often lower secondary school is the preferred, as no public examinations or courses have commenced. It is important to research the curriculum of each possible option, as not all the same rules will apply across the board. 

One of the advantages for students who transfer during secondary school is that by then they will have already developed a solid foundation of their first language (be it Cantonese or Mandarin). With a sound understanding of their own language, they can then learn their second language and become proficient in both English and Chinese.

What are the major differences?

Local schools are often known for having a rigorous and structured learning approach. There are numerous tests and a great deal of homework, which requires parental input.

On the other hand, international schools may appear to take a more ‘relaxed approach’ but they actually strive for a more self-motivated learning style, with breadth as well as depth. There will be homework, of course, the work set may well be more research, projects, and evaluation.

An international school will usually put more emphasis on inquiry-based learning. With aims at fostering independence and independent thought, students are encouraged to question, challenge and research. Students acquire skills with which to face the future.

For children who move, what challenges can they face?

The most common challenge for students transitioning from local schools to international schools is the English-language requirement.

Students who struggle with English are usually placed into an English second language (ESL) stream. Their difficulty understanding and applying English may result in struggling with other subjects too, such as science or maths.

However, this is not the end of the world. By being more prepared in terms of English language before entering an international school, students have a faster rate of progress/success.

The benefit to being in this international system is not only the exposure to English language but the immersion in the culture. Children are able to make friends across several countries, developing not only their academic English but their playground and conversational English as well.

With English being taught as a foreign language, local schools tend to promote rote learning of the language. This results in students having a strong grasp of grammar but limited knowledge of how to express themselves naturally. Universities commonly look for applicants who can add value to their university and much of the time this is displayed in character, self-awareness, and mindset.

What are the advantages to international education?

Students local to Hong Kong, who are educated in an international school, are fortunate as they are well versed in their home language as well as the advantage of having been educated in English.

They can have the opportunity to make international friends as well as being well prepared for universities, not only in Hong Kong but abroad too. They will have had the benefit of international high school qualifications such as the IB Diploma, which will widely open numerous doors for their futures.

Students in international schools also tend to be highly competent in using modern technologies and therefore equipped with the skills 21st-century citizens will need. They build teamwork and collaboration skills and make connections, all of which make for a bright future here in Hong Kong and abroad!

How long can it take for a child to transition to an international school setting?

Not every child will transition at the same speed and with the same ease. If parents have decided that the international route is ultimately the goal, then the younger the child, usually the swifter. They will adapt quicker, make friends and be well placed to achieve their goals in the future.