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Competition for a university place begins before kindergarten for Hong Kong kids

By Sharon Lee, Vanessa Cheung

Leung Siu-han’s son is four years old but he is a very busy young man. He has football lessons on Mondays and Fridays. He has piano and violin classes every Tuesday as well as English and Maths on Thursdays and Fridays. It does not end there – he also has music lessons every Saturday. The unusual thing about his schedule is not how packed it is, but that it is not unusual for many of Hong Kong’s children, particularly those from the middle class.

Leung, a 39-year-old housewife, spends about HK$8,000 per month for her son and his three-year-old sister to attend interest classes.

“It is necessary for today’s parents to enrol in academic classes. English and maths are the most common ones,” says Leung.

She plans to enrol her son in Putonghua and swimming courses as well, but has postponed her plan due to her son’s present tight schedule. Rather than staying at home, Leung thinks going to interest classes helps her children make good use of their after-school time.

Though HK$8,000 a month is a burden on the family finances, Leung says it would “feel like a loss to not join.” Instead of cutting down on extra-curricular activities, Leung says she will be more careful in selecting the classes. She gets much of the information on interest classes from a Whatsapp group where parents discuss extra-curricular activities.

While Leung says the classes are just a better use of her children’s time than playing at home, some parents see them as prerequisites to preparing their children for entry to prestigious kindergartens and primary schools. In a city where five year olds present personal portfolios at admissions interviews to some of the more popular schools, many parents feel they need to give their young children a competitive edge.

Peter Chiu Wing-tak, the honorary adviser of Hong Kong Association of Career Masters and Guidance Masters (HKACMGM) and a former school vice-principal, says the reason why parents are so focused on schools admissions from such an early age is simple. The rate of students who are able to enter local universities is low, just 18 per cent of school-leavers.

“There are too few places. Parents will look at Band One schools in the short run and universities in the long run,” says Chiu. “It is better to get into a prestigious school because you’ll at least have a greater chance of entering universities, 60 to 70 per cent of students from these schools can enter universities.”

But are attempts to turn under-fives into all singing, all dancing, sports superstars who can recite their timetables in three languages actually good for the children?

Chiu says it is wrong for children to learn as much and as early as possible. He explains that children can only perform certain tasks when they reach certain ages.

Doris Cheng Pui-wa, associate professor in the Department of Early Childhood Education at the Hong Kong Institute of Education, agrees.

“It is unnecessary for adults to force their children to learn,” Cheng says, “It will reduce their natural ability to explore and learn, or even kill their curiosity.”

She says Hong Kong parents’ focus on results and tangible outcomes is what drives kindergartens and nursery schools to be so results-oriented. On top of that, there is a proliferation of playgroups and interest classes that are designed to prepare children for the primary school admission interviews.

Interviews are used to determine admission at private and direct subsidy primary schools. Children who apply to aided and government schools are not required to take part in interviews. But for those who do not get their top choices after the central allocation results are out, there is still a chance of getting a place in one of their chosen schools through what is known as the “door knocking” stage. This is because schools may reserve a few places for children after the central allocation and will selectively interview some parents and children who apply at this stage.

So Yip-ming and Lo Chiu-wah, who have a son and a daughter, went through the whole process with their son last summer. They say it was an exhausting journey. When their son was allocated to his eighth choice in the central allocation, they rushed around and knocked on the doors of three schools within a day. In the end, their son was one of the eight successful door-knockers at the Baptist Lui Ming Choi Primary School, which is a prestigious school in the Sha Tin area and received a total of 404 applicants for 164 places.

Before the central allocation, So and Lo had applied to private and direct subsidy schools such as Ying Wa Primary School. Their son passed the first two rounds of interviews but failed to pass the final round at Ying Wa.

Lo remembers that in the first interview, the interviewer showed her son three photographs showing the leaders of the US, Taiwan and Japan respectively. The boy was asked to identify the president of Taiwan. Lo thinks the question was very challenging for a five-year-old child.

At the second interview, children were asked to bring a storybook and discuss it with the principal. Both the child and his parents had to attend the third interview, during which the interviewer asked the child about the difference between the chair he sat in for the first and the second interviews.

Although Ying Wa Primary School only admits 300 students from 3,000 applicants, So and Lo were confident their son would get in because he had performed well in all three interviews. Still, they were so nervous they could not sleep the night before the results came out. Unfortunately for them, it turned out to be a great disappointment; their son was not admitted.

“I cried that time,” says Lo. “Though it was not true, I kept wondering if my son was really that bad. I have never felt that before.”

Although the whole process was stressful, So and Lo recall they felt the greatest pressure during the “door-knocking” stage. After being put through the emotional wringer, So and Lo came to understand that parents should try to behave as normally as possible. It is no good pushing a child.

Lo felt sad when she heard her son talking to his younger sister after he was admitted. “He told his three-year-old sister that she doesn’t have to worry as his admission means a secured place for her in that school,” Lo recalls.

Lo’s family is not the only one to have struggled with the primary school admission scheme. Some parents go to great lengths to find ways to help their children get into an ideal primary school. Christabel Cheng is one of them.

Cheng’s daughter interviewed for seven primary schools including St. Paul Co-educational College Primary School, Diocesan Girls’ Primary School and Po Leung Kuk Choi Kai Yau School. Cheng says she has no particular preference for elite schools but applied for them due to family pressure.

To prepare for the interviews, Cheng read studies and papers on how to evaluate a child’s multiple intelligences. She took two months to formulate an evaluation questionnaire, which she then gave to the tutors of her daughter’s interest classes. After collecting the completed questionnaires, she wrote a summary of how the tutors evaluated her daughter. She hoped this would help school principals have a more complete assessment of her daughter apart from her academic results. “It was like writing a thesis,” says Cheng.

In the end, Cheng’s daughter was admitted by GT (Ellen Young) College, a private school for gifted children. Although everything went quite smoothly, Cheng still felt pressure during the process, which came mainly from comparisons among parents.

“When you go to the kindergarten, A tells you this and B tells you that. I once thought should I do the same thing for my daughter as well?” says Cheng. “However, you should be consistent and firm in your stance. Do the suitable things for your children and yourself.”

Some parents, who were pushed themselves as children, are keen to avoid piling the pressure on their own kids. Yennie Darkins, a 29-year-old housewife and blogger, attended traditional elite schools from kindergarten onwards and had a packed schedule when she was a student. Darkins attracted attention when she wrote an article online about how she would not put her children in a playgroup and how she could play with and teach them herself.

Darkins has three daughters, one of whom is in primary one, the other two are attending kindergarten. Her daughters do go to interest classes such as ballet, but to Darkins, these classes are just for fun. She does not let them take part in ballet exams although their tutor said they could not be promoted to a more advanced class unless they took tests. “I do not need certificates to prove my daughters’ abilities to dance. I think it is good enough if they can learn without pressure,” says Darkins.

Darkins’ eldest daughter is studying at St. Stephen’s College but she explains this is because of the school’s proximity to her home rather than because of its status. She says she did not prepare her daughter for the admission interview.

Darkins, a full-time mum, is more concerned about time spent bonding with her children than in enhancing their competitiveness. “The children will suffer if you deliberately add skills and knowledge which are beyond their standards,” says Darkins.

Darkins’ British husband, Piers Nicholas Darkins agrees parents should let their children explore the world and deal with problems on their own. “The most important thing for children is play. Social interaction – it teaches them to be a well-rounded person,” Piers Darkins says. This is best illustrated when another child stepped on his daughter’s hand but he did not walk to her immediately.

“That’s life, there’s always somebody will metaphorically step on you, but you have to take it,” he says.

While most parents devote themselves into competing for a place in famous schools, Cam Highfield, a 43-year-old freelance writer also known as Cheung Wai-nui, chose an alternative education for her children. She quit the game altogether and now homeschools her children after sailing around the world for five years.

The sailing trip was her husband, retired senior marine police officer Arni Highfield’s dream. During the trip, Highfield saw different education systems around the world and noticed that schools in many places are pushing children harder to give them a competitive edge. She says many schools design their teaching content to correspond to the admission requirements of universities, which determines the students’ educational paths.

“If the parents want to send their children to the university, they need to plan the path to university carefully from kindergarten,” says Highfield, “[People think] it is how the education should be. If you don’t have good results, how can you get a job?”

However, Highfield prefers her children to learn from their surroundings and society. She started homeschooling in April last year and formed a homeschool group with around 40 parents. They meet once a week and organise outside activities such as visits to museums and the Legislative Council.

Highfield turned to homeschooling because her daughters found it hard to adapt to the teaching in conventional schools after returning from the sailing trip. They are happy with the more relaxed learning atmosphere and flexible timetable.

There is no universal definition of a good education. Choosing an alternative form of education is hard as it requires a lot of time and effort, which most working parents in Hong Kong cannot afford. However, Highfield thinks her efforts are paying off.

“At least they can have their childhood which only a few children in Hong Kong can enjoy once they start kindergarten,” she says.

Edited by Vicki Yuen


  1. Parents oh parents, please save your kids their lovely childhood.
    :$ The interviews would be pointless if it’s all about how good the parents are at writing up theses.

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