When we first told people we were moving to Hong Kong, anyone who had actual knowledge of or experience in the city asked us the same question – “What will you do about schools?” While my first response was, “um, you mean for my three year old and one year old?!”, as a teacher I do know enough about how insanely competitive schools can be to take the queries pretty seriously. The first thing I did was to apply to a range of Montessori pre schools, and we were lucky to find places pretty quickly.
That said, primary school is an entirely different scenario. Places are limited and highly sought after. What’s more is that for almost all schools in Hong Kong, children as young as 2 or 3 are expected to attend an interview in order to gain a place. Depending on the school, performance at this interview can be the deciding factor on whether a child gets a place or not. Let’s remember, some of these kids are TWO (imagining Walter in an interview situation right now…I need a drink). Okay, the interviews aren’t exactly what you might think, but they are detailed enough that there is an entire industry devoted to preparing kids for school interviews. I know, because I work in it! Well, as much as I can bear.
So, what exactly is a school interview? Again, it depends on the school, but generally it is a play-based situation where a group of anywhere from 4-14 children will interact with a room full of teachers, and each other, for about 45 minutes. They are given small tasks to work on or complete and notes are written about their performance. Essentially schools are looking for a few key things – a child’s social, emotional and behavioural development, speech skills, cognitive ability and gross and fine motor skills.
It is often joked that the local schools are looking for the quietest child in the room and the international schools the loudest, and in my experience there is some truth to that. At least, the skill sets that are valued are different. International schools seem to be more impressed by children with excellent social skills and advanced cognitive and reasoning ability while the local schools do value “good” behaviour and a certain set of fine motor skills (let’s be honest, a lot of local children are reading and writing by three).
I’m sure there are other factors that come into play too – we hypothesised that Heike would have an advantage at her IMS (International Montessori School) interview because she is familiar with the classrooms and would in that way require less resources to teach, plus we are a Montessori family (well, we know about and support the philosophies). Having said that their interview was by far the most casual I’ve experienced and we’re yet to hear back – I expect they, like I, think the whole interview system is actually bullshit.
Many people who criticise the system ask how much can you know about a child, really, from a 45 minute interview? But I don’t know that I agree with that argument. I imagine that when Heike bounds into an interview full of enthusiasm, but then refuses to shake hands and refuses to work on anything except one specific activity, which she will tackle in her own very specific way, and then talk the teacher’s ear off about that for the next 20 minutes, well you’ve actually got a pretty full picture. I’ve met a lot of kids as both a teacher and a Mum and while you can’t know EVERYTHING about them in a few short minutes you can certainly tell which ones you’d prefer to deal with in a classroom (neither of mine, thanks anyway).
The argument I would personally make is – how do you choose? Why would we tell our children, at two, three, four years of age that one set of skills, interests or attributes (many of which are likely pre-determined at birth) are superior to another? Isn’t it kind of awful that values that actually matter, like kindness and loyalty and not being a jerk, are overlooked for a set of skills or behaviours that can be achieved simply by rigorous training?
So, yeah, I think the whole system is kind of shitty. And it has been really depressing at times to tutor kids who are the same age as my own daughter, have been at school all day plus half the weekend, can already read and write and yet are spending an hour with me to practise their social skills in the hope of getting into an international school. These kids are SO tired. Their brains are overloaded with way too much information. And often their social and reasoning skills aren’t where they could or should be – because they have no time to play! After a long discussion with a fellow tutor I met recently I’ve cut down on these kinds of jobs, as much as I love the kids, and decided to only do remedial tutoring.
While we are still hoping to get into IMS we have applied for a few other schools (hedging our bets) in the local area and have had some funny interview experiences. We had an interview last Saturday that was actually really lovely, in a beautiful school and Heike had a great time, but I was sitting next to another Australian couple while we waited for the kids and we were having a good laugh about the whole process. We had to answer questions like “At what age did your child first speak 2-3 words?” and “How would you describe your child’s health?” and ended up just writing many of the same answers. But we joked about writing “She was speaking from the day she was born” and the Dad wrote “Fit as a fiddle” in the health section!
Of course, now that I’ve written this Heike won’t get into any schools and we’ll have to move back to Australia where she can go to a….wait for it….dramatic music….PUBLIC SCHOOL just like her Mum. And look how good I turned out! A third time pregnant, mostly unemployed sometimes blogger. She’ll be fine.