By Nicola Nightingale
Living in a foreign country raises all kinds of questions, both practical and emotional: how do you define yourself and how are you characterised by your adopted homeland? This series relates, in alternating parts, the experiences of a British woman in Hong Kong and a French woman in the UK.
Saying farewell to fellow foreign residents is a common experience in Hong Kong. The goodbyes can be dismal, but they are hardly surprising — after all, expats are, by definition, a peripatetic lot.
Recently, however, the number of British friends and neighbours leaving for good seems to have been increasing — and they are not being driven out by local politics or poor employment prospects. They are going because the rising fees at international schools have made educating their children unaffordable and the only option is to return to the UK’s state school system.
A large part of the problem is the government’s decision to phase out its annual subsidy to the English Schools Foundation (ESF) on the grounds that it should operate on the same basis as the other international schools in the city. The ESF, set up in 1967, is now, in its own words, the “largest education foundation in Asia offering a liberal education through the medium of the English language to children of school age”.
So it is big — it has 22 schools — and popular, particularly among the kind of long-stay expat parents who appreciate fairly manageable fees, but its halcyon days of government support are coming to an end. On the plus side, it is a slow process; the phasing-out of the annual HK$283m ($36m) government subvention started in 2016 and will take 13 years. On the minus side, as the loss begins to bite with certain classes, the fee rises can be eye-watering. The primary year three annual fees for 2018-19, for instance, rose 24.7 per cent from HK$89,200 to HK$111,200.
Of course, there are expat parents with gold-plated, all-living-expenses-paid employment packages and other parents, including many from mainland China, who are blessed with enormous bank accounts and want their children to have the best international education they can buy.
It seems many prefer big brand names — and the UK’s elite public schools have been sitting up, taking note and settling in. It may not be quite cricket, chaps, but playing this particular game can help fund those bursaries.
Harrow School, which has outposts in Bangkok, Beijing and Shanghai, opened one in Hong Kong in 2012. Day school fees range from HK$166,671 to HK$197,930 a year depending on the student’s age plus a HK$60,000 capital levy. The boarding fee for five nights a week is an additional HK$108,213 a year. This year, Malvern College, which also has two schools in mainland China, opened one in Hong Kong as did Shrewsbury School.
But these posh institutions are almost parvenus in this city compared with Hong Kong International School, which opened its doors in 1966 and now charges $189,200 to $217,900 a year plus an annual capital levy of $18,500. The school states on its website — with national pride and a soupçon of partiality — that it provides “an American-style education grounded in the Christian faith” and that its graduates “attend the top universities around the world, with close to 85 per cent attending American institutions”.
If you don’t fancy an ESF establishment, an old-school-tie institution or the all American way, you could send your little ones to a free, government-funded school. That might make economic and social sense if Hong Kong is to be home for a long time, but it will take courage; the Cantonese-based education system scores high but involves rote learning and daunting heaps of homework.
Previous stories in this series: “I am not Chinese” “I’m officially almost British” “Cantonese should be defended” “Deserving to become a citizen” “When church meets state” “I don’t suddenly feel British”
Photographs: Andrew Catterall/Harrow Hong Kong; Alamy