My hubby is taking our daughter for an interview today. This is already the second time that she’s been interviewed, at the tender age of two. Now why would a two year old need to go for interviews? This is part of being in Hong Kong, which has a highly competitive education system with toddlers having to attend interviews just to get into kindergartens. Our daughter has had it easy with just two interviews so far. Some of our friends’ children have already been to 5-10 interviews at this age. Education is such a focus in Hong Kong that even companies host sessions with education consultants (I didn’t even know this job existed!) to help their employees and clients understand and navigate the education system.
First of all, parents have to apply for a number of pre-nurseries (to be attended by two year olds), sometimes as early as during pregnancy! Depending on the school, the forms can be quite complicated. Questions asked include strengths and weaknesses, describing the child’s personality, etc. Some of my friends already have curriculum vitae for their children, including certificates of courses completed (e.g. swimming, baby gym, music, etc.), places they’ve travelled to, examples of art work done, etc. When I was two, I’m certain that I was just running around at home and playing with toys rather than attending courses.
Most pre-nurseries also have an interview process, where both the child (typically 18 months old) and parents are interviewed. I’m not sure what the teachers are looking for during the interview, but from what we’ve heard, the main things are (1) good behavior from the kid – saying hello/good morning/goodbye, tidying up after playing with toys, following simple instructions; and (2) good financial background – parent’s jobs are usually an important consideration. There are even interview preparation courses available!
The reason for getting into a good pre-nursery is to have priority for the kindergarten, which then feeds into good schools. At each stage, though, there are additional application forms to complete and interviews to pass. For the top kindergartens and schools, there are long waiting lists and the schools can be quite demanding. For example, my daughter was on a waiting list for a playgroup session in one of the most popular kindergartens when she was 12 months old. I got a call from the school telling me that there is a space available and I said that I would get back to them the next day after discussing with my husband. I called them back the next day and was told that they’d already offered the place to another child because I wasn’t keen enough to say yes earlier. I’m sure that even Harvard University allows for at least a day to respond to an offer!
Not only is the process stressful, it also costs a bomb. School fees for pre-nurseries can be as high as HK$6,000 per month (close to US$800), for just two to three hours a day. This goes up as the child progresses through the system, with certain primary schools costing more than US$20,000 a year. On top of that, kindergartens and schools require a debenture, which is sort of like a deposit that will only be returned when the child leaves the school. For the debenture, we could be talking about ridiculous amounts like HK$1 million (US$130,000) or more for the top schools.
Of course, there is always the option to go for public schooling. However, from what I’ve heard, public education in Hong Kong can be very stressful for the child, with tons of homework and a strong focus on memorizing and passing exams rather than the learning process. Not being fluent in Chinese, we as parents will also struggle to help our child with school work, which is part and parcel of the parenting role in Hong Kong.
So far, my hubby and I have refrained from joining the rat race. However, if we’re going to be here for the long haul, it’s going to be hard not to conform. Even now, there’s always a nagging thought that we’re not doing enough for our daughter’s future.