LLT has a post on finding a school for her son which got me thinking on how my views on schooling have evolved since I started the same process myself. My position on the subject in the past was encapsulated in a discussion I had with Sangitha and which can be summarised as:

  1. Many of the facilities and interest classes that the new-fangled private schools offer are just that, extras, and unnecessary.
  2. The schools are too expensive.
  3. They will be full of wealthy kids of parents who can afford such fees, leaving the students with the skewed view of a world in which everyone’s parent owns a car.

In this sense, my views haven’t changed that much. I do believe that those facilities and interest classes are not strictly necessary. The schools are expensive, leading to children mixing only with a certain economic class.

However faced with the no-longer hypothetical situation of charting an educational future for my child, I have had to unpack some of my own instinctive reactions on the subject:

  1. While a child not taking music, horse-riding, and whatever else is on offer at the more expensive private schools will not be a huge roadblock in their progress through life, taking them is not bad either. To be fair, having the chance to do more of those talent-development things at school and less classes in which one simply memorises facts that may or may not be relevant to life is a good thing. If I’m very honest, I would have loved to be able to take horse-riding classes.
  2. I have to admit that I’ve been sceptical about the pedagogy and education style at some of the new schools, which as per my understanding at the early stages tends to be namby pamby play-based and at the later stages remains loose, exploratory and less rigorous. I was prey to the stereotype of those Americans who can’t do Math properly versus us Indians who are math geniuses. This stereotype is propagated in the mass media even in the West, but first-person testimonies seem to say otherwise. The whole idea is pretty laughable seeing as I excelled in the Indian system but pretty much had no idea how to change decimal points till Standard X.

Moreover, common sense and a lot of research points to children, at least the young ones, learning through play and exploration and that rote memorisation is not of great use and can actually put people off learning for life. The traditional Indian education system seems to prepare children for the traditional Indian public exams, and so maybe the fear that children who go through the alternative schools might not get into or cope with universities in India is justified. However, it seems that universities in India now do accept students who have done an international certificate instead of a local one (correct me if I’m wrong).

  1. I have always thought the accents children come out of international schools with are pretty embarrassing. I now realise that one’s child “talking funny” and one’s own prejudice against people with foreign accents who one encountered in college do not count as good reasons on which to base school choice.
  2. Largely, my entire reasoning was based along the lines of “I went through that system and I came out pretty okay, so what’s the point of spending money on anything fancier?” But is this strictly true?

It is true that I came out okay. If I’m honest, my school education was mediocre but I came out of it able to cope with and sometimes superseding people who had all the right boxes ticked to do better than me internationally: they were white, went to prestigious international universities and therefore had both the education and the networks that these conferred.

There could be two reasons for this. I am unusually bright, and at the risk of sounding immodest, I kind of am. I look around me and I see a number of Indians doing well in Hong Kong and when I look even more closely a lot of them are among the brighter varieties of middle-class Indians and coupled with that, we have the big advantage of middle-class English education which is fluency in English. The other reason is that the Indian education system is so rigorous that once we survive it, everything else is cakewalk. I think there are other complicated reasons why Indians of a certain background (because at the end of the day, it’s a small minority of Indians who actually have the opportunity to go abroad at all) do well abroad and our schooling as a factor in our success may not be the dominant one.

If I look more closely at the education I received in school, it was no great shakes and some of it was downright erroneous. We had a few great teachers and I had my father who kept challenging me with ideas and I read like a maniac, but I doubt the actual education I received in school was very useful. I was mostly bored and read whatever I could get my hands on under my desk, or daydreamed. The subjects I was weak at like maths, physics and chemistry, I remained weak at. The subjects I was good at did not add to my knowledge greatly because I would pretty much finish reading those textbooks – English, history, geography – in the summer holidays as soon as they arrived and there was nothing more to learn.

Now take V at the other end of the spectrum. Like me, he thought school was a drag, but while I excelled at it, he barely scraped through. Professionally, he is more successful than I am though. What schooling did to him was more terrible – it killed the desire to read, to learn formally, to study further.

At school, I was often made to sit with girls who were failing academically, and I saw firsthand what a crap deal the education system was for them. I know some of them went on to do well. Others languished, but basically their time at school was not pleasant.

Two things strike me here:

a) It seems that if you’re bright, your schooling won’t hold you back. Thing is, parents can’t know beforehand whether their children are going to bright or not, though I’m sure we all are sure our babies are geniuses (geniii?). I would assume that a less rote-based environment would be better for non-academically inclined kids. I would also assume that it would be better for kids who academically excel. I’m pretty sure I would have been better off given more history books to read and projects to do (instead of reading Curly’s precious supply of Sweetdreams and Miss A’s religious magazines under my desk) and someone spent tried different approaches explaining decimal points to me, even if it meant keeping me back at maths. I may even have come out of school able to look at my own bank account without shuddering.

2) My overall impression of traditional Indian schooling (and traditional Hong Kong schooling is similar from all accounts) as we knew it is that it’s boring and a waste of time. The entirety of what we learnt in 10 years could have been squeezed into 5. Maybe schooling won’t scar my child for life. But at best, it’s very likely he’s going to be bored. Do I want him to be sitting somewhere memorising something that could be spent on learning something useful or even playing? Not really.

Now, the sad fact is that the schools that provide an environment where children explore instead of being confined are expensive. It could be that it is because they are expensive to run. Employing qualified teachers costs money. It’s very possible that there are people who are not qualified educators who are intrinsically good teachers. My instinct tells me that these paragons are few and far between though. So in the absence of innate talent, training might be a safe bet. It takes training and funds to run structured chaos. Ideally, there has to be a small class, high teacher-student ratio. This costs money. Maybe the government should be subsidizing this. I realised this when I visited one of the more reputed kindergartens here. They are very clear about their educational philosophy and training. The other kindergarten Benji got into I know for a fact employs white faces who are not necessarily trained. I don’t think the latter is a bad bet, it’s got a decent reputation and we might still go for it, but I won’t deny the reputed one looks like it’s reputation is warranted.

Conclusion of all this rambling: If you can afford the international/play-based/alternative school and the logistics work out, send your kid there.

If you cannot, back to my very first point. It’s not reason to panic. The traditional schools are okay. Also, I’ve been hearing that many of the traditional schools (both in HK and in India) are loosening up a bit and experimenting more. So, maybe there’s a win-win scenario of low fees, rejuvenated pedagogy there.

I used to be contemptuous of parents panicking over their children’s schooling. Although I still feel like there’s no reason to panic, because we do have options, this is an important area of your child’s life and it’s a choice one would like to give some thought to. So around the time kids are of school-going age, you will hear parents discussing this topic a lot. A lot of the time they are just venting or thinking out loud.

For non-parents, a primer on why schooling choice can get complicated:

  1. Possibly, we have more options today. There are more categories of schools to choose from. We have more income enabling us to choose.
  2. In Hong Kong, you have to choose between English, Cantonese, Putonghua, and bilingual education. Many expat parents don’t even consider non-English education. But if you do, it requires some research. It also requires you to project into the future, where you intend to be long-term, whether you can afford college education outside Hong Kong.
  3. In Hong Kong, places for English education are not abundant. So broadly there is competition for places, with a small number of children not getting a place at all anywhere and having to be home-schooled. Nothing wrong with home-schooling. Just that not every parent is up to it. Or can stay at home to do it. I have a feeling competition for English education has increased in India too as the middle-class expands.
  4. Among the English medium schools, there are different categories. In Hong Kong, it’s international (private schools), ESF (government subsidized but still expensive), full government subsidized “local” schools (extremely difficult to get into as they are the elite schools, often still have a Chinese language subject that foreign students would struggle to meet the level of), DSS schools (government subsidized with some flexibility in curriculum), etc. You have to research all these and figure out admission procedures. Again, most expat parents don’t look beyond international and ESF. In India, it would be the different boards to choose from.
  5. There are a lot of logistical things for parents to consider. Parents don’t have endless freedom in how much they can pay. Therefore, they hope their child will get admission to a school the fees of which they can afford. Then, parents don’t have endless flexibility in where they live. If your child only gets into a school way across town, then you have to either move, or have your child travel a long distance, and/or have yourself be further from work, all of which mean less time for parents and children to spend together.
  6. Moreover, kindergarten is only the start of the process. Parents would have to go through the entire rigmarole of admissions again for primary school and then for secondary school. Thus, kindergartens that feed into a primary which feeds into a secondary are the most prized. Can you blame parents for hoping against hope that their child gets into said kindergarten so they are saved this hassled over and over?

So what have I decided about my own child’s education (for now, this is an evolving story):

  1. I cannot afford the international school fees in Hong Kong. However, ESF should be considered more strongly than the local system, which by all accounts is very similar to typical Indian schools. If we move to India, I need to look at the international/alternative schools and see if they fit my budget.
  2. For kindergarten, I want a school that is reasonably close. I am willing to forgo the security of a primary school place by not sending my child far off. Maybe this is easier for me because I’m not sure we have a long-term future in Hong Kong.
  3. I prioritise morning school over afternoon school (kindies here run two sessions). I’m pretty sure Benji is going to be offered an afternoon ESF place while he already has a morning place at a less nice kindergarten and that makes my choice very difficult. I can tell that the ESF school is a great school. The one he currently has admission to is an average one. Is it worth it shifting his nap? Both had pros and cons that would take too long to list.

If I pick the original kindergarten and not the ESF one, I know I am not picking the best school for my child. But it would the choice that we believe works best for us as a family, given our finances, future plans, current location, etc and which we think is good enough. I don’t think as parents we have to believe we are picking the “best” option in the market for our kids. I won’t diss the other great options out there either just because I didn’t pick them . The best option may not work for us.



Update: Last week, I attended a playdate at the ESF kindergarten which has resolved matters in my mind. I appreciated that the format was a free play session for the children accompanied by the parents, and not an interview. The teachers made it clear that they simply wanted to observe the children interacting naturally. Nevertheless, I found it a bit unnerving. Did not help that Benji clammed up as usual, was probably the youngest and least loquacious of the kids there, and is still a very drooly kid with a cold that made this worse. The teachers came around and informally chatted with the parents, though they did ask some targeting questions like “why are you choosing this school” (something I should have been prepared for, but was a bit thrown by as I was involved in a sandpit installation at the time) and “how involved are you prepared to be”. I would have thought I was being overly nervous but another parent who I shared a cab with after the session also said he felt a bit unnerved by the observing teachers. Anyway, this is the most sensible format for evaluating kids, and for that the school gets points.

Nevertheless, something struck me as off. My instinct was to identify it as the “whiteness” of the experience (meaning, the teachers, parents and even kids are mainly white people), or more specifically the dominance of the Western viewpoint and the confidence in its unassailability. This school, by virtue of catering to primarily children from native English-speaking families, is one of those expat havens, and as someone who has consciously always lived in very Chinese areas, and now works in a very Chinese environment, I find it disconcerting. On the one hand, doing so has exposed me to the good, bad and ugly of Hong Kong culture to the extent that I have decided we might need to leave soon. One solution to that might be to ensconce myself in exactly the kind of expat ghetto lifestyle that this school offers. On the other hand, I (and my wallet) resist that too, at least in terms of where we live. But then, I have to confess that in India, I didn’t exact a lifestyle that was one with the masses either (https://thebluebride.wordpress.com/2012/10/09/passage-to-india-1/). I have never completely been an insider in India (https://thebluebride.wordpress.com/2010/06/25/being-indian-2/). Though Indian culture is more welcoming of outsiders, I believe. I am aware that this has only little to do with the original topic of school. For schooling, I am possibly willing to suspend my need to integrate.

More to the point, on paper this school ticks all the right boxes. On second impression, it is not as perfect as I had initially thought. Which kind of makes my decision easier, that is, if Benji gets a place and I even have a decision to make.