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Supporting your child’s learning journey: choosing the right international school

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By Anne Murphy

In Hong Kong we are fortunately spoiled for choice when it comes to international education. There are international schools all over, and they offer top-notch programmes and well-trained staff from around the world. However, for someone looking into starting their child’s academic journey, the world of international schools my seem foreign and daunting. Below are a few questions a DB resident recently asked me about international schools, along with my answers.

Q. What is the usual turnover of teachers?
A. International schools are, by design, places where the student population is transient. Teachers also choose an international setting so they can see the world, and gain teaching experience in different environments. However, if the school has a low turnover of teachers, you know the school treats employees well. Many teachers sacrifice their wanderlust when the school provides great benefits and excellent pay, quality resources, teacher training and lots of support. After all, a happy teacher means happy students.

Q. What languages do schools normally teach?
A. Most international schools are set up with English as the language of instruction. All schools teach Mandarin as a second language and many schools also teach European languages, such as French, German and Spanish. Some schools offer these classes within the school day; others will offer them as after-school programmes.

Q. Do students have access to technology?
A. Yes, at all international schools, most classrooms are equipped with 21st century tools. Nowadays, the curriculum in the classroom is designed to incorporate many skills and intelligence levels and makes use of technology and multimedia. The lessons are not based on textbooks, instead they are often project-based. Skills and content are learned through their research and projects, and textbooks are provided as one of many possible resources. Technology is no longer confined to a lab.

Q. What are the different high school qualifications offered by international schools?
A. Many students, and parents, are torn between decisions when it comes to selecting a senior school curriculum. While it is important to think about the nature of the curricula themselves, it is also worthwhile to consider what field your children will pursue in the future, and where in the world they will go to do that. International Schools in Hong Kong typically offer four programmes: Advanced Placement courses (APs), A-levels, BTEC, and the IB Diploma.

Let’s look at the key differences:

AP: An Advance Placement (AP) course are college-level classes, designed for high-school students. The AP program is American-based and is very subject-focused, making it different to the IB Diploma Program which takes a more integrated approach. There is no coursework for AP – results are based on examinations taken at the end of the period of study.

There are five schools in Hong Kong offer the AP Program: American International School; Christian Alliance International School; Concordia International School; Hong Kong International School; The Harbour School.

A-Levels: The Advanced Level qualification (A-levels) comes after the British GCSEs. They focus on academic subjects; students are required to study at least three subjects while more able students can opt to do more, usually four, but officially there is no limit. Students can choose any combination of subjects. Assessment is mainly by exam at the end of the course, with other types of assessment used only where needed to test essential skills.

It’s also important to know about AS levels. They are essentially half an A-level that give a broad, general understanding of a subject which taken alongside, rather than as part of the A-level programme. This means that they do not form part of an overall A-level grade. Students only take AS exams at the end of their first year and then take all the exams for their A-levels at the end of the two-year course.

There are 10 international schools in Hong Kong offering A-levels: Discovery Bay International School; Han Academy; Harrow International School; ITS Tutorial School; Kellett School (Kowloon Bay); Korean International School; Sear Rogers International School; YMCA of HK Christian College.

BTEC: Stands for the Business and Technology Education Council. A BTEC is vocational qualification based on practical understanding as opposed to the academic study of A-Levels. BTECs are growing in popularity with students attracted to their more career-focused, coursework-based and modular approach. In fact, students often complete their BTEC qualifications alongside GCSEs and/or A-levels and it is also often the vocational component in the highly-regarded IB Career Related Diploma.

BTECs are offered by ESF schools, such as: Island School, West Island, South Island and KGV.

IB Diploma: The standard course offered at international schools across Hong Kong. It requires students to study three Higher Level subjects and three Standard Level subjects, while completing “the core;” which is participating in three distinct areas of extra-curricular activity, Creativity, Activity, and Service (CAS); completing an Extended Essay; and passing the Theory of Knowledge course, all of which accounts for three points in a maximum total of 45. All students are required to choose one science subject, two languages, one maths, one humanities and one creative art subject which can be switched to a second science. A constant stream of coursework forms a significant part of the final grade, along with exams taken at the end of the two-year study period.

Schools which offer the IB Diploma Program: Australian Int’l School; Canadian Int’l School; Carmel School; Chinese Int’l School; Discovery College; ESF Secondary Schools; French Int’l School; German Swiss Int’l School; Hong Kong Academy; International College Hong Kong; Island School; Li Po Chun Nord Anglia International School; United World College of Hong Kong; Renaissance College; Singapore International School; The Independent Schools Foundation Academy; Victoria Shanghai Academy; Yew Chung International School


For all your school search and educational needs, ITS Education Asia can help you navigate the best educational path for your child. You are provided with a bespoke, confidential school search and placement service and receive professional, experienced advise about all the ins-and-outs on Hong Kong’s education system. You will be provided with a broad outline of the most suitable schools and preschools and receive a clear plan of action following an initial consultation.

Contact Anne Murphy, director of ITS Education Asia at [email protected] or call 2116 3916.

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