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To board or not to board: Schooling options in Hong Kong

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Are you pondering the pros and cons of day school and residential? Sam Agars looks into the benefits of both systems to help you make the best choice for your child

Finding the right school for your child is as big a job now as it has ever been, with options aplenty and the standard of education at an all-time high. Hong Kong’s international schools are regarded among the world’s best, but many families are excited by the benefits a boarding school education can bring, whether that means basing their children overseas or right here in the territory.

While many parents wouldn’t dream of ‘sending their kids away,’ considering the idea old fashioned and cruel, others, many of whom have been through the boarding system themselves, are drawn to it, believing it is the best way to prepare children for life. Let the day school versus boarding school debate begin!

Day schooling

There is no shortage of quality day schools in Hong Kong, with DBers afforded the luxury of having both Discovery College (DC) and Discovery Bay International School on their doorstep. And it has to be said, there are very few disadvantages associated with a top international day school, as it can match the level of education offered to boarders and, while children aren’t on the premises 24/7, they have ample opportunities to make friends.

For DC’s head of secondary, James Smith, day schooling is the way forward, primarily because it ensures that the important influence family has on a young person’s life is not compromised.

“The best education happens when a student is benefiting from both a close-knit, supportive home environment and also an excellent school environment,” James says.

“One of the advantages DC has as a day school is being able to work in very close cooperation with parents, as partners in learning. What we know from research is that parents transmit the value of education to their children, they help them to succeed, and they help them to thrive. They influence their moral development, behaviour, and attitude to learning.”

“For us, the absolute best situation is when the students benefit from an excellent school environment, where they are given the best opportunities to become independent, to lead and to be autonomous, alongside the caring hand of a parent,” James adds.

What’s more, James says now is a great time to be attending an international school in Hong Kong. “I think the quality that international schools bring to education is that they are specialists in building globally minded citizens. They are specialists in building people, who can think globally, who can interact with others well, and who can recognise their place in the world,” he says.

“The joy of being in an international school environment, in particular, is that you have the freedom to innovate; you have the freedom to respond precisely to the needs of the students that sit in front of you,” James adds. “International school teachers don’t have to respond to a distant policy network, we cater precisely to the needs of the students that come through our doors.”

Boarding overseas

st davids

Overseas boarders get round-the-clock education and a built-in social life, and for expat kids, of course, being schooled in their ‘home country’ can be a tremendously grounding experience. If money is no object, and you want your child to be totally immersed in an educational environment, and/ or you have a busy career yourself, it’s clear that a full-time boarding school has much to offer.

Tim Hall, head of external relations at St David’s College in Wales, opens by focusing on the ‘whole person education’ that is supplied by overseas boarding schools – something he feels day school kids do not have access to, particularly day school kids in a ‘small pond’ like Hong Kong.

“The life experience of a child in Hong Kong is hugely limited, and I think parents have got the wherewithal and are really interested in what you might call a whole person education,” Tim says. “It’s not just about learning, it’s about the resilience skills and the leadership skills. All that comes through the wider experience of sports, outdoor activities and a lot of dynamic social contact with many other schools.”

St David’s currently has nine Hong Kong-based students – four expats and five Hong Kong Chinese. “In general terms, there is a big pull for the Chinese to want to come and get a UK education,” Tim says. “The market is huge – right across China, there is a massive desire for a UK education.”

Parents who are drawn to the boarding school system tend to value the sheer volume of academics, athletics and extracurricular activities on offer, 24/7. What’s more, students are encouraged to take a lot of little steps towards maturity; they have to learn to get along with others and take responsibility for their own actions because they are part of a community.

“Students are involved in a whole range of activities, sports and opportunities for developing their leadership skills,” Tim says.

Tim also draws attention to the way boarding schools tend to have not just great teachers but specialist facilities, and are thus able to cater to children with abilities that are either above or below average. St David’s, for instance, prides itself on being able to provide an education that is individually tailored to each student. Some 60% of the school’s students have some form of additional learning needs.

Boarding in Hong Kong

harrow hong kong

For many parents, the idea of children boarding right here in Hong Kong appeals, because they feel it guarantees them the best of both worlds. Barney Durrant, the principal deputy head at Harrow International School Hong Kong, says his school offers just that, with weekly boarders – all Harrow boarders go home on weekends – getting to see their families regularly, while also benefiting from the boarding environment.

“Parents in Hong Kong work long hours and are often late home. In addition, as pupils get older, they need more time to do their homework,” Barney says. “Consequently, many families struggle to get quality family time during the week. However, the boarding option takes away all travel time and allows the time gained to be turned into productive enrichment time for each pupil.”

Living and studying within the school community for five full days a week, Harrow boarders have access to top-notch sports, music and arts facilities, as well as academic societies. They get to socialise, and learn to cope independently alongside their peers, without leaving the school premises – and all of this is happening under the watchful eye of teachers who are mentors, not helpers or baby-sitters.

It’s seldom easy for children to leave the nest but Barney is adamant that it makes more sense for children to begin to make the move a few years before college.

“The boarding experience ensures that pupils are prepared for university life, creating a halfway house between home life and the adult world,” he says. “They learn to be more self-disciplined in all areas, from personal hygiene to academic organisation.”

Discipline is rarely a problem for boarders, not least because the majority of students have a work hard, play hard ethic – they want to be at their chosen school and they want to be successful. And Barney draws attention to another advantage of spending so much time with like-minded peers. “The bonds of friendship that boarders develop are incredibly strong and often these relationships endure long into adult life,” he says.

“Living so closely with other pupils, in such a tight-knit community, offers a significant level of security,” Barney adds. “It also fosters tolerance, emotional intelligence, care and compassion.”

Find it:

– Discovery College, www.discovery.edu.hk
– Harrow Hong Kong, www.harrowschool.hk
– St David’s College, www.stdavidscollege.co.uk

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