Wednesday, June 20, 2012

D For Debenture

When I was a kid growing up in a small country town, school was pretty basic. I went to "pre-school" a couple of times a week at the ages of 3 and 4, and when I turned 5 I went to "kindergarten" at one of the local primary schools. I stayed at the same school until year 10 and from there went to a public high school because it was the only school in town that offered the last 2 years of secondary school. University was a pretty big shock but I loved school, so I wouldn't have had it any other way. Here in Hong Kong the options seem endless, and deciding where to send Josh has already caused us inconceivable stress.

For those of you who don't know Hong Kong (or for those who do but haven't gotten this far yet), let me break it down for you...
  • There are three types of schools here: 1. Local or government schools which teach the local curriculum, in Cantonese with some English. 2. ESF schools, which are partially government funded, entirely English speaking and offer either British curriculum or PYP (primary level preparation for the International Baccalaureate). 3. International schools, which offer a wide range of curricula, languages and subjects, but are also expensive and selective. 
  • Children start "Kindergarten" the year they turn 3. Some schools base their intake on the year the child was born. Others base it on a school year or similar August-August type criteria. 
  • Waiting lists are standard. Many schools won't accept children onto their waiting list until 12 months before they're due to start. While others will quite happily take applications from birth. I have heard rumours of some parents attaching ultrasound scan photos to application forms, it's that competitive. You generally pay a fee for the privilege of having your child's name on a list, and another fee each year to keep it there. For people who move here with their kids already at school age this can be a huge obstacle. And don't get me started on how much the dragon year baby boom has affected waiting lists...
  • Many international schools require parents to pay a debenture, a concept that was entirely foreign to us before we came here. It's basically a "donation" to the school to ensure a place, and the more you can afford to pay, the greater the chances your child will get in. 
So, Josh turns three at the end of this year. Many of his little friends are gearing up for kindy in September. Crazy, laid-back parents that we are, we thought 2 years 8 months was just a little too young for our guy to be heading off to school and we looked into keeping him back a year. I look at all the boys who were born earlier in 2009 and they all seem so much bigger than J. Unfortunately, holding kids back is not something that's encouraged here, and it seems to be a case of sink or swim. At this age it probably isn't such a big deal, but I know from my years as a teacher that it can make a huge difference in primary school. Given the issues with his eyesight we really want to get this right, and if he has the advantage of being one of the older kids in the class, it could really help preserve his confidence. Another option for us was to apply to schools with a different age intake, which we did. We found a couple of schools where he would be right in the middle of the age bracket, and they just happen to start with "reception" at age 4. Perfect, right?

Once we found schools with the right age bracket and good reputations, we then had to narrow them down based on whether or not they offer special needs support, and how many children are in each class. J's ophthalmologist assures us that he should be able to cope with mainstream schooling, but we don't know yet how much support, if any, he'll need. We want to make sure it's at least available before we commit. I'm also really conscious of the fact that many schools think nothing of cramming 30 students into a classroom with one teacher, and expecting him or her to meet the needs of all of them. But I know that even the best teachers find this very difficult. I don't want J to get lost in the system, so small class sizes are crucial in my opinion. 

After taking all of this into consideration, we had two great schools on our list. This is when we encountered enormous waiting lists and that dirty word, debenture. One school requires a minimum $100, 000 HKD debenture which depreciates over 7 years, for each child. You only pay the debenture when you accept a place at the school. But there are limited places available, and those who can pay more have a better chance of getting their child in to that school. We don't have $100, 000 just lying around, but we could scrape it together (i.e. sell the house or a couple of kidneys), and we would, we just hate that we have to. The second school on our list appeals to me more because it's different, and it seems like it would be a really exciting place to be, as a student or a teacher. There's no waiting list as such, you just have to prove that your child will add to the "diversity" of the school, but the debenture is $400, 000 per child... 

In the meantime, Josh needs something to occupy him, so we have been looking at kindergartens. We applied to two schools with fairly good links to great primary schools, and we attended "playdates" (i.e. interviews) at both this week. We weren't really sold on either to be honest, and I kind of knew as soon as I walked in that neither of them were the right fit - occupational hazard I guess. So, we've decided that since we're unable to decide what to do, we'll do nothing. He's TWO after all! We'll keep him where he is, where he's happy and it's familiar and they're not asking us to hand over our life-savings, or lack thereof, and we'll wait and see what we get offered. Some families don't have that luxury and some big changes need to be made to the system, soon.

There's always homeschooling I guess!

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