Fion, 18, is one of a growing number of pupils who have upped sticks and headed north to study. Enrolment of Hongkongers in international schools in Guangzhou and Shenzhen is rising by 5 to 10 per cent a year.
Parents who spurn prestigious international schools in Hong Kong in favour of mainland ones cite a list of factors: lower tuition fees, low living costs, a strict teaching regimen and bucolic campuses where not a word of Cantonese is spoken.
Fion\’s mother, Luk Yim-fong, a businesswoman, transferred her daughter from Heung To Secondary School in Tseung Kwan O to Utahloy so that she would not be surrounded by Cantonese speakers. \”Although Heung To offers Putonghua classes, all the students speak Cantonese after class,\” she says. \”From my business dealings with multinational corporations like Samsung, even Korean businessmen speak fluent Putonghua. Mandarin is a language my daughter must master in order to thrive in future.\”
Luk, who travels between the mainland and Hong Kong frequently, says the campus, in Zengcheng city in the Guangzhou countryside, offers facilities that local international schools cannot match because of a shortage of space.
The four-storey dormitory is surrounded by a pristine lake and lush greenery. I considered sending her to a school in Australia, but the tuition fees Down Under are double what is charged at Utahloy
Opened in 2003, Utahloy became an International Baccalaureate-recognised school five years ago.
It has two campuses, one in Baiyun district near Guangzhou\’s city centre for day-school pupils, the other in Zengcheng with boarding facilities. The 85-hectare Zengcheng campus can accommodate 400 boarders and boasts five sports fields, five basketball courts and an Olympic-size swimming pool.
\”I eat meals at a lakeside restaurant and ride a bicycle every day around the campus. I come back to Hong Kong on weekends,\” says Fion, who will sit the IB diploma next year and wants to study medicine in a Hong Kong university.
Jonathan Shaw, diploma co-ordinator at the school, says it has a multiracial student body comprising Indian, Korean and European pupils.
\”With businessmen coming from all over the world to do business here, our founder saw a large untapped market. Many graduates go back to their home countries for further studies,\” he says.
\”Around 30 out of 1,000 students are from Hong Kong, a 10 per cent increase from last year\’s figure.\”
According to the Ministry of Education, there were 15 international schools in Guangdong in October last year, with eight in Guangzhou and five in Shenzhen. Excluding the 18 kindergartens, primary and secondary schools of the English Schools Foundation, there are 16 international schools in Hong Kong.
Guangdong Country Garden School and the American International School of Guangzhou also offer IB programmes. The American International School offers a preschool to Grade 12 curriculum.
Joe Stucker, director of the school, says there are 51 Hong Kong pupils out of 950. The school, set up in 1981, emphasises community service, he said: \”Elementary students work in orphanages in Guangzhou, and secondary students help construct housing for the underprivileged in Guangzhou four times a year.\”
Guangdong Country Garden School has six campuses in the province, all of them near the high-end private residential estate Country Garden (Biguiyuan), resort-style housing blocks that are popular with Hongkongers. The school offers the IB and British A-level curriculums.
Liang Yanfen, who works at the campus in Shunde district, says the school was set up to cope with the needs of Country Garden flat-owners.
\”Because of the cheap price, many Hong Kong people have bought houses in Biguiyuan. There are two Country Gardens in Shunde district – 293 students out of the 3,600 from the Shunde campus are from Hong Kong, compared with 285 last year.\”
A boot-camp-like boarding culture at Guangdong Country Garden School stands in stark contrast to the permissive upbringing common among doting Hong Kong parents.
Liang says: \”We promote strict discipline and a rigorous physical training regimen. Smoking and dating are prohibited. No Cantonese is allowed. No internet, mobiles, MP3s or video consoles are allowed in dorms. Students can only watch the news at dusk. Bugle call comes at 6am. Students have to do marching every day in the morning. They need to tidy up their own beds and hand-wash their underwear.
\”There\’s internet in the libraries, but the computers are equipped with screening software, so that no Facebook or QQ can be used.\”
He says some Hong Kong parents welcome the disciplinary approach to education so their children can be trained to be independent and resilient. \”Hong Kong kids are pampered. They open their mouths only when their parents scoop up spoonfuls of rice. Here they can develop a strong physique and mind.\”
Corence Wong Ping-yiu, general manager with the organiser of the annual Hong Kong International Education Expo, says the number of mainland international schools at last month\’s expo was well up on last year.
\”Seven international schools from Chinese cities like Beijing and Shenzhen joined this year, compared with four last year,\” he says.
One of these was Oxstand International School in the Luohu district of Shenzhen. The school offers a Canadian curriculum. Graduates receive the Ontario Secondary School Diploma, accredited by the Ontario Ministry of Education.
Eva Law, director of administration at the school, says the number of pupils from Hong Kong has risen 5 per cent a year in the past few years. She says its fees are 30 per cent less than those of international schools in Hong Kong.