For expat workers with families, suitable education can be one of the most costly and frustrating hurdles to navigate when transferring to a foreign assignment. To insure that children are able to transition back into their home system at the end of the assignment, move on to a top university or to another international assignment it is preferable for them to have been following an international school curriculum with English language instruction.
For comparison we’ll look at the cost and some of the considerations in finding an international school in two popular expat destinations: Zurich and Hong Kong.
Cost of Living and Cost of Education Don’t Always Match
As a baseline we’ll use a London, England private international school such as the ACS International School in Egham or Kings College Wimbledon and compare that to both Hong Kong and Zurich.
While overall Zurich and Hong Kong (HK) both rank in the top 10 most expensive cities for expats while London sits well back at #17, education is a different story. It provides a relative bargain for private international education with school fees 7.7% lower than London while Zurich area international schools are more than 20% higher. If you had school aged children then taking an assignment to Hong Kong over Zurich would seem like the cost conscious choice but fees don’t paint the whole picture.
Since the establishment of the English Schools Foundation (ESF) in 1967 for the education of expat children, there has been a strong international school presence here. There are over 100 international schools, mostly teaching in English but the increasing popularity of international schools among permanent residents, the HK equivalent of citizen, has created on overwhelming demand.
While Hong Kong recognizes both English and Cantonese as official languages and officially at least, English is an important component of government run schools, the reality is different. Even if you are a parent who would like your child to experience a “local” education in this city, a recent survey by the Native English Speaking Teacher’s Association in HK found that even though government policy allows public schools that teach in Cantonese to accept English-only speaking children, they do not.
In addition to demand, several other factors are putting upward pressure on international school fees in Hong Kong. The 20 schools that are operated by the ESF have lost their subsidy established under the original 1967 government ordinance. Starting with the students entering kindergarten in 2014, the subsidy has been eliminated. In the past year ESF has already raised their fees more than 5%.
At the same time its education bureau is trying to expand educational options by making a handful of development sites and two empty schools available by bid to interested international schools. Among the interested schools is the prestigious British boarding school, Malvern which is looking to open a campus catering to elementary level education. They plan to reserve 90% of their available placements for students that hold foreign passports. While private international schools do not receive subsidies from the Hong Kong government, they are offered preferential lease terms and access to a designated green space.
Still, the lack of space in the city makes it extremely difficult to open new international schools so the demand for spots at the existing schools continues to grow. The Hong Kong education bureau estimates waiting lists for most international schools are several years long forcing parents to consider other options.
In 2011 the education department for canton Zurich moved to bar permanent residents from attending international schools in the area. Residents of Zurich must put their children in German speaking public school unless they can prove they are only temporary residents or that their child will complete their education in a non-German speaking jurisdiction. Widely viewed as a regressive policy, the stated aim was to better integrate foreigners living in Zurich permanently or over the long term into the local community. So far this has been the only Swiss canton to implement this kind of policy but the move highlights some of the difficulties surrounding the availability of an international curriculum with English language instruction.
While it would seem that this move would increase the number of spots open to temporary expats it also puts the responsibility on parents putting their children in school for the first time to prove that they intend to move at some point in the future or that their children will complete their schooling elsewhere. The rule does not distinguish based on the passport that a child holds or their mother tongue.
Competition Spawns an Industry
The complexity of finding an appropriate school and increased competition for spots at English language schools has even spawned its own consultancy industry. People like Ruth Benny head of Top Schools Hong Kong amongst other, have leveraged their personal experience as expat parents and professional experience as educators to assist other parents struggling with finding the right school for their children. These professionals offer one on one consulting for expat parents struggling to find the right solution for their school age children in a hyper competitive environment.
Xpatulator provides school fee data for comparable schools in more than 700 cities worldwide. In Hong Kong, they collect enrollment fee data from schools such as the Hong Kong International, American International and King George V Schools and in Zurich from the Zurich International and Swiss International School.