【Parent Webinar】Ask The Expert – how to successfully transition to international school?

Bizibuz hosted a webinar on how to successfully transition to international school with  Ampla Education on 17th March, 2023. 

There are many reasons why parents may wish to move their child from the local school stream or from Mainland China into the international school stream in HK. However, such a transition is not always successful or easy on the child. It can be difficult to know how to find the school that best suits your child's personality and your educational goals. It can be challenging to navigate the application process successfully. And most importantly, it can be hard to prepare your child with the skills & emotional resiliency they need to ease the transition to an international school.

In this informative webinar, our expert, Julianna, from Ampla Education provided valuable insights to ensure a successful transition to the international school stream for you and your child. Watch now! 


Key takeaways:

- When is the right time for children to apply for international school?
- How can we select the best-fit international school for the children?
- What English proficiency should the children possess before entering the international school?
- How can I prepare my child for the shift in culture & the different teaching approach?
And more...

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Cristy: Welcome to the Bizibuz webinar on easing the transition to international schools in HK. Thank you for joining us today. I’m a HK parent of 2 children who attend international school here and am the founder of Bizibuz which is an after school activity platform for parents so I have quite a unique perspective on HK’s education system. Bizibuz is very focused on driving a better outcome for children & parents in the supplementary education space & our parents come from both the local & international school streams … but caring for a child’s education is a very wholistic concept that entails not just extracurricular activities but also formal schooling so we are keen to share some valuable insights from our partner experts on the formal schooling front. If anyone is interested to join the Bizibuz platform (which is free) to use our course search engine or hear about future parent events – just follow this link https://bit.ly/bizibuz

I’m sure it’s not surprising for anyone on this call that there is a significant trend of both mainland parents and parents with children at local schools seeking coveted places in the international school system here. It’s always been popular for local families to send their children to local schools for the language benefit up to year 5 or 6, then switch into the international school system in order to better position their kids for overseas university placements & ultimately job opportunities. And this trend has just been amplified by the pandemic period which has seen a departure of many expat families from HK freeing up places at international schools & very restrictive educational policies being implemented in the mainland – all of which are leading to increased demand for spots in international schools in HK from both local and mainland families.

Before I introduce our speaker, I’d like to start with a poll of parents to get a sense of what would be most relevant topics to cover. ……OK we’ve got a vote for primary and a vote for secondary admissions. Well, it seems like primary and secondary Julianna are probably the important areas to cover.

It is my pleasure to welcome Julianna Yau to the Bizibuz webinar on easing the transition to international schools in HK. Julianna is Canadian-born, UK-educated but a long term Hongkong resident. She graduated from the University of Cambridge with a masters in mathematics, & has trained in Maths teaching at Stanford University. She has countless years of experience in teaching & admissions consulting, and in 2016 founded Ampla Education. Her exposure to different education systems & her teaching background make her uniquely positioned to help parents & children transition to the international school system, as do her years of experience helping students gain admission to top international schools & universities.

So Julianna, what are the main reasons local families shift from the local school system to an international school?

Julianna: There are quite a lot of reasons, but I think the three most common ones I've seen are that parents want their kids learn in a relaxed way because local schools have more of a focus on rote learning and the system can be quite rigid. And also, the one size fits all approach might not be suitable for everyone. There's a lot of pressure placed on exams and homework, leaving little time for extracurricular activities, whereas in international schools, kids can enjoy learning in a more relaxed way and this allows more time for extracurricular activities and passions.

The second main reason is because they would like their kids to improve English proficiency so that they can speak English like a native and also to strengthen skills such as problem solving, critical thinking presentation skills and creativity.

Thirdly, it is to provide a smooth transition for studying abroad in the future as a lot of parents consider sending their kids to boarding schools or universities abroad after joining international school for a few years.

Cristy: Yes we also hear from a lot of parents that they find the intense focus on academics at local schools quite stifling to a child's all-rounded development and in comparison, international schools do tend to pride themselves on all the supplementary programs that they have. Not just ECA programs but school exchanges, immersion trips, etc and there is a lot of research about the benefits of all these sorts of programs. And we do list some ECA programs for international schools on our platform if people are interested in these.

Julianna, I'm sure you interact with families from the mainland as well. Do you feel that they have similar motivations for exploring the international school system here?

Julianna:  Yes, I see that motivations for mainland parents are similar. For the mainland families, immigrating to Hong Kong, they see international school as a stepping stone for future studies overseas or as an easier way than the DSE system to get into a top Hong Kong University. It's also a great way for the children to improve their English and to increase their critical thinking, as these typically aren’t a focus in mainland schools.

Cristy: So when is the right time for kids to apply for international school? Is it during the big enrolment years of Year 1 and 7, or other adhoc times as well?

And I think it'd be helpful if you could explain the difference between the systems because I know sometimes the P label used in the local system vs grades and years labels used in other curriculums is very confusing.

Julianna: Yes, let me share a screen with you…. So here we can see for Hong Kong, the most common labels are based on the American system which runs from K to Grade 12, and also the UK system which goes from K to Year 13. So the general rule of thumb is if the label is a Grade, you add one year in order to get the equivalent in Year labels.

So the most common entry points would be when kids are three years old, then Year 1 which is when they're five years old, and then Year 7 which is when they’re 11 years old because a lot of schools open up extra capacity in those years. It is also possible to enter secondary school in Year 9 which is when they’re 13 years old because that's when a lot of students are going to boarding schools so it frees up a lot of spaces.

Cristy: You mentioned entering an international school in Year 7. Does that mean for local students they should apply as they finish primary school or during P5?

Julianna: If they want to join in Year 7, then they should be applying at the end of P4 or the start of P5 which is the equivalent to Year 6. So that will allow a year for them to sit the entrance test and prepare for the interview process.

Cristy: And for mainland children, when would they normally join?

Julianna: Normally I would advise them to join as soon as possible when the gap in the English fluency isn't as big because generally they receive their first English classes in primary school in the  third grade as compared to kindergarten in Hong Kong. So it's best to apply before the gap widens in the English proficiency too much to cause other issues with applying and transitioning.

Cristy: OK. And then for older kids that miss the Year 7 entry point, parents are really focused on understanding the different examination and curriculum streams. Could you walk us through that? In Hong Kong, there are some international schools that have a two year IB program or A levels and then have MYP in the years beforehand, whereas other schools have the same final two year program but have IGCSE in years 9 and 10. Does this impact the timing of when it’s best to join such schools?

Julianna: Yes that's right, there are quite a lot of different systems. Typically before the final two years, there is the MYP or the IGCSE. Normally we recommend if parents want their child to study UK A-Levels, then a school offering IGCSE will be the more natural path for them. However, for the International Baccalaureate Program, the parents can select whether they prefer MYP or IGCSE. Depending on their age group, the parents might prefer their child have an external qualification. I think the IGCSE would be a better option because it can help with subsequent school or university applications, and might also exempt them from further subjects or exams such as when they applying for university with the IGCSE English qualification.

It also depends on the age group of the student. For example, if they are in Form 1 at a local school, then they can join an international school in Year 9 or 10, which is in time for the IGCSE program. But if they are already in Form 3 at a local school, which is equivalent to Year 10, they can’t really join in Year 11, because that's the year when the school is already taking IGCSE

Cristy: OK, so generally the advice would be to join the secondary school earlier rather than later to have more entry points.

Julianna: Yes, although even if you’re applying late, that's also fine. It’s possible to join for the final two years at an international school just to sit the IB program or the A-Levels.

Cristy: Are there other considerations that parents should take into account when choosing the timing of sending their kids to international schools? For example, you'd mentioned when the kids are older then they may have been exposed to more English. What about adjusting to the change in culture or learning style? If the children are older, are they more emotionally mature and therefore able to adjust more easily?

Julianna: Yes I think so. But it also depends on the parents and their rationale for sending their child to international schools in the first place. If it is because they want their children to gain English proficiency, then it’s definitely best to send them earlier. But if they want to send them as a stepping stone to boarding schools, then they can send them a little later although taking into account the timeline of boarding school entry. I've seen cases where kids might finish primary school at a local school, and then they go on to an international school for just one or two years, and then leave for a boarding school. Frankly this is a really challenging transition for the child to manage and get the most out of their time at the international school after staying for only a year or two.

Cristy: How do parents think through which international school is going to be most appropriate for their child, because I'm assuming it's not just about choice of curriculum or which country they want their child to study at university in. There are so many other factors such as a child's personality, their interests..

Julianna: Yes there are lots of different factors that they should take into consideration when choosing schools that best suit their child. I think it really depends on the child’s age and personality. Usually, families with older children place more emphasis on the curriculum because that will influence where they send their kids for further studies. However, for young ones then parents want more all-round development, with a focus on creativity or extracurricular activities such as sports, arts or music. It also depends on the child’s nationality and passport since quite a lot of schools give priority to students with that same passport such as German Swiss or French International School. And for a lot of schools, they also have a quota and they're required to allocate at least 70% of the school places to students who hold passports other than Hong Kong.

Cristy: Does that mean if a family have Chinese and Hong Kong passports, they should apply with their Chinese not Hong Kong passport?

Julianna:  Yes in general it’s best to apply with a passport other than a Hong Kong one.

Cristy: Let’s speak in more detail about English proficiency because this is obviously quite important. How do parents think about the level of English proficiency that's required for not only the child’s adjustment but also navigating the entrance interviews for both parents and the child?

Julianna: So the parent interviews are not formally accessed but it's still quite important because the parents will get to meet with teachers and speak with them during the assessments. And I think that family influence on the child is really important because the schools do look at how often you speak English with your child casually and also when spending time together doing different family activities. For example, do you read English bedtime stories to them? Or are there other kinds of family activities on the weekends that give that child exposure to English?

Cristy: OK so proficiency in English or some demonstration of familiarity is quite important. Just for the benefit of the parents on the call, we do have lots of English courses that are available on our platform if you follow this link: https://www.bizibuz.com/courses?categories=ENGLISH&maxPricePerClass=100…

So moving on, how can a mum or dad best prepare their child, who may be used to a local school system or a system that has a high degree of structure and lots of homework, adjust to the new culture associated with an international school? Can you prepare your child to think more abstractly or be more proactive at problem solving?

Julianna: Yes parents can definitely help prepare their kids. For example, parents can help their children improve their English language skills so that they can integrate more easily once they start at the international school. Parents can also encourage their children to ask more questions at home so that they can get used to the teaching style at international schools, because there will be lots more discussions and debates involved. And parents, can ask their children more questions about daily life, and how things work, and encourage them to think outside the box. Lastly, parents can also educate their children about diversity and cultural differences through watching documentaries together and then having a discussion afterwards.

Cristy: One thing that we observe parents doing to help kids transition is sending them to more after-school activities that may involve playing a sport or doing visual arts, typically something group-oriented so there is peer interaction, and where the instruction is in English. This helps the child with the socialization aspect, they develop friendships and learn by meeting other kids from international schools. They can observe their behaviour and get great practice developing their English skills.

So what steps can parents take to ensure their application to international school is likely to be more successful. Are there any tips that you have for parents that we haven't covered? I know you've skipped through quite a few slides.

Julianna: For kindergarten, entry is mostly skewed toward play-based assessment. So it will involve  group activities where kids can interact with others. The assessors are looking for signs that the child is comfortable being on their own and separating from their parent or caregiver, and secondly is able to respond and communicate with other children. My general advice would be for parents to either sign up their children to interview preparation classes or they can encourage them to do simple activities or tasks at home. For example, practice tying shoelaces or encourage them to be more independent.

Whereas for older children, they'll be assessed on their English and Maths. For English, they’ll be asked to demonstrate their reading and writing. We encourage them to at least do some type of preparation so they’re familiar with the testing format and content.

Cristy: I heard from some of the international school assessors themselves that for the really young ones, they’re not only looking at how a child socializes but also how that child moves and how they hold a pen, to try to get an indication of their fine and gross motor skills. Obviously for kids that are really young, it's difficult to be able to measure their math skills or assess their future academic performance potential. However, by closely observing motor skills because of the correlation with cognitive development, they get an indication of the brain development of that child which is an early indicator of potential academic performance.

And for parents interested in the courses that Ampla run to help prepare a child for these interviews and assessments, here is a link to book these courses: https://www.bizibuz.com/courses/HK-International-School-Test?filter=ba5821a6ea6b44f3357ef45b007ec4dc

These courses are designed to encompass, all those things you mentioned such as reading comprehension, writing and verbal skills, math assessments, interview strategies, etc. So would this be more suitable for older kids or do you run a custom program, depending on the age of the child and their needs?

Julianna: Yes we do tailor programs depending on the age of the child. The older children are much more focused on preparing for standardized tests whereas for the younger ones, we can help develop their social skills, motor proficiencies and such things.

Cristy: So typically how long should a parent set aside to prepare their child for either the interview process or assessment?

Julianna: Normally we recommend starting the preparation at least three to six months before the interview or assessment, but sometimes parents only get the notification a few weeks before the assessment, so we’ve also done short intensive courses as well.

Cristy: Is there anything else parents can do to help their kids prepare in the meantime? We had mentioned participating in ECA programs.

Julianna: I think after-school activities are certainly something that international schools believe in as a path to fully developing a child’s potential and exploring their interests. It will also play well in interviews and should help the child adapt to the new culture of the school.

Cristy: Yes ECA programs do allow a child to develop those hidden talents, and that allows them to grow their self-confidence and their self-identity. And having a talent is really useful for standing out in later college applications and school admissions.

Julianna: Yes, that's right. And the primary years are the best time for them to actually develop their talents because once they reach high school, there's not much time for them to start a new hobby.

Cristy: So Julianna, how many different international schools do you advise a parent to apply for? I assume it depends on when the child is applying. If for Years 1 or 7 when the intake volume is greater, perhaps it is not necessary to apply for so many schools, but if applying in an “off-peak” year where they might be placed on waitlists, should parents apply to more?

Julianna: Yes. If you're applying for a year that's not a common entry point, then I'd recommend applying for around 5-6 schools because you may be placed on waitlists and potentially have to defer a year. However, if applying in say Year 7, then I’d recommend focusing on just 3-4 schools because your child will still need to take the assessment for each school which puts a lot of pressure on the student.

Cristy: And also on the parents having to complete all the applications.

Thank you so much for sharing your insights on how to better manage the transition to international school. We’ll be circulating a recap with Julianna’s materials and that contains her contact details if you’d like to follow up with her. Also all to the mums & dads, if you’re keen to join other webinars we host with parents experts, feel free to follow us on Facebook:  https://www.facebook.com/bizibuzhq/

Thank you so much for joining us today. Have a great day.