Secondary Thoughts

Reading Time: 9 minutesTalk among parents at our eight-year-old son’s school often turns to secondary education and whether children will remain in Hong Kong for this crucial part of their learning journey. Many families in Hong Kong consider sending their child overseas for secondary school – be it to the US, UK, Australia or elsewhere in Asia; or (if applicable) they weigh up returning to their country of origin in time for their child’s secondary education.

For our part, my husband and I were both born in the UK. We’ve been in Hong Kong for 15 years, though, and it’s our home. Both our children were born here. They attend a school that we (and they) are very happy with and which will see them all the way through their secondary education.


But will we definitely be in Hong Kong for our children’s secondary education? It’s hard to say. It’s not that we are planning to leave, but there is always the chance that we may have to return to England. If that were to happen, would we be able to get our children into a school? Which schools would we apply to and should I have already registered? Perhaps I should give this matter some thought.

What are the benefits of a UK secondary education?

Charles Milne has almost 40 years of experience in education. He spent the majority of his career teaching French and English at Eton College, one of the UK’s most prestigious boarding schools. He was also a house master and head of admissions for five years at the world-renowned school. His vast knowledge about the UK education system, and Eton College, has made him a valuable education consultant with Quintessentially Education.

Charles credits a number of factors for the appeal and success of UK schools. “I think families like the diversity that is available in UK schools, which perhaps isn’t as available here [in Hong Kong]. They really want their children to move into a broader, more open environment where there are going to be more opportunities for sport, music, drama, art – that whole range of co-curricular activities. 

“The schools in the UK are renowned for the strength of the co-curricular activities. There’s a really high standard of music, drama – the theatre won’t be equally strong across all the schools, of course, but at a number of the top end schools drama is really good. For example at Eton, theatre agents will come and watch the school plays and there will be kids every year that will be offered a contract with an agent.

“One of the other things you’ve got, and I think this is where the UK wins out over America or Australia, is the cultural and historical opportunities. If you’re reading English, you can go to Shakespeare’s Globe, if you’re studying History of Art, you can go to the National Gallery.


“On top of that, a lot of parents are looking toward what’s going to happen beyond secondary school, to university. There is a real attraction for UK universities; and even if they are ultimately aiming toward American universities, UK schools are still a good route in.” 

Arabella Davies of bespoke education service Their Best Years has over 15 years of experience working in the UK education sector and as a researcher for the highly regarded UK Tatler Schools Guide. Her vast experience has afforded her valuable insight into a great many schools and the differing approaches they take, both inside and outside the classroom – from education and academic reputation, to pastoral care and co-curricular activities. In her view “there are many advantages to a UK education, the main one being the confidence that seems to be instilled in children educated in the independent sector in the UK.” 

Independent schools, or private schools, are funded through school fees rather than the government. These schools don’t have to follow the UK’s national curriculum, but must be registered with the government and are inspected regularly. “Independent schools tend to have smaller classes, better facilities and overall excellent pastoral care, allowing children to thrive and be happy in their learning environment,” explains Arabella.

“The strength of the academic teaching in the independent sector in the UK is really good,” agrees Charles. “Schools in the independent sector have got a flexibility about hiring staff which isn’t available to schools in the state sector… In the independent sector you can take somebody who is really interesting and bright; you can take them straight from university and offer them a job; you can take people out of business. So you can arguably get a more interesting and challenging, stimulating academic staff.”

But which school?

Are there particular UK secondary schools that overseas parents tend to favour for their children? In Arabella’s experience “many overseas parents initially favour the more well-known schools such as Eton College and Winchester for boys and Wycombe Abbey or Downe House for girls. These tend to be the most academic, which can ultimately lead to some disappointment when parents realise that their children are perhaps not the right fit.” 


Charles agrees that parents “tend very often to have preconceptions or their own preferences and can very often be dominated by a school with a top brand image… Or sometimes parents will be led by league tables, which can be misleading.” 

So, if I’m desperate for my son to attend Eton College, would an advisor let me down gently if he is an unlikely fit, I wonder? “Although I am keen to satisfy a parent’s brief, I am also not afraid to give advice if I feel that they perhaps aren’t going down the right road to benefit their children in the long term,” says Arabella. “I’m always willing to gently steer parents in a different direction while at the same time not putting them off their initial choices.” 

But what if I really don’t have a clue where would be a good fit for my child? Charles advises that in this situation using an advisory company, such as Quintessentially Education, is a smart move. “You can’t really find out [what the options are] on the school websites; the websites are very generic. They all say the same sort of thing.” 

How do Their Best Years advise people like me, who really don’t know which schools to consider? “I question parents regarding a multitude of areas including location, who is going to be their point of contact in loco parentis, how far are they willing to travel (this mostly applies to grandparents), are they considering a co-ed school or single sex, do they want all their children educated in the same school etc. In addition, much of my consultation is alleviating the anxiety that goes with choosing a school for their children. What I try and do is to see exactly what the family want and need, as well as take into consideration the strengths and weaknesses of their children.”

How about for children that have been studying Mandarin in Hong Kong? “Most senior schools now offer Mandarin as part of the curriculum. It has less of a take-up in prep schools and so is often an after-school club,” advises Arabella. “Having a second language is of huge benefit, whether this be Mandarin, French or German, and schools love to take on pupils with a command of any additional language.”

What about curriculum; many schools in Hong Kong follow the International Baccalaureate (IB) curriculum, how much should this impact the decision-making process for which UK school to join, I ask Arabella. “There are now many schools in the UK which have adopted the IB. I don’t believe it should alter the decision a family might make on which school they choose. Although IB is possibly more internationally recognised, A-Levels are still a good qualifier for most universities across the globe, so I think a family are better off choosing a school which is the right fit throughout, rather than whether or not they offer IB.” 

What about a timeline?

When should Hong Kong parents start researching UK secondary schools, or enlist the help of an advisory company? Have I missed the boat with my eight-year old? “Being organised is key,” says Arabella. “I would recommend seeking advice and researching secondary schools around four years before entry (for 13+ that’s in year four). This gives families plenty of time to research several schools and allows them to stick to individual admissions deadlines, which can be demanding.”

Getting the timing right for applications is a message that Charles is determined to get across. “We had a parent whose son is just over the age of 11 and they are trying to find a boarding school. For a number of the top schools, the well-known brands as it were, they’ve already missed the deadline. If you want to have access to all British boarding schools, then you’ve got to have your child registered by the time he or she is 10 and a half. If you miss that deadline there are still schools that will be available to you, but for the prestigious ones such as Eton, Winchester, Wellington – and one or two others that will very probably feature on your wish list – you will have missed out.”

Maidwell-Hall copy

In terms of the best age to move a child across to the UK system, Arabella doesn’t think there is a specific ‘best’ age. “I advise families to make the decision as a whole. If a family wanted to introduce their children into the senior sector then I wouldn’t necessarily advise coming in later than age 13 (year nine) unless they wanted to delay it to 16+.  

“Regarding day school, this totally depends on where a family plans to relocate. Day places in London are harder to come by than day places in the country, which means children are better off going down the structured application route and starting from the beginning. For girls’ schools this is mainly year seven; for boys’ schools it is a mixture of year seven and year nine. 

“There is always movement within any school environment but, I would always advise playing it safe, being organised in your transition and relocation plans and, most importantly, keeping in touch with admissions offices because they are usually very amenable to overseas families and are fully aware that plans change at the eleventh hour,” adds Arabella.

“If parents are thinking of moving their children to UK for prep school, then again they’ve got to be a little careful about deadlines,” Charles warns. 

A prep, or preparatory, school is an independent primary school catering for children up to approximately 13 years. A prep school prepares the child for the common entrance exam that is required to get them into an independent secondary school. 

When it comes to getting into a prep school, “it’s often a matter of parents saying ‘ideally we would like a school in this area of London’ and we would draw up some lists,” says Charles. “The choice of prep school is less likely to be based on knowledge of the child because, to some extent, in terms of education provided, a prep school, is a prep school, is a prep school. You won’t get so much of a difference between prep schools. Some will be more competitive, some will be more academically selective than others, but you won’t find the same degree of difference between London prep schools as you will with secondary schools.” 

But is a prep school necessary? “Although a prep school experience can only assist in the transition from prep school to senior school, it is certainly not essential,” says Arabella. “Gone are the days of needing to send one’s child to prep school at the age of eight in order to get them into a leading senior school. Instead, the entry points are incredibly flexible.” 

Charles agrees that prep school is not essential, “Given that often the option to a family here [in Hong Kong] would be to send a child to board in a prep school – I think that is quite a tough ask these days. Although you can board your child as young as eight in the UK, it’s not very popular now.”

Pay them a visit

It’s definitely worth paying schools a visit. You will find out so much more walking through the grounds than on the website. Ideally, visit the school during term time so that you can see the school when it’s alive. A school without the students really doesn’t have the same feeling. Advisory companies are able to help with booking visits if you wish, or can accompany you.

Testing times

So let’s get back to secondary school. What about the common entrance exam?

Are children from Hong Kong given some leeway in the entrance exams for things they may not have been taught? “Yes – definitely,” says Arabella, “to the point where some children don’t even need to take the common entrance exam at the end of year eight!”


Charles agrees, “Schools will be accommodating for Hong Kong children doing common entrance because they are very aware that the full range of common entrance papers which will be taken by students in the UK, those subjects won’t necessarily have been taught over here, so for example the Divinity paper.

Certainly for Eton College you would still have to do English, the three sciences and a modern language, which can now include Mandarin, but they wouldn’t have to do history, geography, Divinity or Latin (although at Eton every boy has got to do Latin in the first year).”

“The exam is very much used by secondary schools now as a setting exam. So the classes students start off in will depend very much on how they’ve done in the common entrance exam,” Charles explains.

The interview

Both Arabella and Charles are completely against interview training for children. 

“What the people doing the interviews want for entry at secondary level in year six, is to get some idea of what the child is going to be like to teach; is this child going to be fun to have in the classroom. We want to hear spontaneous 10-year-old answers to questions, we don’t want to hear little mini-adults speaking” stresses Charles. 

Mistakes to avoid

According to Arabella, “The most common mistake seems to be choosing a school based on ‘dinner party chit-chat, or to immediately go for the school that a parent or grandparent attended without realising that, apart from the name of the school, it will have totally changed over the last 30 years. Another mistake is not to ask enough questions when visiting a school.” 

Charles advises – “Never ever, ever bring your child for assessment on the day you arrive from Hong Kong, it’s amazing the number that do that!”


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