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Home-schooling in Hong Kong

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My wife and I live in Hong Kong and homeschool our two children, ages 4 and 6. Although we talked about homeschooling before we ever thought of moving to Hong Kong, when we moved here there were two reasons we enrolled our oldest child in a local school. First, we wanted her to learn Cantonese. Second, we wanted her to meet people from diverse backgrounds. But even at a local school, our daughter found it too easy to find friends with whom she could speak English. And she had plenty of opportunities to meet and get to know children from diverse backgrounds outside of school. In addition, we found that our lives revolved around the school’s schedule and there were many other valuable opportunities for learning and family time that we and our children were missing out on. We liked the school and the teachers there, but after the first year we decided not to enroll our daughter in school for a second year, nor to have our second child start school. We decided we will homeschool both children.

In choosing to homeschool, we’ve discovered there are questions homeschooling parents get asked over and over again. Isn’t homeschooling illegal in Hong Kong? Aren’t you afraid your children will fall behind academically? What about socialization? Don’t you worry your children will grow up in a bubble? How will they get into college? These are all good questions, and ones we considered seriously. I recognize homeschooling is not feasible for everyone, nor the choice many will feel is right for their children. But the answers we found to these and other questions convinced us that despite the challenges of homeschooling, it would be the best option for our children. Here are brief answers to each one of these concerns.

Isn’t homeschooling illegal in Hong Kong? No, homeschooling in Hong Kong is not illegal. On September 30th, 2014 I met at the Hong Kong Education Bureau with Ms. Teresa Chan, Principal Education Officer (School Administration Division) and Albert Leung, Senior Education Officer (Placement and Support Section). The purpose of our meeting was to clarify common misunderstandings as to how the government regards homeschooling. To understand the government perspective, it’s important to know that the government views a high quality education as the right of every child living in Hong Kong. The government also considers a traditional school environment to be the best way to provide a high quality education. Therefore any situation in which a child is not enrolled in school classes becomes a matter the government feels is worthy of investigation. This is clearly spelled out in Section 74, Education Ordinance (Cap. 279), which states “Where it appears to the Permanent Secretary that a child is not attending primary school or secondary school without any reasonable excuse, the Permanent Secretary may, after making such inquiries as he considers necessary, serve upon a parent of the child an attendance order….”

If you notify the Education Bureau that you are homeschooling or they become aware of it by some other means, you may expect to receive emails, phone calls, and visits from government employees. These employees will often try to persuade the parents to enroll their children in traditional school classes, but parents are under no obligation to do so unless they receive an attendance order. Chan and Leung explained to me that the issuance of an attendance order is a rare circumstance, mostly unique to situations where children have become victims of abuse or neglect. Unfortunately, a small handful of parents have kept their children home under the guise of homeschooling in order to escape negative attention to the lack of care given to their children. Because of these cases the government feels it must monitor every situation where a child is not attending school.

There is no official application process for homeschooling in Hong Kong. When asked why this is the case, Chan and Leung responded that because the Hong Kong government believes it is best for children to be attending a traditional school, they do not wish to condone homeschooling by having an official application or registration process. While this leaves homeschooling parents in a bit of a limbo, their form of education being neither officially accepted nor rejected, Chan and Leung were both clear that nothing illegal has been done unless an attendance order is issued and a parent disobeys it. It was also explicitly stated that the government has no separate approach to local and expatriate families.

Aren’t you afraid your children will fall behind academically? A 2010 study in the U.S. by Dr. Brian D. Ray involving 11,739 homeschooling students and their families revealed the following:

  • Homeschooled individuals scored 15 to 30 percentile points above public-school students on standardized tests.
  • Test scores for homeschooled students were above average regardless of their parents’ level of formal education or their family’s household income.
  • Whether or not homeschooling parents were ever certified teachers had no correlation to their children’s academic achievement.
  • Government regulation of homeschooling was not related to the academic performance of homeschoolers.
  • Homeschooled students scored above average on college admissions tests.

No, I am not afraid my children will fall behind academically.

What about socialization? Don’t you worry your children will grow up in a bubble? I am indeed concerned my children might grow up in a bubble, and I hope all parents, regardless of how their children are educated, would share the same concern. But just because someone is “homeschooled” doesn’t mean they sit in their house all day, disconnected from the outside world. Children who are homeschooled have many opportunities to socialize. Like other children, those who are homeschooled interact with other children at dance, sports, music, and language lessons. They get together with friends for play-dates. For homeschooled children the world is their classroom, and so in addition to spending time with other children, they have more opportunities for interaction with adults in natural, real world environments. Homeschooled children are often recognized as being more at ease interacting with adults in real-life situations than their peers who have been educated in a traditional school setting where associations are artificially structured by age, and all adults are authority figures.

An added benefit of homeschooling is that children avoid many of the anti-social behaviors prevalent in schools such as bullying; illicit drug use; and peer pressure to look, dress, or behave in certain ways.

How will they get into college? Here’s what the websites of a few elite universities have to say to homeschooled applicants.

  • Oxford University welcomes applications from…those who have been home schooled.”
  • MIT has a long history of admitting homeschooled students…. We do not require a high school diploma or GED from our applicants.”
  • Princeton welcomes applications from homeschooled students. Among the homeschooled students admitted in recent years was a student who graduated as valedictorian of the Class of 2002.”
  • “Homeschooling is an educational asset that Harvard considers favorably when making its admissions decisions.”

Yes, a child can be homeschooled and still attend a top university.

Can someone be successful in their professional life without traditional schooling? The traditional educational system has become so much a part of our culture it’s hard to imagine an individual could be successful in life without participating in it. And yet examples abound of those who have been homeschooled and went on to have successful careers, like Ben Swann. Swann is an award winning investigative journalist and news anchor in the U.S. Through homeschooling, he earned a high school diploma when he was 11. He received a bachelor’s degree when he was 15. He finished a master’s degree when he was 16. And every one of his 9 brothers and sisters did the same thing. Other notable individuals who were homeschooled include Dr. Francis Collins, the head of the Human Genome Project; Thomas Edison the inventor; Mozart; 14 U.S. Presidents including George Washington and Abraham Lincoln; Albert Einstein; Charles Dickens; and the founders of the New York Times, Honda, and Kentucky Fried Chicken.

Another individual who successfully took a nontraditional route to self education is Dale Stephens, a Thiel Fellow, Founder of UnCollege.org, and author of the book Hacking Your Education: Ditch the Lectures, Save Tens of Thousands, and Learn More Than Your Peers Ever Will. He received the book deal from the prestigious publisher Perigee/Penguin when he was just 19 years old. Stephens dropped out of the traditional school system when he was 11. Stephens followed no set curriculum, but rather took responsibility for his own education and learned the way most of us do as adults, by getting real world experience. From age 12 to 17 he started businesses, lived in France, and worked on political campaigns. Eventually he went to university, but soon quit and founded UnCollege.org. Despite the name, the website is not anti-university. Instead, Stephens’ objective is to show people a university education is not the only path to success, and provide them with the tools to succeed on their own terms.

I have no concerns about the impact of homeschooling on my children when it comes to their professional aspirations. But more important to me than my childrens’ professional success is their ability to create and maintain healthy relationships and raise happy families. Where better to learn these skills than at home, within our own family?

Getting Started With Homeschooling

Once we answered the above questions, there were many more. Deciding to homeschool was the first step, but the next challenge was deciding exactly how to go about it. We are still in the early stages of learning how to best provide what our children need when it comes to educational opportunities. Homeschooling comes in many different flavors. There are parents who “school at home,” that is, they reproduce a traditional school environment in their homes. Others subscribe to the practice of “unschooling,” or as I prefer to call it “self-directed learning.” Other methods include classical, Waldorf, Charlotte Mason, unit studies, an eclectic approach, etc. Some parents provide a highly structured homeschool environment while some are more relaxed. Part of what appeals to me about homeschooling is the freedom to discover what works best for each of our children and customize the educational opportunities to fit their individual needs.

This diversity of educational opportunities is the topic of the upcoming EDiversity “We Need Choices” conference being held here in Hong Kong, 11-12 October, 2014 at the University of Hong Kong. Cam Cheung, a graduate of the Chinese University of Hong Kong in Journalism and author of three Chinese books, is the Founder and Chairperson of the conference. After a successful career as a radio and TV news reporter, Cheung became a homeschooling parent in 2005 when she, her husband, and their two daughters set out on a sailboat on what became a 4 year, 8 month voyage. In 2010 they returned to Hong Kong and enrolled their girls in local schools. However, after two years of traditional schools they decided to return to homeschooling. Despite her experiences, the EDiversity conference is not about homeschooling, but about promoting diverse educational opportunities for all children. “We want to help parents, teachers, and education officials work together to make sensible and flexible educational choices that can address our youth's present and future needs,” Cheung says. “Through such means, Hong Kong can achieve a more harmonious, healthy, and capable population.”

Homeschooling is easier and more affordable today than it ever has been. Elite universities put many of their full lectures and coursework online--for free. One can view a lecture on quantum physics from MIT, or take a course from Stanford on social and economic networks, and all that is required is an Internet connection. Tens of millions of children, both those in homeschool environments and those attending traditional schools, are learning math from Kahn Academy. There is more support in terms of peer groups than ever before. There are homeschool conferences, and groups such as the Hong Kong Homeschool Meetup Group where one can network with others in the local community who can offer mentoring, feedback, activities, and support.

Although the information and technology for parents who homeschool has never been more accessible, homeschooling still requires significant sacrifice and is not a feasible option for many. Homeschooling young children is all but impossible in households where both parents work full time. Homeschooling can mean reducing a household’s financial income, foregoing professional opportunities, and missing out on rewarding workplace relationships with peers. It means spending time with children who may be less than enthusiastic about a parent’s high level of involvement in their lives. Homeschooling is not easy, but the homeschooling parents here as well as the millions of others around the world agree it is most definitely worth it.

Joshua Steimle

Joshua Steimle is the CEO of MWI, an online marketing firm with offices in Salt Lake City, Utah and Hong Kong.

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