Ruth, what inspired you to set up Top Schools HK?
I saw a need! I saw parents stressing about getting their kids into kindergartens and primary schools and no-one to turn to for help. The system is very complicated and I saw parents getting themselves into a mess and making unnecessary mistakes and thought that I could do something about it.
What services does Top Schools HK offer?
We place children in international and private schools here in HK.We work both with expats who contact us once they are thinking of moving to HK and we work with parents already here for many years, or born here.
All these parents are opting out of the “local” system which is the free schooling offered by the government. Often, expats think they are not entitled to free schooling, but they are! Although I do do some placements in these schools, the vast majority are willing to pay for a school that offers an international curriculum.
We act as a guide to help parents make sense of what these schools have to offer and find a “good fit” for their child(ren).
What challenges do your clients typically encounter regarding selecting the right school in Hong Kong?
Well, the challenge is more about having the school select them and their children! But, there still is a selection process the parents go through. It’s a needs analysis to ensure that the school matches their expectations once their child is successfully enrolled.
The challenges include applying to the right number of schools at the right time. Timing is a big issue and, unfortunately, I’ve seen a lot of parents miss out because they start thinking about schools too late.
How can you help them overcome these challenges to make sure everything goes smoothly?
We take a strategic approach. We prefer to start early – before the child is two – and guide the parents through to the point where they accept a place in primary school. We look forward to primary school – and even secondary – and then work backwards to help parents select an appropriate preschool that will prepare their child for their chosen primary schools.
In the case where expats are arriving in Hong Kong at short notice, we arrange everything including tours and meetings with the school staff, guidance on applications and advice when more than one offer is received.
Which are the most popular areas to live in for expats with school age children?
Unfortunately, those areas are where the competition for school places is keenest. And, in fact, expats are living all over these days. Most prefer Hong Kong Island and the Southside is popular. Other typically expat places are Discovery Bay. Clearwater Bay/Sai Kung and Mid Levels. I’d encourage expats to look outside those areas where they can enjoy lower rents and more easily find school places such as Tai Po and Shatin in the NT and the Eastern side of HK Island.
What is a typical working day like for you?
I drop my daughter off for the school bus at 6:55am (!) and I’m in the office by 7:10am. I tend to travel to my clients’ homes or offices since they are busy and it’s important that I meet both parents at the same time. I enjoy getting to know the parents and children and can sense quite early on which schools they may fit into.
If I have a school visit that day, I’ll read up a bit before I go and generate a list of questions that have arisen since the last time I visited. I try to update my website within a few days of a school visit, but my clients come first and I’ve been getting a bit behind with the website.
I check my Facebook page and group a couple of times every day. We have a very active community and they are always asking questions so I try to respond promptly.
I leave the office anywhere between 3 and 9pm; it just depends. During “application season” (Sept – Feb), I tend to work longer hours. Then, after that, the schools hold information sessions and many of these are in the evenings, so I get tied up with those.
If you had to give one piece of advice to our members to help them when relocating with children to Hong Kong what would it be?
Sort out the schooling before the housing. Many of the relocation companies make commissions on rents and guide expats to rent at a high price in the most popular areas. I’d encourage relocating families to hire an expert and find a school place for their children first and foremost. Finding a home is a piece of cake once they’ve done that!
Ruth Benny is 'Head Girl' of Top Schools HK. As a long-time Hong Kong resident, former educator of local students and schoolteachers and parent of two children, Ruth guides parents through the the Hong Kong School system to place their children in top international and private preschools and schools.
With 18 years experience of the education system in Hong Kong, she thoroughly understands its complexity and fierce competition.