Watch your grammar

Overseas-education | Crystal Wu 27 Oct 2020

In response to Beijing's imposition of a national security law for Hong Kong, the British government announced that Hongkongers with British National Overseas status may apply for a special visa that will provide a pathway to citizenship.

This prompted a surge of Hongkongers renewing their BNOs, and piqued more curiosity about the cream of the crop of the UK's government-funded education system: grammar schools.

But the biggest and perhaps most important question is: who is entitled to public education in the UK?

The answer is simple. "You have to be a local resident," said David Yiu, founder of Hopeland Academic, which provides services ranging from BNO immigration to school selection consultancy in Britain.

"Regardless of whether you are a temporary or permanent resident or citizen, you can enjoy free public education."

Although children born after the July 1997 handover are not eligible for BNO status, they may still apply for residency in Britain "if one of their parents hold BNO status and they apply together as a family unit."

It is worth noting that in the UK, government-funded schools are called "state schools," while the term "public schools" refers to the country's most selective and prestigious private schools. The term stems from a distinction from local schools in the 18th century when parents who could afford boarding fees sent their children elsewhere.

Among more than 3,000 state-funded secondary schools, 163 are grammar schools, which are known to be the most selective academically.

These highly competitive and sought after schools are some of the best-performing schools in the national league table and have a pass rate of up to 92.9 percent in English and mathematics - compared to the average of 44.1 percent in other state schools.

With around eight to 15 students competing for each place at these schools, the selectiveness is reflected in their admissions systems.

For state schools, parents need only apply for three to six schools through their local council at the beginning of Year Six; but applications to grammar schools happen as early as April a year ahead, before the summer holidays of Year Five.

This is because students will need to pass a selective entrance examination - the 11-plus - to be eligible for grammar schools.

Though it is said that grammar schools have higher teaching standards and better performing students, Yiu believes that looking at the child's ability is key.

If the child is not academically inclined, it is not wise to force them to pursue this direction. Not only is enrollment highly competitive, but studying at a grammar school can also be very stressful, especially for expat children who are still trying to settle in a new country.

"The pressure for children in grammar schools is significantly greater, especially when your classmates are aiming for universities like Oxbridge," said Yiu.

Yiu also pointed out that although the UK's public schools have higher tuition costs, it may be beneficial for children to enroll there for a year or two before switching back to the government-funded system. The smaller class sizes and after-school tutoring programs at fee-paying schools may help children progress and settle better.

Regardless, the most important thing is to have a local residential address, as this is required for any state school application.

And, with proximity to the school being one of the criteria in the state school allocation system, housing in good school districts is often expensive and parents need to be financially prepared.

The three areas in Britain with the largest number of grammar schools are Kent with 32, Lincolnshire with 13 and Buckinghamshire with 15. But the greater London area is the most popular with expats.

"Everything should be planned at least a year earlier, as school allocation takes place one year prior to starting secondary school and the chances of transferring in the middle are slim, especially for selective schools," said Yiu.

In fact, some schools and councils have catchment area maps online for parents to check whether their address would give their children a chance with a particular school.

As for parents who are still planning to enroll their children in British state secondary schools, Yiu believes they should emigrate before the child turns 10, though it would be ideal if the child can also enjoy the free primary education there.

"If your children grow up there, they can learn the culture and customs, as well as have a better English language base than growing up in Hong Kong," said Yiu.

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