A tidy 3-year-old in a dress shirt stands up straight, a bookshelf displaying shiny trophies behind him. “Hello! My name is Max. I like singing and playing the violin. My favorite …”
“Sorry, love. Let’s do it again,” says Max’s mother, video camera in hand. “Don’t forget to smile!”
“Why are we doing this? I’ve done it so many times already!” Max is tired and restless.
“I know, but this is very important,” his mom sighs. “Let’s try one more time.”
After a long day of work, Max’s mom now has to take on the role of director. During Hong Kong’s fiercely competitive kindergarten admissions season, this has become a common experience among parents of young children.
Amid the COVID-19 pandemic, the usual in-person family interviews have been held online, via Zoom for example, or replaced by video submissions. Based on prompts provided by the schools, parents are trying to capture on film their child’s personality, language skills, motor skills, and the family-child relationship.
Some hyper-competitive parents in Hong Kong are taking things to the next level. To impress admissions staff, parents might shoot a video aboard a yacht in Victoria Harbor, or film themselves conversing with their child in English while playing golf. If shot at home, trophies and certificates awarded to the child will be strategically on display.
Others will also compile a portfolio, even when it is not a requirement. Intended to showcase the child’s achievements and potential, these contain drawings, photos, samples of their 2- or 3-year-old’s work. In some cases, these portfolios run to 40 pages or more, forcing kindergartens to institute a page limit.
In a very slow market, professional event photographers and videographers have seen an opportunity in this new kindergarten admissions process. With kindergartens only able to “meet” the child through videos and photos, social media sites like Facebook and Instagram show an increased number of advertisements for professional services promising to present kindergarten applicants in a “smart,” “successful” light.
For many parents, these services are unaffordable. Private tutoring companies or individual freelance tutors can charge as much as HK$6,000 (roughly US$775) for a portfolio. With scripting, rehearsal, and shooting sometimes taking place over several days, a 2-minute video could cost thousands more.
Of course, these highly produced submissions are unlikely to reflect reality. “Schools might not be able to evaluate children just from the videotapes,” says one parent. “There might be a lot of editing behind the actual video to make it look amazing.”
According to an early-childhood educator, online admission procedures are less reliable and accurate, due in part to the absence of conversation and the opportunity to observe nonverbal cues. Another educator, however, sees no particular harm in these videos: “We expect a certain fatigue in the little actresses and little actors, but it is a good movie for families to keep in the long run.”
Why do these parents care so much about kindergarten admission? One might easily judge Max’s mom a “tiger mom,” a cliché used to capture a strict parenting style aimed at high academic achievement. These days, getting into a good kindergarten almost guarantees admission to a good primary (elementary) school, then to a good secondary (middle and high) school, and then to a good university. With students experiencing what educator Dr. Nirmala Rao of the University of Hong Kong calls a “downward pressure to excel,” parents feel more anxious than ever about providing their children with a good head start.
In most cases, a “good head start” means attendance at an elite kindergarten. Hong Kong’s fully privatized early childhood education system is driven by the philosophy of parental choice, with marketization of kindergartens encouraged by the government. Such a system, however, placed an untenable financial burden upon some families. In 2017, therefore, to enhance equitable access to quality early childhood education, the Education Bureau implemented a Free Quality Kindergarten Education Scheme that allows parents to send their children to government-subsidized kindergartens for free.
While this scheme has alleviated some families’ financial stress of paying kindergarten tuition fees, it has created a divide between free kindergartens and unsubsidized, for-profit kindergartens. At “elite schools,” fees can exceed the cost of university tuition and admission policies are entirely a school-based matter. Since they are oversubscribed, competition for selection is intense. Some kindergarten teachers shared that for-profit kindergartens that are charging high tuition fees tend to give more weight to parents’ socioeconomic profile than their child’s interview performance, indicating deeply rooted social inequalities.
The pandemic has exacerbated this state of affairs. In our study of kindergarten interview preparation conducted in mid-2020, we spoke to parents, teachers, interview preparation service providers and educators, finding several negative effects of social distancing measures. Frustrated with “Zoom kindergartens” and what they perceive to be wasted tuition fees, many parents pulled their children out of kindergarten altogether. As a result, some private kindergartens have had to significantly reduce teachers’ salaries or lay off teaching staff.
At the same time, as we have seen, the kindergarten admissions process has become even more pressurized. It is not only photographers and videographers that are capitalizing on parents’ fears and anxieties. The education market offers expert opinions and services at every step of the admission process. Through interview classes, very young children are tutored in social skills, languages, and etiquette. Consultants promise to share tips on memorizing the titles of favorite books or cartoons, or how to perform in the “correct,” standardized way in order to score well in interviews.
While such classes cannot necessarily guarantee success, they are popular amongst those who can afford them, reflecting a trend of outsourcing parenting responsibilities to experts in the education market. Instead of having to research school culture, admission policies and procedures themselves, parents can get experts to do the work for them. As one education company representative puts it: “Going to work and taking care of children is busy enough. We suggest parents delegate this duty to us professionals. That way they can save up time for their kids.” They seem to offer an additional value for parents: stress relief.
With some children enrolled in interview classes at the age of 1, some parents do question their effectiveness. Says one parent: “I don’t think children at this age can be changed much through interview training.” Beyond this, one educator in our study worried that children lose their authenticity when they are forced to memorize model answers provided by the instructors.
Another was concerned about the mental well-being of children when “failing” an interview. But the same educator also acknowledged that although parents may “know it is not appropriate developmentally” to place their children in interview classes, “they feel the pressure, feel squeezed and they will do everything to help their kids in this system.”
The pandemic has made it clearer than ever that it is time to reconsider marketization of the kindergarten admission system in Hong Kong and elsewhere where such education markets are emerging. The current system places enormous pressure upon parents and children and exacerbates social inequalities. Like Max, we wonder: “Why are we doing this?”