How creative is your child’s school? Whether they have a passion for fine art, design and technology or graphics, or an exceptional talent for violin, film or photography, students in Hong Kong are given plenty of opportunities to develop their skills in drama, music and art.
Encouraging creativity in children doesn’t just improve their chances of becoming the next Van Gogh, Leonardo DiCaprio, Vanessa-Mae or Sofia Coppola. The arts give children opportunities to explore, express and communicate their feelings, and help them to grow socially, mentally and emotionally.
There are many global studies to suggest that the arts should be a vital part of a broad and balanced curriculum at both primary and secondary levels. Creative industries are among the fastest growing economies in South East Asia. And, according to the World Economic Forum, by 2020 creativity will be one of the top three most important skills for future jobs; this is alongside complex problem solving and critical thinking.
Arts could become more important than maths, according to Andreas Schleicher, the head of PISA (Programme for International Student Assessment), who is widely regarded as one of the most influential voices in world education.
Speaking to UK Members of Parliament in February 2019, Schleicher said:
“I would say, in the fourth industrial revolution, arts may become more important than maths. We talk about ‘soft skills’ often as social and emotional skills, and hard skills [being] about science and maths, but it might be the opposite.”
Private schools worldwide have a reputation for championing the arts, whether that’s music, drama, dance, film or art. But are international schools in Hong Kong making space for the creative and performing arts in their curriculum? The answer is yes, albeit to varying degrees.
Just as British schools are looking to top-performing markets in South East Asia for ideas on how to improve maths and science education, Hong Kong is turning to countries such as the UK for inspiration on how to address its shortcomings in arts education. In the international sector in particular, schools are offering programmes that often go beyond the requirements of their UK, US or IB-based curricula.
Visit any international school in Hong Kong, and you’d expect to find theatre, music, drama and art rooms on a state-of-the-art campus. Many will also have a black box theatre, private music practice rooms, a green screen, gallery spaces for displaying student artwork, recording studio, and drama and dance studios.
Some schools have invested in specialist facilities that are dedicated to the arts, and provide the extra resources needed for arts-based IGCSEs, A Levels, BTECs and modules in the IBDP. For example, in 2008, the Canadian International School of Hong Kong (CDNIS) opened the Leo Lee Arts Centre. This HKD 100 million multi-storey complex is dedicated to the arts and features a 604-seat auditorium, music rooms, art rooms, drama studio, orchestra pit and a retractable stage.
Renaissance College Hong Kong (RCHK) recently opened the Red Door Centre complete with film equipment, a green screen, and a film editing suite. ESF King George V has a performing arts centre with music and drama rooms, individual practice rooms and a black box theatre. And the ISF Academy added to its campus with a Sporting and Cultural Centre that houses a performing arts centre with an 850-seat auditorium.
In the New Territories, Hong Kong Academy has a rooftop art courtyard where students create and exhibit art overlooking sea and mountain views; it’s also one of several top schools in the city state to have an auditorium with a professional grade sound system, theatre-quality lighting, recessed orchestra pit, movable stage components and retractable seating. And in Kowloon, Nord Anglia International School (NAIS) has a Music Technology Room equipped with iMacs and headphones where students can compose soundtracks; this is used as part of the school’s unique Juilliard curriculum (see below).
The importance of the arts is being felt across Hong Kong, where schools are investing in new facilities as part of campus redevelopments. Hong Kong International School, for example, plans to build a new arts wing at its Tai Tam campus and Kellett School included a purpose-built music suite, with an Apple Music Technology Suite, rehearsal and ensemble rooms, professional theatre and music library, in its new Kowloon Bay campus. In addition to their arts facilities, new schools American School Hong Kong and NAIS have STEAM makerspaces where it teaches the arts as part of a Science, Technology, Entrepreneurship, Arts and Mathematics programme.
Not all arts facilities need to have the ‘wow’ factor, though, and bigger is not always better. The Harbour School’s Grove campus may not have a large footprint, but it is creative with its use of a small space; it dedicates a floor to performing arts with a hugely flexible black box theatre that has moveable walls, state of the art sound and lighting, props, and musical instruments.
There’s a small forum at CDNIS that’s used for intimate performances, and a small rooftop auditorium at ESF’s King George V for outdoor performances. Flexible art rooms at smaller schools such as Kingston International are adapted for music, art and drama, while spacious art studios at Kellett’s larger Kowloon Bay campus give students the room to work on large-scale art and design projects. These are all examples of how schools can use simple but effective ways to engage students in the arts.
While schools may have funded these arts facilities, are they investing as much in the delivery of a creative education?
Many international schools in Hong Kong offer a UK or IB education, neither of which sideline the arts. In fact, specialist teachers are often brought in to teach creative subjects from early years (as young as three) up to college. At Nord Anglia International School, for example, specialist teachers in art, drama, music work across all three of its campuses, teaching children from kindergarten upwards.
Music, art and design are compulsory in the UK National Curriculum from the age of five up to 14 years; dance is a compulsory part of the PE curriculum for five to 14-year-olds; and drama is a compulsory part of the English curriculum for five to 16-year-olds. A substantial number of schools, including all secondary schools owned by the English Schools Foundation (ESF), teach IGCSEs; arts subjects include art and design, drama, music, and design and technology. There is, however, only a small number of schools in Hong Kong that teach A Levels – including Discovery Bay International School, Kellett School and Harrow Hong Kong; arts subjects here include art and design, design and technology, drama and theatre, media studies, and music.
Similarly, the International Baccalaureate programme dedicates both time and resources to the arts. The IB’s Primary Years Programme includes dance, drama, music and visual arts. During the Middle Years Programme (MYP), all students study three arts programmes from Grades 6 to 8: one visual arts, one performing arts, and one design course. Students then go on to study one of these fields during Grades 9 and 10, and end the programme with an arts showcase in Grade 10.
In the IBDP (Grades 11-12), students study dance, music, visual arts, theatre and/or film as part of the arts subject group. IBDP students must study Theory of Knowledge, which includes a unit that addresses questions such as ‘Who determines art and what is and isn’t art?’, ‘What are the standards a society uses to judge good art?’ and ‘What is the purpose of art?”. They also complete a CAS (Creativity, activity, service) project, which can include arts activities.
There’s a growing number of schools in Hong Kong – currently five schools in the ESF group – offering the IB’s Career-related Programme (IBCP), which gives students an opportunity to focus on a career pathway. For example, ESF’s Renaissance College and Discovery College have both partnered with SCAD Hong Kong and the Hong Kong Academy for the Performing Arts (HKAPA) to provide career-related studies in arts and design, and musical theatre.
Music is also widely taught at schools offering a US curriculum, such as Concordia International School and American School Hong Kong, and other arts subjects are often integrated into academic subjects. Some schools such as Stamford American International School, Hong Kong will teach music, art and drama based on US programmes such as the Massachusetts Arts Curriculum. Then, in the college years, students have a choice of art history, studio art and music theory under the Advanced Placement programme.
There are plenty of schools in Hong Kong that recognise the value of a creative curriculum – and bring it to the fore in the daily timetable. At nursery and primary level, students often have the opportunity to learn an instrument as part of the curriculum. Typically, this is the keyboard or guitar but some schools offer unique choices such as the ukulele. Worthy of a mention here is Yew Cheung International School of Hong Kong (YCIS), which runs a compulsory violin programme for students from K4 to Year 3 as part of its curriculum. Also, Shrewsbury International School Hong Kong includes weekly choral sessions in its music curriculum, when students “enjoy learning new songs while developing their understanding of how music works”.
The arts are certainly a strength at Nord Anglia International School (NAIS), which offers the Juilliard-Nord Anglia Performing Arts Programme. Developed in partnership with the performing arts academy based in New York, this arts curriculum puts students in front of Juilliard’s performers and teaching artists at various workshops, masterclasses and performances. Its reputation for excellence in the arts is supported by comments in a 2017 Independent Schools Inspectorate (ISI) report, which found that “creative disciplines, art and music are significant strengths” at this school.
At bilingual schools, the arts can be used to immerse students in a second language and celebrate different cultures. The ISF Academy, which offers a full immersion programme in English and Chinese, teaches visual art, music, dance and drama based on the curricula of Beijing, Hong Kong, Taiwan and the UK, as well as the IB. And, at the German Swiss International School, extra-curricular activities such as Chinese painting and primary choir are seen as “an excellent opportunity to meet students of both streams and to develop friendships and intercultural understanding”.
Looking at the broader picture, schools celebrate their students’ artistic talent across campus – from artwork on the walls to collaborative works of art created by all year groups. A centrepiece at Nord Anglia International School is the Wall of All, which is a display of hand-painted tiles by every student, and CDNIS has a mural made of tiles painted by students to celebrate Chinese New Year.
Art Week has become an integral part of the school calendar, and many IB schools hold an annual school-wide CAS Week, inspired by the IB’s Creativity, Action and Service framework; at ESF Sha Tin College, for example, students in Years 7-13 can choose to take part in classes as varied as rock school, ukulele-making and drama.
Schools include a variety of arts-based activities as part of their extra-curricular programmes. As well as music and vocal ensembles, these range from Chinese dance, Chinese painting and Chinese music ensemble at the bilingual Chinese International School to music ensembles including Little Voices for Years 1-2 and Band of 40 for Year 6 at RCHK. There’s fashion design, French film and sax ensembles at Kellett School, and fabric art, crafting, creative sewing, ballet, jazz and tap dance at ESF’s Bradbury School.
The French International School of Hong Kong supports its bilingual curriculum with student choirs singing in French, English and Chinese at various events, and other activities taught by professionals in English and/or French. And Harrow Hong Kong runs clubs in spray painting, photography, printing, painting a mural, silk scarf painting, anime and graphic novels, animation and extreme doodling.
Although smaller schools may not have the facilities to run the wide choice of ECAs at schools such as CDNIS (which has more than 70 activities covering music and the performing arts), they are still offering students access to after-school arts education. The 250-strong Kingston International School has a choir and orchestra that perform several times a year; HKCA Po Leung Kuk, which has less than 200 students, offers activities such as arts and crafts and Chinese calligraphy twice a week.
Beyond the classroom, Hong Kong Academy works in partnership with the International Schools Theatre Association (ISTA) to host ISTA's second permanent performing arts academy. The academy, which is open to all Hong Kong students aged 11-18, runs a range of weekend workshops and festivals, masterclasses and workshops in drama, music and theatre.
Music education is available at most schools – if you’re prepared to pay for it. Lessons are either held after school or during the school day; if the latter, lessons are usually scheduled on a rotating timetable to ensure that students don’t consistently miss the same class. For example, the Australian International School (AISHK) runs an Instrumental Introductory Scheme, which gives students an opportunity to try three different musical instruments (which are loaned from the school) during one term. Harrow Hong Kong offers students from Year 1 upwards the opportunity to learn a musical instrument or singing in individual 30-minute lessons. And Discovery Bay International School has more than 200 students learning everything from drums to the trombone in its instrumental lesson programme.
Some schools offer students access to external music and drama exams; for example, Harrow Hong Kong students can sit LAMDA exams in acting and musical theatre on campus.
Artist-in-residence programmes bring local and international artists, musicians, and other creatives into schools to share their skills. As well as giving students an insight into the professional art world, they offer mentoring in a specific discipline.
For example, Stamford American International School Hong Kong’s Global Mentor Programme brings in inspirational visitors such as author Sarah Brennan; NAIS hosts workshops and performances as part of its collaboration with Juilliard, with visiting musicians including the flutist Jasmine Choi.
Whichever school your child attends, they will have an opportunity to participate in a variety of musical ensembles, art exhibitions, original plays, full-blown musicals and choral concerts. Whether students want to paint, act, sing, direct, or film, they can take centre (or back) stage.
There are inter-house music competitions, termly performances, exhibitions and assemblies, to name but a few. For example, the French International School of Hong Kong stages several art events across its four campuses: an art walk for primary students, IB and Terminale visual arts exhibitions at secondary, and the annual Couture charity fashion show organised by French and international students. A highlight of the school year at ESF’s Sha Tin College is the inter-house Glee performance; it’s standing room only for this one apparently!
Larger school groups share a love for the arts across their community. The English Schools Foundation (ESF) puts students from its 17 campuses in front an audience at two key annual events – the ESF Festival of Music and the ESF Primary Choral concert. And NAIS offers free bespoke performing arts summer camps in Geneva, Florida and Shanghai to students at all 56 of its schools, including NAIS Hong Kong.
Students can take to the stage, both home and away. Locally, there are annual school-wide events including the Hong Kong Schools Music Festival and the International Schools Choral Music Society Festival. Also, several schools in Hong Kong are members of the International Schools Theatre Association (ISTA), which organises drama festivals and other arts events worldwide. And Discovery Bay International School (DBIS) and Kellett School are members of the Federation of British International Schools in Asia (FOBISIA), which organises events such as music and drama festivals for its 61 members schools in Asia.
While many scholarships offered by schools in Hong Kong are focused on academic achievements, there are several top international schools offering arts-based scholarships to students from Year 7 upwards. Harrow Hong Kong offers scholarships worth up to 20% of annual tuition fees for outstanding talent in art, drama, music, and sport from Year 9. Other schools offering arts scholarships include American School Hong Kong, Discovery Bay International School, Malvern College Hong Kong, ESF Discovery College, Victoria Shanghai Academy, Renaissance College, and Yew Chung International School of Hong Kong.
To read more about where to find scholarships at international schools in Hong Kong, click here.