This learning path at this Hong Kong Island secondary school combines IGCSEs and the IBDP with an innovative and unique curriculum that gives students a huge degree of choice.
An education at Island School goes beyond traditional sit-down lessons and end of year exams. As well as offering IGCSEs, the International Baccalaureate Diploma Programme, and BTEC courses, this English Schools Foundation (ESF) secondary school has developed its own flexible curriculum. Students are given a choice of more than 50 courses, the opportunity to personalise the curriculum, and the freedom to plan their own timetable. While all ESF schools have made changes since switching from the National Curriculum for England to the IB programme in 2001, Island School is certainly leading the way in innovation.
Established in 1967, Island School was the founding school of the ESF. Today, this popular school in Hong Kong’s Mid-Levels teaches roughly 1,200 students across 33 nationalities. The school’s tired-looking 45-year-old campus on Borrett Road, Hong Kong Island is currently being redeveloped and, from August 2017 to August 2021, students are being temporarily relocated to sites in Sha Tin in the New Territories. This is a 30 to 40-minute drive away from the existing campus and a 90-minute journey on the MTR; parents have raised concerns about the extended journey times to and from the temporary school sites.
The light at the end of the tunnel, though, is that the move will result in a state-of-the-art campus that matches the school’s modern teaching methods. Built over eight floors, the new school will include a performing arts centres, indoor swimming pool, sports hall and basketball courts, science labs, sky gardens, creative studios, and a cafe.
While the Borrett Road campus is being redeveloped, Years 7 to 8 and 12 to 13 have been moved to the temporary Sha Tin Wai campus at the Pok Hong Estate. Year 9 to 11 are at the temporary Tai Wai campus at the Sun Chui Estate.
During this time, the school has taken several steps to try and minimise the upheaval and disruption to students. There is one lesson set aside for students from both campuses to meet and take part in house competitions, and additional heads of house will offer pastoral care.
The two temporary campuses are adjoined to existing secondary schools, and the school admits that there is a lack of outdoor space and sporting facilities; students will have to use external facilities such as sports pitches, all within walking distance.
Island School’s fresh approach to education starts in Years 7 and 8 with Island Time. Nearly one day every week is given over to Island Time, which the school describes as “an island of activities in the centre of the curriculum”. As well as teaching the core subjects, humanities, music, drama, visual arts, design, textiles, food technology, and PE, the school focuses on practical learning experiences that involve plenty of group work, outside speakers, and field trips. The idea is to make learning “joyful” and to let children be children; students even wear a more relaxed Island Time tracksuit on this day. Judging by the feedback from students on the school’s website, Island Time is the most popular day on the timetable.
Years 9 to 11 move onto the Island Futures programme. Introduced in 2011, this unique curriculum focuses on four key areas. The bulk of the curriculum is devoted to Entrance courses, which follow the IGCSE curricula and lead to qualifications in each subject. That all sounds pretty standard; however, whereas in previous years students might have studied 10 to 13 IGCSEs, they are now encouraged to do just 8 or 9. The school argues that “the qualifications are not particularly valuable, although the experience may well be”. This is true for anyone going on to study the IBDP, but less so for students planning to take A Levels, so consider your options carefully.
Less time spent on IGCSEs means more time for the rest of the Island Futures programme. Perhaps the most interesting and popular part is Elements. Around a quarter of the timetable is dedicated to these courses that are designed to “ignite passion” in students. It comes across as a far more relaxed style of education with no exams at the end.
More than 50 courses cover a wide range of areas such as architecture, marine biology, robotics, Morse code, debating, law, and acting. Examples include History – Film, Food, and Fashion, where students go from making dishes influenced by British Rule to designing Roman weapons for battle re-enactments and visiting museums. Fish are Friends involves learning to scuba dive and taking surveys of marine life, and Community Theatre invites students to write, produce, and perform a piece of community theatre.
What’s really appealing about these Elements courses is that they are written by the teachers themselves, based on their particular passions and fields of expertise. It suggests that these courses will be taught with an enormous degree of enthusiasm. Also, in the words of one student, “by choosing what we want to learn, we are interested and involved in learning”.
Island Futures also includes Explorations, a compulsory course that leads to the IGCSE in Global Perspectives and the IE Award in ICT. Last but not least, the Escape element gets students moving with a range of sports, including yoga, zumba, cross fit, spinning, Thai boxing, and Outward Bound activities.
Senior Phase Learning
In Years 12 and 13 students choose to study the IBDP or the Applied Learning Pathway, with a mixture of IB and BTEC subjects. Once again, the education at Island School is focused on much more than academia. As part of the Senior Phase Learning programme, students take on various leadership roles and community projects. They hone their leadership skills as a school prefect, on the student union, or as a member of the Student Learning Advisory team. They organise and manage sporting, humanitarian, creative, and environmental events, and they lead school events such as the Year 7 and 8 camps.
While it is wonderful to see senior students acting as role models for the rest of the school, are they achieving results on paper as well? According to the most recent IBDP results, yes. In 2019, the average IB score was 35.8 points, with 28% of students achieving more than 40 points; these are both way above the global average.
• Average score: 35.8
• Pass rate: 98%
• Top score: 45
• No. students scored 40 points and above: 28%
• No. students scored 35 points and above: 57%
• No. students scored 30 points and above: 89%
The Islanders’ way
You get the feeling that there’s a wonderful sense of belonging to this school and, long after leaving, students are known to still fondly call themselves Islanders. This is largely thanks to the house system at Island School, which is referred to as the spirit of the school. The houses seem to become an important friendship group from the early years, when students are taught in house groups for Island Time and other sessions. Houses also meet for various sporting, artistic, and academic activities throughout the year, and each house supports its own charity and organises an annual community event such as Einstein’s Valentine’s Week and Da Vinci Day.
There’s a strong focus on teamwork within the school, from its programme of varied extra-curricular activities to The Typhoons, which fields competitive teams in 18 sports ranging from athletics to volleyball, fencing to rowing. Non-sporting activities include the Model United Nations, Wanbo environmental club, and a social justice group. Every October the school runs Quest Week, which takes learning beyond the classroom and into residential camps, 3D game development, bike rides, and hands-on work with abandoned pets.
Once completed, the new Borrett Road campus will feature an eight-storey building with classrooms, a performing arts centre, an indoor swimming pool, a sports hall, basketball courts, modern labs, sky gardens, a cafe, innovative learning environments, and creative studios.
Admission and fees
To apply for admission to Island School, parents should live in Hong Kong Island Mid-Levels (including Kennedy Road west of the Hopewell Centre), Old Peak Road, Conduit Road and Robinson Road as far as Castle Road, some of Central District served by Glenealy School and the Peak; Discovery Bay (shared with West Island School); Tsing Yi Island; West Kowloon bordered by Ferry Street and Tong Mi Road to Lai Chi Kok Road; North of Boundary Street and west of Tai Po Road, extending west to Tuen Mun except for the area of Tsuen Wan that is part of Sha Tin College zone.
As with all ESF schools, there is a waitlist for many year groups, but Island School does have more places available than most in Years 8, 9, 10, and 12.
The ESF sets standard fees for all its secondary schools, which is HKD 128,400 for Years 7 to 11 and HKD 135,000 for Years 12 to 13. There is also a one-off non-refundable capital levy (NCL) which starts at HKD 26,000 in Year 7 and reduces to HKD 3,800 in Year 13. While ESF schools are not as cheap as they used to be, they still offer a more affordable education when compared to most international schools in Hong Kong.
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