You arrive at the airport with only the minimum amount of time to spare in order to sweep through check-in and security before making it to your gate just as boarding begins. But there’s no concern as everything is well practiced: you’re leaving from a terminal you know well and to a route that you regularly travel on. Toiletries are pre-packed in a clear pouch, shoes are slip-ons and your laptop is in an easy-to-access pocket. You get out of the car, proud of the inevitable efficiencies that you — the experienced traveller — have learnt over the years and then it hits you: the school summer holidays have started. All well-laid plans are out the window. The next hour of your life will involve screaming toddlers, stressed parents and pushchairs that just refuse to fold down. Serves you right for being so efficient.
Airports are always hectic at this time of year; full of groups of teens in matching shirts off on a sports tour, unpracticed corporate fathers deesperately trying to get their small offspring to behave through the fast-track security lines and sun-seeking families who seem to have packed everything but the swimming pool itself. But board a flight from the UK to Hong Kong at this time of year and you’ll spot another breed of summer holiday traveller—the unaccompanied adolescent making their way home from boarding school to their families on the other side of the world.
Unlike the case a couple of decades ago, these travelling teens aren’t simply the children of expatriates being educated in a parent’s alma mater. Today, around 30 per cent of overseas students in British boarding schools are from Hong Kong and mainland China. A few months ago, a poll was conducted that showed more than half of the middle-class mainland Chinese people surveyed were hoping to send their children to school overseas. The number thinking the same in Hong Kong was just under 40 per cent.
The issue isn’t simply to do with the benefits of school in the UK or US. It’s more about a critique of the standard of education on offer in Hong Kong. While often highly ranked in global academic tables, schools are frequently criticised for their inflexible and mechanical approach to learning. Hong Kong kids are notoriously overworked, enduring hours of tutoring after school and into weekends with little time to play or explore creative hobbies. Schooling is highly focused on getting through exams and parents easily fall into the trap of upping a child’s workload if it looks like their classmates are doing more. The result is a generation that is both exhausted and uninspired.
While the teenagers making their way home to Hong Kong over the last couple of weeks are likely well-received by the bursars of the boarding schools they attend, their semi-annual commute shouldn’t involved thousands of miles simply in the search of a well-rounded education.
Aisha Speirs is Monocle’s Hong Kong bureau chief.