When selecting a school for their child, which factor do you think influences parents the most: academic achievement or their child’s happiness?
I pondered this question when choosing a school for my own daughter. In Hong Kong, where I live, this issue is particularly important. In 2015, the Programme for International Student Assessment ranked Hong Kong students third lowest on a table of 15-year-olds’ sense of satisfaction with their lives; their average score of 6.5 (when asked to rate their life satisfaction on a scale of 0-10) compared unfavourably with the average among participating Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development countries, at 7.3.
So why are Hong Kong students among the least satisfied? Environmental factors to do with the school and an academic atmosphere that is suffocating students are to a large extent responsible. Hong Kong’s situation is perhaps a warning to the UK, as the latter becomes increasingly focused on academic outcomes, and amid efforts to replicate East Asian school systems.
Over the years, we have witnessed the rise of “tiger” mums and dads in Hong Kong – a term that refers to parents who place high expectations and pressure on their children, to the extent that the child’s wellbeing is overlooked. Seeing this and wanting to safeguard their children’s future in a competitive society, other parents then push their offspring to keep up with the learning pace of the “tiger” children.
This leads, for example, to parents enrolling their kids on various instrument and language courses, extracurricular activities and after-school tutorials.
Communicate with parents
Schools respond to this parental demand and bid for their attention by prioritising the academic over the pastoral – they think this is what parents want. Yet, when asked, academic attainment was not the most important thing that parents wanted for their children.
My team at the University of Hong Kong conducted a large-scale research project, from 2015-18, to study the general criteria used in parents’ selection of primary schools, as well as to gauge their underlying values in an Asian context. The study comprised 99 Hong Kong kindergartens and analysed more than 3,000 completed questionnaires from parents.
When asked to pick the most important criteria for selecting a primary school from a list of 16 options, parents ranked “teacher qualification and reputation” as their third priority, “school reputation/conduct” second and their “child’s happiness” first.
The thing parents wanted most was for their kids to be happy.
But, when forced to identify the single most important criterion, there was less than a 1 per cent difference between those who chose their child’s happiness and those who opted for the school’s academic reputation/discipline.
The study also reported on trends among parents from different socioeconomic groups. It identified an overall trend of the child-centred criteria being relatively less important among parents with higher income and educational levels. Academic-centred criteria are also relatively more important for parents with higher income. This means that wealthier parents are seeing academic achievement as being more important than their children’s happiness.
Why does this matter? The study has shown on the one hand that parents understand and believe that the child’s happiness is the most important criterion for them, but on the other hand, they are being influenced by the academic-driven environment of schools and the attitudes of tiger parents. If the child’s happiness is prioritised over academic achievement, they fear, then the future of the child, and possibly the reputation of the school that prioritises happiness, would be left in the dust. This could be described as a catch-22 environment, whereby the only solution to a tricky problem is denied by the circumstances inherent in the problem.
The result is too often a prioritisation in education provision of the academic, which then fuels further anxiety among parents that can deprioritise their child-centred values and cause even more focus on the academic. In an educational system that is competitive and has a heavy emphasis on examinations, schools tend to be academically focused in terms of resource allocation and teaching practices. You then get a dangerous cycle of inference and reaction.
In the UK, there is evidence that this pattern is being replicated. After years of league tables and an ever-tightening accountability system that prioritises academic outcomes, parents are morphing into the tiger mindset and UK schools are adopting the same academic prioritisation as their counterparts in HK.
Parents' dual expectations
How, then, should the problem be solved, to improve the welfare of Hong Kong students? How do we address the dual expectations of parents about academic attainment and holistic lifelong development for their children?
This study provides representative evidence from parents that child happiness remains the number one most-important criterion for parent selection. It blows open some of the misrepresentations of what parents prioritise. It’s important, then, that schools establish close and continuing communication with parents. If we do so, we can see what they truly value and begin to de-escalate the academic arms race.
Obviously, the elements contributing to a child’s happiness may vary from one individual to another, and based on differing school circumstances; for example, the solutions may variously be about fostering a caring school atmosphere, offering greater attention to individual needs or improving relationships with teachers and schoolmates.
Schools and parents should work together to address the needs of students to ensure their positive mental wellbeing. On top of academic progress, it is worth schools making an ongoing effort to understand and be responsive to the expectations and feedback of parents, as well as students.
Hong Kong has a long way to travel back from where it is now and achieve a balance, but the UK has not slipped as far. With some slight amendments, and a better relationship with parents, the situation in Hong Kong could be avoided.
Cecilia KY Chan is head of professional development and an associate professor at the Centre for the Enhancement of Teaching and Learning, the University of Hong Kong