‘Just possibly, it was going to be the saviour of the school’

Hilary Moriarty recalls her first experience of recruiting pupils from Hong Kong

I love Hong Kong. China, not so much, even after a couple of splendid trips to Hong Kong and China, on behalf of all the British boarding schools. If the younger me had had a bucket list of places I’d like to see before I popped my clogs, Hong Kong would have been pretty high up the list, where there was a tie between Hong Kong and New York.

In my early career, lecturing in English literature at FE colleges, I met students from HK for the first time (I remember none from Trinity College Dublin, and only one from my master’s course in Leicester). But actually getting to Hong Kong while doing ordinary things like holding down a job and raising a family in inflationary times – actually getting there seemed an unlikely dream.

In fact, my first trip to HK was courtesy of Goodyear Tyres. I won a competition you could only enter if you bought two tyres – a fortune at the time. I’ll skip the details, but the prize was a trip to the Australian Grand Prix, with stopovers in Hong Kong and Singapore.

That confirmed it – I loved Hong Kong. But it would be romance at a distance.

I believed at the time that I was unlikely ever to get back to the east – the distance, the cost, the family, no chance.

But life takes strange turns. At the final interview for my headship of a small day and boarding school for girls, I was asked what I would do to raise numbers in highly competitive territory, and especially in boarding.

My reply? Instant, confident and assured, if not original: “I would recruit in Hong Kong.”

And that’s what we did. Appointed at Easter, I was in Hong Kong in the autumn. The purpose of the visit was to spread the good word about the wonderful school I had just joined – near Heathrow, small and with bags of personal attention, small classes, horses, historic house, frequented by Wellington in his day. I would be manning a stand at a schools’ exhibition. But before that was the excitement of arriving and locating the stands for the exhibition, and the taxi to the hotel in hectic hair-raising traffic and oh, the view from the hotel window!

My head of marketing had booked me a room overlooking the Hong Kong strait, and it offered a breathtaking view across the strait to China. There. Right in front of me. A gift from the gods, and I, filled with the romances of Joseph Conrad in the South Seas. I, who was brought up in the absolute sticks of north Wales about as far, in every way, from Hong Kong as it was possible to be, had made it!

And I loved Hong Kong. And just possibly, it was going to be the saviour of the school in which I was now the head. It was the first route to invigorating our recruitment figures.

At the time, we had a very high value card to play in the competitive numbers game of recruiting: the school had no overseas boarders at all. A rare thing, even then, but true.

A Hong Kong mum and her daughter paused at our stand, with its huge pictures of wide-open spaces – a positive sales point in Hong Kong where blocks of flats towered and every inch of ground seemed, even then, to have been built upon.

Both mum and daughter asked: “How much space? How many acres? How many students? How many from Hong Kong?”. “None,” I reply.

Instant alert – “What do you mean, none?” I explain. The school and I are new to Hong Kong, this was our first recruiting trip. At the time, all our pupils were British.

They extend their hands to shake on their intention to come to my school just because there were no Chinese students there already. This parent wanted her daughter’s experience of an English education to be completely immersive – a British education, British culture and society, and most of all, language. Completely immersive, all-English speaking all the time, no sneaking off with a compatriot to speak the tongue of their childhood – that would defeat the purpose.

A Hong Kong mum and her daughter paused at our stand, with its huge pictures of wide-open spaces – a positive sales point in Hong Kong where blocks of flats towered and every inch of ground seemed, even then, to have been built upon

Concern for the acquiring of closely colloquial language was followed, of course, by excellence in the classroom, which is suggested by a school’s numbers in results season. Ironically, if the results in A-level maths and further maths are spectacular, a major reason will be the exam performances of these very youngsters coming from Hong Kong and China. It may look as if the maths department is just brilliant – and bravo if it is – but it may also be a consequence of their advanced students and their impressive grasp of maths in its many varieties.

There are few who would deny the value of the Chinese youngsters happily attending British boarding schools – at the last count, they accounted for 12,548 of the 27,765 international students attending British independent boarding schools (ISC Census 2020). Interestingly, the numbers coming from China have overtaken those coming from Hong Kong, at the last count, 7,513 from mainland China, and 5,035 from Hong Kong – and yes, I do have an idea of the difference in size of the two countries, but still.

More interesting than scrutinising the figures and noting the shifts and patterns with which boarding schools in particular have to contend, is to crystal ball gaze, in the light of recent political developments in China and Hong Kong.

As national director of the Boarding Schools’ Association, I was once asked to visit Hong Kong with high-level meetings arranged, including a session with a member of the Hong Kong parliament who was charm itself, but quietly sinister about the status of Hong Kong and the ‘one country, two systems’ solution to the differences between the political realities in Hong Kong and China.

“Two systems… you think they will last?” he asked. You have lost Hong Kong – not today, maybe not tomorrow, but China will have it back, and you will lose it. You British – you underestimate China. We have the capacity to play the long game. We will wait. And we will have Hong Kong back, under our laws.

That was then, and I felt both privileged to have heard it from what you could only call a reliable source, and alarmed – my politician was so kindly, so simply assured that the prodigal son would return. Not threatening at all, if anything, slightly amused by how much trust the British were prepared to put in a political document from years back. Who would care now if it simply fell apart? And what would they do to stop it?

In today’s uncertain times, and with virtually every news broadcast from Hong Kong, I fear for the people, for the place, for the connections to the outside western world. And for the schools whose boarding numbers, many from overseas, will surely fall. These are markets which have become essential to British boarding.

The kind of political upheaval currently being reported from China and Hong Kong almost puts the coronavirus in the shade.


Hilary Moriarty is an independent advisor for schools, a former head and former national director of The Boarding Schools’ Association.

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