Hong Kong has something to celebrate this summer. Twelve students from the SAR, out of the 109 students worldwide, earned perfect scores of 45 marks at this year's International Baccalaureate examination.
Students from the English Schools Foundation accounted for the lion's share with nine top scorers, up from four last year. Also, the pass rate of ESF students was 98 percent, beating a world average of 78 percent.
Unlike the exam-oriented A Levels, being successful in the IB requires years of dedication and nurturing because nonscholastic aspects, such as volunteering, count toward the final marks too.
"Everything starts at a very early stage so that students can be well prepared and attuned for studies in college," said ESF chief executive Heather Du Quesnay.
Students have to work in an extremely hard but positive environment, where competition and mutual help coexist. Meanwhile, mixed nationalities in the ESF bring Western critical thinking and Asian diligence under one roof.
Teachers have to put in significant effort to guide and mentor their students, setting specific targets at the beginning and along the way. "Students' relationship with their teachers is more of respect than reverence. They feel at ease to ask them for help," Du Quesnay said.
Chris Binge, principal of ESF Island School, which had one student earning a perfect score, emphasized the importance of "good guidance that helps a student enter the right subject."
"Supervisors follow students from the very beginning. The staff who guide them know each student's interests extremely well," he said, pointing to the house system adopted by Island School.
A student entering the school will be put into one of six houses, allowing for continued pastoral care and guidance.
The value of IB studies is the cultivation of a "responsible learning" mentality, he said.
As IB requires students to apply what they learn in the classroom, they must be proactive in stepping out of the classroom and working on projects that can stretch over months. "It is a preparation for their future studies, so that they won't get a shock during their early years in college," the principal said.
Edward Tam Yuk-wang, one of the top scorers from the ESF's King George V School, believes that time spent outside the classroom was crucial in developing his identity.
"The school organizes a range of activities for students, such as the Challenge Week. I went to places like Shijiazhuang in China and Burma. Through these experiences, I learned the value of serving people," Tam said.
He believes that the IB is not about last-minute preparation but rather a sustained work ethic over two years.
The teachers are very supportive by making themselves available to answer students' questions. For their part students formed study groups to challenge and help one another, Tam recalled.
Sarah Chan Sze-wun, another top scorer from the ESF's Sha Tin College, believes that "it is never too early to start your preparation."
Leaving study notes until the night before the exam is absolutely not a solution, said Chan, who made a timetable to periodically refresh her memory. "The past two years taught me to be sociable as well as think critically and creatively. These skills will be handy when I start college."
Since she has strong feelings about feminism, Chan chose American writer and poet Sylvia Plath's novel The Bell Jar as the subject of her 4,000-word essay.
Ronald Yip Kwun-ching, a graduate of ESF's South Island School will be studying maths at Imperial College London.
He was impressed by the commitment shown by his English teacher.
"He encouraged us to write more essays and marked every paper very carefully even though he had other classes to teach," Yip recalled.
He said the IB studies allowed him many enriching and enlightening experiences, like teaching English to children and attending to the elderly.
"It helps students become international citizens and makes us think about how to give back to society."