The Hong Kong Education System Explained

Reading Time: 8 minutesAre you feeling confused by the education options in Hong Kong? Check out our overview of the Hong Kong education system below. 

Whether you’re new to Hong Kong or a long-term resident, as a parent you’ll eventually face a decision about which school is best suited to your child. With the myriad of options available, parents often struggle to make this choice and must determine their preference for a local or international learning style, the amount of emphasis on each language of instruction, which curriculum to follow as well as a budget. School location and facilities may also be a consideration. Aside from all of this, the application procedures and selection process for Hong Kong schools can feel daunting. Below are some general guidelines to help you better understand how to navigate the Hong Kong education system.

Hong Kong students studying in class

INTERNATIONAL SCHOOLS

International schools offer a depth and breadth to their teaching that is considered invaluable by students who want to eventually study abroad and to a standard recognised worldwide. Across the more than 80 international schools in Hong Kong (with new schools opening each year), English broadly remains as the primary language of instruction with Mandarin as a second language. The curriculum offered in most international schools is the International Baccalaureate (IB) but UK, US, French, German, Australian and others are also available. 

While these schools are typically the most expensive option, they do tend to have large campuses with sports grounds, open spaces and other attractive facilities. Tuition fees range from the more affordable to the quite expensive with some schools offering ‘debentures’ (on-off fees in return for guaranteed school places). Priority may also be given to siblings of existing students, children of staff, or children of certain nationalities. 

Shrewsbury International School Hong Kong
Shrewsbury International School Hong Kong

Application procedure

The registration, application, interview and admission processes are individual to each establishment and parents are broadly advised to lodge applications for a number of schools at the same time to ensure their child gets a spot. It is common to start the application process a year or more in advance. As a parent you’ll want to be aware of the application landscape with your schools of choice and log the key dates in your diary as early as possible. Remember, don’t be afraid to get in touch with the Admissions teams at the schools – they are well versed in answering questions from anxious parents!

In terms of how applicants are ranked, it’s good to be aware that certain nationalities receive priorities at particular schools; for example German, Swiss and Austrian nationals are favoured by the German Swiss International School. A corporate debenture also gives applicants an advantage, as does sibling priority (when one of your children is already a pupil at the school). Parents who are alumni of the school may also take priority at some schools. 

Once the application process is complete, your child may be invited to attend an interview at the school. Entrance interviews normally take place in the first or second quarter of the year of admission, but timing may vary by school. Interviews are designed to assess your child’s social adaptability, academic and language abilities and potential comfort within the school environment. Occasionally, schools will also speak to parents before making their final decision. 

International Montessori School HK
The International Montessori School Hong Kong

THE ENGLISH SCHOOLS FOUNDATION

ESF is the largest international school organisation in Hong Kong. Today, ESF boasts over 17,000 pupils, with 22 international schools, catering to over 60 nationalities. The curriculum, leading to either the BTEC or International Baccalaureate (IB) diploma, has been adapted to Hong Kong and the Asia Pacific region. ESF currently operates five secondary schools, nine primary schools, two “all-through” private independent schools and a school for children with special educational needs – as well as five kindergartens.

ESF-Peak-School-1
Peak School

Whilst still wholly competitively priced, parents have to pay a nonrefundable capital levy, similar to that of many of the other international schools. ESF’s admission process is non-selective, focusing primarily upon the child’s English language skills and ability to benefit from an English-medium education. As detailed on their website, ESF applicants are given priority based upon the following criteria: 

  1. Purchase of a corporate nomination right; 
  2. Children of full-time teaching staff at ESF or ESF Educational Services Ltd; 
  3. Children of full-time support staff at ESF or ESF Educational Services Ltd 
  4. Siblings of students already enrolled in an ESF school; 
  5. Purchase of an individual nomination right; 
  6. Current students requesting internal transfer; 
  7. Children of former students who attended an ESF school for at least three years, or are former ESF students returning from overseas or siblings of former students who have attended for a minimum of three years and graduated from an ESF school in Year 13; 
  8. Children attending ESF Kindergarten* 
  9. Children nominees from universities with collaboration agreements with ESF; and 
  10. Other applicants who can benefit from an English medium education.

As detailed, ESF run two types of Nomination Rights Schemes: Individual and Corporate – for full details of the issuance and pricing details of the schemes, please visit the ESF website.

Island School

Application Procedure

Central online applications for ESF schools take place during September in the year before the child is due to start school. Applicants may apply to only one ESF school in the family’s catchment area, and one or both of the ESF private independent schools, which both operate their own application procedure. The appropriate application form for ESF public schools must be submitted on the ESF website along with payment of a non-refundable application fee (HK$2,000). 

All supporting documentation, such as copies of recent school reports, reference letters, etc, must be sent directly to the school in the zone of application. Full details of all the documentation required is detailed on the ESF website along with a set of accompanying application guidelines. 

Applications submitted before the deadline are processed in random order, so there is no advantage to submitting an early application. However, applicants applying after the deadline will find it in their best interests to submit as soon as possible – late applications are placed on a waiting list and prioritised according to the date on which they are received. 

Families are invited by letter for interviews around January of the following year. Those not selected at this stage will be placed on a waiting list for a possible second round of interviews. Parents are informed within approximately three weeks post interview as to whether their child has been offered a school place. Initial deposits must be paid upon acceptance. Those not initially offered a place will be put on a waiting list.

* Children who attend an ESF Kindergarten will receive priority for an entrance interview at an ESF school for Year 1 applications. A priority for interview will also be given at Discovery and Renaissance Colleges

Students and teacher at ESF Tung Chung International Kindergarten
ESF Tung Chung International Kindergarten

LOCAL SCHOOLS

Recent years have seen increasing amounts of expatriate families considering the local school system. The clear advantage of which is language acquisition. With China’s growing importance in the global economy, it is clear that the ability to speak Chinese will give children a competitive edge when they eventually enter the job market. 

There are local schools that use English for the medium of instruction but also teach Chinese to a near-native level. Local school fees are usually lower than those of their international counterparts, providing another advantage for many parents. However, those seriously considering applying to local schools should be very aware of the high-pressure environment and heavy workload that tends to be featured in many local schools. It’s also commonplace for children to seek extra tuition to keep the pace with their classmates and to spend long hours on their homework. 

Hong Kong local school students walking down street

Local schools fall into various categories based upon the amount of Government funding they receive:

  • Fully Funded Government Schools – These are wholly owned and financed by the Government and run by the Education Department.
  • Aided Schools – These constitute the bulk of the local school sector. Many occupy Government sites but are run by independent organisations and have part of their costs met by the Government, based upon fixed teacher/pupil and pupil/ class ratios. A number are owned and run by charitable and religious organisations, the most common one being the Hong Kong Anglican Church.
  • Direct Subsidy Schools (DSS)* – Created in 1991, this category of schools aims towards high educational standards. These schools receive a government subsidy equivalent to that provided on a per unit basis for aided schools but adjusted on a sliding scale linked to the top-up fees charged. The schools have great flexibility in deploying resources and are able to design their own curriculum within the local curriculum and have full discretion on entrance criteria and admissions.
  • Private Independent Schools* – Schools in this category provide a similar structure to that of the international schools but with a bilingual approach. For schools such as the Independent Schools Foundation Academy and Yew Chung International School, the primary language is Putonghua, but the focus is firmly upon combining eastern and western culture and values.

Learn more: Education-related Schemes and Funds in Hong Kong

Yew Chung International School students in playground
Yew Chung International School (YCIS)

Application Procedure

Applications for local schools are open to any child with the right of abode in Hong Kong and who will be at least five years and eight months of age on 1st September on the year of admission to Primary one. Admission for both categories of local schools occurs in two stages. 

Schools generally fill half of the available spaces in the first stage, which occurs in the autumn before the child is due to start school. In this first stage, parents apply for what’s known as ‘Discretionary Place Admission’ to a single school of their choice, which need not be in their catchment area. Sixty percent of the places available are given to applicants who already have a sibling attending or a parent working at that school. The remaining 40 percent of places are awarded according to a points-based system. 

Applicants are awarded points based upon a set of criteria, which includes being the first-born of a family, or sharing the same religion as the school, for example. Once awarded, families have to immediately decide whether or not to accept the place. 

YMCA of Hong Kong Christian College students on computers

Stage two takes place in January or February of the year of actual admission. In this central application stage, parents visit an allocation centre to submit a list of schools in order of their preference. It is recommended that applicants select schools within the family’s catchment area since schools generally only allocate five percent of available places to Central Allocation applicants outside their catchment area, and the chances of obtaining these places are generally agreed to be very slim. Families who apply at stage two must wait until June to hear if (and where) their child has been offered a place. If applicants are not successful at this stage, a round of fevered door knocking must commence – all applicants will be offered a place, it is just a question of where.

*Application and admission to DSS and Private Independent Schools varies greatly from school to school and is at the discretion of individual schools. The process generally requires submission of an application form, followed by one or two rounds of interviews. Many DSS schools impose written texts. For details, parents should visit the websites of the schools of their interest.

students studying under Hong Kong education system

CURRICULUM CHOICES IN HONG KONG

The curricula available in Hong Kong falls broadly into five basic models:

The International Baccalaureate (IB)

The globally accepted IB diploma is currently available in some international schools, all ESF schools (to varying levels) and some local private schools. Some schools offer this throughout primary and secondary education, whilst others just at upper levels. Offering what some consider a more rigorous and balanced approach compared with that of the UK’s A-Level system, the IB requires students to study six subjects, including their own language, a second language, mathematics, a science and one subject from humanities and an art or other subject of choice. Three of these subjects are studied in greater depth, broadly equivalent to the current UK A-levels, and three at standard level. Students also study a philosophy-related course, known as Theory of Knowledge, conduct an independent research project culminating in a 4,000-word essay and spend at least one afternoon per week on activities that come under the heading of Creativity, Action and Service (CAS).

Read more: IB or not IB?

The UK National Curriculum

The UK (or UK adjusted) curriculum has been adopted by many international schools in Hong Kong, such as Nord Anglia International School and Kellett. The curriculum has led to the prominence of General Certificate of Secondary Education (GCSE) (or IGCSE’s commonly offered in international schools) and Advance Levels (A-Level) examinations.

The US Curriculum

The US-based curriculum leads most directly to further education at North American colleges and universities. Hong Kong based schools offering such curricula include the Stamford American School Hong Kong (who offer the American High School Diploma as well as the IB Diploma Programme), Hong Kong International School and several others.

The New South Wales Curriculum

The Australian International School of Hong Kong offers the New South Wales curriculum – the School Certificate (SC) and the Higher School Certificate (HSC) – alongside the IB Diploma Programme.

The Hong Kong Curriculum

The Hong Kong curriculum is broadly modelled on that of the UK and culminates in students studying towards the Hong Kong diploma of Secondary Education, which in terms of academic achievement, is comparable to other internationally recognised high school leaving examinations such as the IB Diploma and UK A-Levels.

The Hong Kong school system can feel complex but rest assured, hundreds of thousands of children throughout the territory are already thriving in it. With a bit of patience (and lots of deep breaths) you are highly likely to find a good fit for your family too.

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