Navigating the Hong Kong education system

    Playtimes HK - Hong Kong education system

    Whether you’re new to Hong Kong or a long-term resident, if you’re a parent you’ll probably spend countless hours contemplating which school is right for your children. With myriad options available, parents need to choose the type of curriculum best suited to their child, whether they prefer a local or international learning style and the amount of emphasis on each language of instruction, all while keeping budget in mind. On top of all of this complexity, application procedures and the selection process for Hong Kong schools can appear daunting. Here are some general facts to guide you through the system. Schools in Hong Kong fall into several categories:


    The history of international schools in Hong Kong has been a colourful one. Interest groups, such as the Catholic Church and the Anglican Church, initially set up schools to satisfy the need to provide an English language-based education for Hong Kong residents. The first of the schools to be generally considered international were started in the 1960s and included the German Swiss and French International schools. The Hong Kong International School, which offers a US-based syllabus and was begun by the Lutheran Church Missouri Synod, followed in 1966.

    During Hong Kong’s boom years in the 1980s and 1990s, there was an explosion in the number of international schools serving most major groups of foreign residents and Chinese returnees. These included nationally based schools such as the Singaporean International School, and religious schools such as the Carmel School offering Jewish and international streams. The Chinese International School broke new ground in 1983 as the first to emphasise Mandarin/English bilingualism. This philosophy is also adopted by Hong Lok Yuen International School and Yew Chung International School, while the Sir Ellis Kadoorie School provides teaching in Hindi and Urdu. In 1986, the American International School opened, offering an American curriculum and AP (advanced placement) courses. The Norwegian International School was founded in 1991 by the Norwegian Mission Society and Lutheran Mission to teach children of missionaries. Then, all classes were taught in Norwegian, but today they offer a Christian North American curriculum taught in English.

    Like many of the international schools, the German Swiss International School (GSIS) operates a dual system teaching both a UK and German curriculum, while the French International School teaches a syllabus fixed by the Ministry of French National Education in the French stream, and a syllabus set by the Hong Kong Education Department in its International stream. This teaching of a national syllabus in many cases leads to support or subsidies for the schools from their home governments.

    English remains the primary medium of instruction. Nevertheless, with the aim to provide education for truly international families who cannot access local schools, certain international schools such as Hong Lok Yuen International School and Kellett School (The British International School in Hong Kong) may accept students with non-native-level English, providing personal tutoring in English as an Additional Language (EAL).

    International schools, typically the most expensive option, provide a depth and breadth to the Hong Kong education sector that is considered invaluable by students who want to study abroad and to a standard that is recognised worldwide.

    Application procedure

    Places at international schools are in high demand – there are generally long waiting lists and applying involves a competitive interview process. Many parents who have particular schools in mind apply at birth or at the earliest times these schools accept applications, placing their children’s names on several waiting lists, which results in many schools being oversubscribed. Because some families change their preferences before interviews come around, some leave the country and some children do not pass the rigorous interviews, many schools invite all students on their waiting list for an interview. However, the application, interview and admission processes vary by school, and since there are no guaranteed placements, parents are advised to lodge applications for a number of schools at the same time.

    Interviews at international schools are designed to assess the applicant’s social adaptability, academic prowess and potential comfort in a school environment where expectations are high. Occasionally, schools will also ask to speak to parents before making a decision. Certain nationalities receive priority at particular schools; for example, German, Swiss and Austrian nationals are favoured by the GSIS. A corporate debenture also gives applicants an advantage, along with having siblings at, or parents
    who are alumni of, the school.

    Interviews generally take place in the first or second quarter of the year of admission, but timing varies from school to school and navigating the various timelines of the schools of choice for each family is crucial in managing the application process and securing a place.


    The increasing demand for a separation of fluent English speakers from their contemporaries led the Hong Kong Government to introduce the English Schools Foundation Ordinance in 1967. This ordinance created essentially autonomous, government-aided schools teaching a UK-based curriculum for the children of resident foreigners who required an education taught in English. This original focus on native or near-native English speakers was later adapted to allow entry to any child who could benefit from an English-based system – a decision that has resulted in a large expansion of schools and student numbers. Today, 17,000 children from all backgrounds and levels of academic achievement are enrolled in ESF schools: about 70 per cent of ESF students have parents who are permanent residents of Hong Kong. Today, the curriculum, leading to the International Baccalaureate (IB), is adapted to Hong Kong and the Asia Pacific region. ESF is the largest institution responsible for educating children in an English-language system in Asia.   

    ESF currently operates five secondary schools, nine primary schools and a school for students with special needs. Two “all through” Private Independent Schools and four kindergartens, with a fifth opening in August 2016 in Tung Chung, are operated by ESF’s affiliated company, ESF Educational Services Limited, which also offers English language classes and sports activities.

    With the exception of the two ESF Private Independent Schools, ESF schools have traditionally been subsidised by the Hong Kong government. This has meant that the fees at ESF schools were more affordable than at many international schools. However, in 2013, the government voted to phase out the subsidy, effective from the 2016/17 school year, leaving open questions about future tuition costs.

    In the 2015/16, the primary school fees for most ESF locations will be HK$78,700 per annum*; and for secondary schools, they will be HK$110,600 per annum* for years 7 to 11, and HK$116,200 per annum*. For Discovery College, ESF’s Private Independent School, the fees will be HK$101,700 per annum for Primary students, for years 1 to 6, plus a non-refundable building levy of HK$5,900; HK$136,000 per annum for Secondary students, for years 7 to 11,  plus a non-refundable building levy of HK$5,900; and HK$137, 500 per annum for Secondary students, for years 12 and 13, plus a non-refundable building levy of HK$5,900*. For Renaissance College, the fees will be HK$98, 900 per annum, for Primary students, years 1 to 6, HK$132,400 per annum, for Secondary students, years 7 to 11, HK$133,900 per annum, for Secondary students years 12 and 13*. For Abacus (English class), Hillside, Tsing Yi, Wu Kai Sha, the fees will be HK$ 68,000 per annum* and for Abacus (bilingual class), the fees will be HK$78, 000 per annum*. For the five ESF secondary schools, the nine ESF primary schools and Jockey Club Sarah Roe School, the Refundable Capital Levy will be replaced by the Non-refundable Capital Levy starting from August 2015 which is HK$38,000 for Year 1 students, and then reduced on a sliding scale for those who are joining Years 2 to 13; for Discovery College, the Non-refundable Building Levy payable by all new incoming Year 1 students is HK$50,000. New students entering Year 2 to Year 12 will be required to pay a pro-rated contribution.

    ESF’s admission process emphasises the actual testing of the children’s English language proficiency, and on verifying the parents’ commitment to an ESF-style English medium education through a parental statement and interview.

    As detailed on the ESF website, the priority for an interview or assessment under the admissions policy is based on the following criteria: students who are able to benefit from an English medium education and who are:

    1. Corporate Nomination Rights Nominees;

    2. Children of full-time staff at ESF or ESF Educational Services Ltd;

    3. Siblings of students already attending an ESF primary or secondary school or Jockey Club Sarah Roe School;

    4. Individual Nomination Rights Nominees;

    5. Children of former students who have attended an ESF school for a minimum of 3 years or are former ESF students returning from a period overseas;

    6. Children attending an ESF International Kindergarten#

    7. Other applicants who can benefit from an English-medium education.

    Children who attend an ESF International Kindergarten will receive priority for interview at an ESF school, for Year 1 central applications made in September 2014 and for applications made in subsequent years. Priority for interview is subject to having attended kindergarten for a minimum of two terms prior to the applicable January Year 1 interview period. (Students recently arrived from overseas are exempt from the two terms requirement. Students graduating from K2 in the first year of operation of the new Tung Chang kindergarten are also exempt.) A priority for interview will also be given at Discovery College and Renaissance College.

    There are two kinds of Nominations Rights Scheme: the Individual and Corporate Nomination Rights (NR) Schemes. For more details, visit

    1. The Individual NR is priced at HK$500,000 per student. A maximum of 150 Individual Nomination Rights will be issued each year.
    2. The Corporate NR is available for purchase by companies. Only a small number of CNR will be issued per year.
    Application procedure

    Central online applications for ESF schools take place during the month of September in the year before the child is due to start school. Applicants may apply to only one public ESF school in the family’s catchment area and one or both of the ESF Private Independent Schools, which operate under separate application procedures. The appropriate application for the public ESF schools must be submitted on the ESF website along with the non-refundable HK$2,000 application fee, while supporting documents are to be submitted directly to the school in question. These include the acknowledgement slips for the online application, recent photographs of the child, copies of recent school reports and reference letters,  copies of the child’s and parents’ passports showing visa status (or identity cards if applicable), as well as proof of address.  Applications submitted before the deadline are processed in random order, so there is no advantage to submitting an early application. However, applicant applying after 30 September deadline will find it in their best interest to submit an application as soon as possible, since late applications are placed on a waiting list and prioritised according to the date they are received.

    Families are invited by letter for interviews around January of the following year. Those not selected will be placed on a waiting list for a possible second round of interviews. The interviews are designed to ensure that the child can communicate reasonably well in English and integrate socially, rather than an academic test, and also to measure the parents’ commitment to the ESF-style programme. Parents are informed whether their child has been accepted within three weeks of the interview, and must pay a deposit to accept a place. Those not offered a place will be put on another waiting list.

    *All fees are subject to final approval by the Education Bureau.
    # Note: contingent upon the child studying in the kindergarten continuously until the end of term 3 prior to entry into primary school


    When making that all-important decision of which school to pick, more and more expatriate families are considering the local system. The clear advantage of sending your child to a local school 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. All too often, a couple of lessons a week are not enough for a child to develop a good command of either Cantonese or Mandarin. Many families are thus opting for local schools that use English as the medium of instruction but also teach Chinese to a near-native level. Attending a well-known local school is also a great way for children to integrate better into local society and make connections that may serve them well in the future. Furthermore, the lower fees provide a clear attraction for many parents.

    On the downside, many parents complain about the high-pressure environment and heavy workload. Extra tuition is often required just to keep up, and parents are expected to devote long hours to overseeing homework. This can pose obvious problems for non-Chinese-speaking parents. There is little time for play and if your child is not academically inclined, low grades and the possibility of having to repeat years can lead to a loss of self-esteem.

    Local schools fall into various categories based on 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 sector. Many occupy Government sites but are run by independent organisations and have part of their costs met by the Government based on 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.

    Application procedure

    Admission for Fully Funded Government and Aided Schools occurs in two stages, where schools generally fill half the available spaces in the first stage. This occurs in the autumn before the child is due to start school. In this first stage, parents apply for Discretionary Place Admission to a single school of their choice, which need not be in their catchment area. Sixty per cent of the places available at this stage go to applicants who already have a sibling studying or a parent working at that particular school. The remaining 40 per cent are awarded according to a points system. Applicants are awarded points based on a set of criteria that includes being the firstborn or sharing the same religion as the school. Once awarded a place, families have to decide immediately whether or not to accept.

    Stage two takes place in January or February of the year students are due to start. In this Central Allocation stage, parents visit an allocation centre to submit a list of desired schools in order of preference. Government computers decide on allocations, ostensibly at random, although rumours to the contrary abound. It is recommended that applicants select schools within the family’s catchment area, since schools generally allocate only five per cent 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, then fevered door-knocking must commence. At the end of the day, all applicants will be offered a place – it is just a question of where.

    • Direct Subsidy Schools (DSS)

    Created in 1991, this category of schools aims towards high educational standards. These schools receive a 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.

    • Local Private Schools

    Since 1999, this category includes Private Independent Schools (PIS), which together with local private schools, may be eligible for certain land grants and interest-free loans. PIS schools are also entitled to receive certain capital grants for construction, although the sponsoring body must meet the running costs. In order to qualify as a PIS, at least 70 per cent of the students must be local. Both PIS and other local private schools have a large level of autonomy over curricula and fees.

    Application procedure

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


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

    1. The International Baccalaureate (IB) Diploma is accepted by many universities around the world, and is currently available in some international schools, all ESF establishments at varying levels, and some local private schools. Some schools offer this throughout primary and secondary education, whilst others just at the upper levels.

    Offering what some consider a more rigorous and balanced approach than the UK’s A-Levels, the IB is being adopted by an increasing number of international schools in Hong Kong. It requires students to take six subjects, which include their own language, a second language, mathematics, a science, one of the humanities and an art or other subject of their own choice. Three of these subjects are studied in greater depth, broadly equivalent to the current British 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, known as CAS. The breadth of subjects studied, the Theory of Knowledge course, having to write an extended essay and CAS activities are what set the IB apart from most other courses.

    2. The UK (or UK adjusted) curriculum has been adopted by many international schools in Hong Kong. This curriculum has led to the prominence of General Certificate of Secondary Education (GCSE) and Advanced Level (A-Level) examinations.

    3. The US curriculum leads most directly to further education at North American colleges and universities. Examinations taken often include the SATs.

    4. The Australian curriculum offers the School Certificate (SC) and the Higher School Certificate (HSC).

    5. The Hong Kong curriculum is a domestic version of the UK curriculum. Previously, it offered two public exams, the Hong Kong Certificate of Education Examination (HKCEE), equivalent to the UK’s GCSEs or O-levels examinations, and the Hong Kong Advanced Level Examination (HKALE), equivalent to the UK’s A-levels. After the 2007 Education Reform, students now take one public exam, the Hong Kong Diploma in Secondary Education (HKDSE), just before entering university.

    The system can seem complex and intimidating at first. But, rest assured, hundreds of thousands of children throughout Hong Kong are already thriving in it. With a bit of patience, you’re likely to find a good fit for your family, too.


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