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Hong Kong's schooling system: everything you need to know

By Talk Education
22 September 2021

Thinking of moving to Hong Kong? Here’s everything you need to know about its education system.

OVERVIEW

Schooling in Hong Kong is complex: there’s no clean split between local and international schools, and there are many different nuances of public and private schools. However, there is one common factor: education in Hong Kong is of a universally high standard. 

Hong Kong’s school system is roughly split up into three main categories:

  • Local public schools. These make up the majority of schools in Hong Kong, and include 12 years of free schooling from 6-18 (which is compulsory up until the age of 15. Local schools include government and aided schools (run by charities or religious organisations), which are fully funded by the government and follow the Hong Kong curriculum; and Direct Subsidy Scheme (DSS) schools, which are part-funded by the government and follow the Hong Kong curriculum, with some flexibility to offer A-levels or the IB to a minority of pupils. 
  • Private schools (these fall into both the local and international school bracket). These schools receive some funding from the government. Most follow the Hong Kong curriculum, with some choosing to follow non-local curricula. 
  • International schools. These include: English Schools Foundation (ESF) schools (part-funded by the government, offering a non-local curriculum such as IGCSEs, the IB and BTECs); fully international schools (these receive no funding by the government, and there’s a set quota of the number of foreign and local passport-holders who can attend); and private independent schools (PIS) (no funding by the government; follow a non-local curriculum), which provide an alternative to public sector schools. At private independent schools, at least 70 per cent of pupils must be local.
International families can choose between both local and international schools. That said, most are put off public (and private) schools because they teach in Cantonese – and are notorious for their competitiveness. These schools also teach the New Security Law from as young as age six, as well as flag raising and singing the Chinese national anthem. 

Local pupils can attend international schools, but strict quotas set by the Education Bureau mean only up to a certain number of locals can enrol at each international school.


THE INTERNATIONAL-SCHOOLS MARKET: KEY POINTS

There are 54 international schools and seven private independent schools in Hong Kong, with new ones gradually emerging onto the scene.

The academic year tends to run from
August to June, and schools are split into terms or semesters accordingly. There are a few exceptions: the Australian International School, for example, runs on the southern hemisphere calendar from January to December across four terms. 

The majority of international schools are
co-ed and ‘through-train’ (all-through), running roughly from ages four to 18, although some are separate primary (such as Shrewsbury and Wycombe Abbey) or secondary schools.

These through-train schools are big: they can have anything from
1,000 to 3,000 pupils (primary- or secondary-only schools are smaller).

Expect a
mix of nationalities in these schools: the Education Bureau has the power to change the percentage of local passport-holders vs non-local passport-holders who are permitted to attend. If a school labels itself as a specific nationality (such as French/German/Swiss), there will naturally be more of one nationality than another – particularly where a pupil’s passport may allow for admissions priority. 

Names for year groups differ hugely depending on the school, but these broadly follow kindergarten (early years), primary and secondary. Alternative variations might include nursery, elementary, prep, high school – or even German school year groups such as ‘klasse’. 


THE EDUCATIONAL JOURNEY

Most new families arrive at an international school in Singapore having moved from overseas (or at the very beginning of their child’s educational journey). Once a pupil has started at a through-train school, there’s usually very little movement (and only tends to happen if the child isn’t suited to the school) – the only movement that tends to occur is between standalone primary and secondary schools. 

ADMISSIONS PROCESS

Due to the transient nature of international families, there are usually no specific entry points. Offers are made as and when there is a space available. The advice is to apply one year before entry (sometimes two), but there’s no guarantee of a place. Note that secondary schools do not accept applications for entry into the final year of school. 

Anyone applying for a place is required to pay a non-refundable fee (and occasionally, an additional assessment fee). A registration fee/deposit is payable once a place is confirmed. 


THE CURRICULUM

Some schools cater for specific country qualifications (Australian, French, German, American, etc), but most will follow key curricula (usually the British national curriculum) for pupils to work towards IGCSEs, A-levels or the IB.

A handful of schools provide a bilingual curriculum. Others might offer both a ‘native language’ or international stream. As part of the Modern Foreign Languages curriculum, the standard options tend to be Mandarin, French and Spanish. 

At the end of their time at school, most pupils continue their higher education all across the globe (as is typical of international schools), including (but not limited to) the UK, the US, Europe, Australia, Canada and Hong Kong. 


BOARDING


Very few schools in Hong Kong offer boarding – these include Hong Kong Adventist College, Li Po Chun and Harrow Hong Kong (the only British international school with boarders). 

WHAT’S CHANGING?

New schools are emerging all the time (such as Oxbridge School), and plenty of international schools in Hong Kong (including Wycombe Abbey, Malvern and Stamford American School) have their eye on expansion – watch this space. Then there’s the skew towards the number of local and international pupils permitted into a school: this can change at any time, at the discretion of the Education Bureau. It’s worth knowing that National Security Law could possibly be introduced onto the curriculum at international schools at some point too. 

AND FINALLY…

International schooling in Hong Kong is expensive but, as with many things in Hong Kong, you can gain priority if the price is right. Some families go down the ‘debentures’ route – this is where a family or the company an expat parent works for might give a financial loan to the school, which is then spent on long-term funding for the school. Families who are able to produce a debenture are bumped up the queue for a place.