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Education in HONG KONG

Education in HONG KONG

Hong Kong continues to thrive as a commercial and financial hub operating at the heart of Asia, and is attracting ever-growing numbers of overseas visitors to live and work there. Here Winter’s provides a picture for parents of how the education system works, including, of course, international schools.


The state education system

As a British colony, the education provided by local government schools in Hong Kong reflected that of the UK curriculum.  Attending school was compulsory for nine years (six in primary, three in secondary) and was free.

In 1997 the territory reverted back to China as a Special Administrative Region (SAR) and since then the education system has undergone significant change, including the extension of free education in the public sector to 12 years.

The education system in Hong Kong is administered by the Education Bureau (EDB). Local schools can be either government schools fully paid for by the Government, aided schools which are government-funded but run by voluntary organisations, or private schools, some of which receive government money.  The government and aided schools offer free primary and secondary schooling and deliver a curriculum recommended by the EDB. 

The Church of Christ in China Kei Kok Primary School, Shatin. Photograph: Mk2010, Wikimedia

The Church of Christ in China Kei Kok Primary School, Shatin. Photograph: Mk2010, Wikimedia

Language of instruction

Cantonese is the language of instruction in the majority of government schools, with English taught as a second language, although the EDB now has a policy of gradually changing the medium of teaching to Putonghua (Mandarin). There are several government-funded schools that provide English-language teaching, amounting to around 25 per cent of local schools.

The school day

Hong Kong is one of the most densely populated cities in the world, with local schools operating at full capacity, and so spaces are at a premium. Until recently schools offered either morning or afternoon education in order to cater for such huge numbers. However, the EDB is now encouraging schools to provide full-day schooling for all students, helped by the expansion in school provision and a decline in the number of children of school age.

Discipline is very strong in Hong Kong schools, despite large classes averaging 42 pupils, and the teachers are held in high regard by parents and students alike. All students wear school uniform.


Kindergarten education is available for children aged three to five years old at privately funded schools. These are managed either by voluntary organisations or by private providers and all must be registered with the EDB.

Primary education

Children in Hong Kong attend primary school from around six years old. Most schools follow a central curriculum recommended by the EDB. All pupils take exams in their last two years at primary school (Primary 5 and Primary 6) and their performance in these can determine which secondary school they will attend. Competition for places at the better secondary schools is fierce and large numbers of parents pay for their children to be privately tutored in order to prepare them for the exams. (This has become known as the ‘shadow’ education system.)

Secondary education

All students can now receive free education at secondary level for six years. In their first three years of compulsory education (Secondary 1 to Secondary 3) pupils follow a broad range of subjects, again following the curriculum recommended by the EDB in most cases.

At Secondary 4 level, students have two options: 1) remain at school for three years in order to prepare for the Hong Kong Diploma of Secondary Education Examination (HKDSE), which they take at the end of Secondary 6, or 2) pursue vocational education at government-funded three-year courses run by the Vocational Training Council. Students preparing for the HKDSE will study four core subjects, Chinese, English, Mathematics and Liberal Studies, plus two or three additional subjects.

Special Educational Needs (SEN)

There are currently 60 government-funded special schools for children with SEN. In addition, the EDB provides resources and staff training for local schools to help them cater for the needs of SEN pupils.

Proposed improvements in the quality of state education

Hong Kong schools gain spectacularly high scores in international school rankings, coming second only to Singapore in a recent global ranking based on test scores in 76 countries in maths and science. The education system has, however, been criticised for teaching styles that rely on repetitive rote learning and for having a very strong emphasis on exams.

To address these concerns the government has devised a curriculum that adopts a more holistic approach to education with the introduction of the New Academic Structure (NAS), implemented by the EDB in September 2009. This aims to cater “for students’ varied interests, needs and abilities, as well as nurturing students’ whole-person development and lifelong learning capabilities for them to proceed, through multiple pathways, to further studies, training and employment”.

"...schools will be regularly assessed on the quality of their teaching with the introduction of the new Territory-wide System Assessment tests..."


Nord Anglia International School Hong Kong

Nord Anglia International School Hong Kong

In addition, schools will be regularly assessed on the quality of their teaching with the introduction of the new Territory-wide System Assessment tests in Chinese, English and Mathematics, now being trialled in primary schools.

International schools

There are currently more than 50 international schools in Hong Kong.  These range from long-established institutions, for example, ESF Island School, Hong Kong Academy and the Canadian International School of Hong Kong, to more recently opened establishments, including Harrow International School, the “first international boarding and day school in Hong Kong” and Nord Anglia International School Hong Kong.

The majority of the international schools teach an English-language based curriculum using either the International Baccalaureate (IB) programme, or the British, American, Canadian or Australian systems. Learning the Chinese language is an option at most schools, with some, including Yew Chung International School, offering bi-lingual education.

Music technology lesson at Discovery Bay International School

Music technology lesson at Discovery Bay International School

Admission procedures and tuition fees

Admission to these schools is extremely competitive, with many middle-class Hong Kong families vying for places for their children alongside expatriates, and there are often long waiting lists. Applications for entry are submitted a year before pupils are due to start school. For some schools a substantial refundable deposit or ‘reservation fee’ is required, possibly as much as half the annual tuition fee, or even a smaller non-refundable fee.

The annual fees can be high, and there has been controversy amongst parents of children at international schools in Hong Kong over recent increases in fees, averaging as much as 11 per cent in a few cases.

Although international schools are autonomous and have complete control over curriculum and admission criteria, they are required to seek approval from the EDB for increases in tuition fees.  They can, however, levy their own reservation charges and issue debentures without government approval.


Many international schools have a debenture scheme that enables some parents to gain priority in securing a place for their children. Debentures can be issued to individuals but are more usually bought by companies hoping to secure school places for the children of their expat employees. Schools use the debentures to fund expansion projects or running costs, and are reimbursed once the child leaves the school (but without any accrued interest), or are held by companies for future employees.

School sports at Hong Kong Academy

School sports at Hong Kong Academy

The English Schools Foundation 

The English Schools Foundation (ESF) is the largest provider of English-language international education with 22 schools (five kindergartens, nine primary schools, five secondary schools, two private independent schools and one special school for SEN pupils). In 2001 ESF schools began to switch from the British curriculum to the IB programmes, which they all now follow.

"...ESF schools all now follow the IB programmes..."

ESF Island School, the founding school of the ESF

ESF Island School, the founding school of the ESF

ESF Discovery College, founded in 2007

ESF Discovery College, founded in 2007

Since the days of British administration, ESF schools have been subsidised by the Government, which has meant they have been a more affordable option for expat families. However, these subsidies are now being phased out, and this has inevitably resulted in increases in school fees. Parents of existing students are protected from these increases.

ESF school fees are, however, still substantially lower than those of other international schools in Hong Kong, helped in part by the introduction of ESF’s own corporate debenture scheme in 2014.

Children with SEN are supported at ESF schools either in mainstream classes by specialist staff or in the schools’ Learning Support Centres.  Children with more extensive SEN can attend the ESF’s Jockey Club Sarah Roe School.

School day, food, travel and uniform at international schools

The typical school day, for example at an ESF primary school, would start at 8am and finish at around 2- 3pm. Pupils take a snack for break-time and a packed lunch into school. A bus company is hired to take children to and from school. There is also a “Bus Escort” on each bus to take care of the students (a mandatory requirement of the Transport Department). All children must wear the school uniform.

Many international schools will have a strong PTA that will organise events, raise funds for the school and for charities, organise school bus services, and in some cases run the school shop selling uniforms and stationery.

Harrow International School Hong Kong

Harrow International School Hong Kong

International schools – the future

In order to encourage the building of new international schools, the Hong Kong Government operates the School Allocation Exercise, through which school operators can bid for government land/premises to build new schools or expand existing schools. With the insatiable demand for places at international schools continuing unabated, many schools are planning to develop their sites to increase their intake. New schools which have recently opened or are due to open soon include Mount Kelly School and Shrewsbury International School.


Top image courtesy of Hong Kong Academy. Other images courtesy of the following Winter's schools:

Nord Anglia International School Hong Kong

Discovery Bay International School

ESF Island School

ESF Discovery College

Harrow International School Hong Kong

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