Foreigners looking to make sure their children’s education doesn’t suffer upon arriving in Hong Kong can put their mind at ease. The city has a range of options in English-language education (as well as French, German and others) and boasts an excellent alternative to international schools in the state-subsidised ESF system, which provides a multicultural education through English for locals and foreigners alike. It can be competitive to get into the best schools, particularly the international ones, but with a bit of planning and a healthy attitude you won’t have any problems. Here are the basic things you need to know about the system.
The main types of school in Hong Kong are the following:
Fully funded government schools
Owned and financed by the Hong Kong government and run by the education department.
The majority. Run by independent organisations but have part of their costs met by the government, based on teacher/pupil and pupil/class ratios.
Direct Subsidy Schools (DSS)
Schools with high educational standards that are government subsidised, but also charge top-up fees and are free to use their own curricula and entrance requirements.
English School Foundation (ESF) schools
The ESF was founded in 1967 to provide a “modern, liberal education” for expatriates. Schools are subsidised but also charge significant fees, somewhat like DSS schools. Traditionally use the British curriculum, but are increasingly likely to have made or be making the switch to the International Baccalaureate.
These include international schools; however, to qualify as a Private Independent School (and become eligible for government grants) at least 70 percent of students must be local.
The dominant curricula in Hong Kong are the UK (or UK adjusted) curriculum, leading to GCSE and A-level exams; the International Baccalaureate; and the local Hong Kong curriculum, which is based on the UK curriculum and leads to the HKGCE or Hong Kong A-level exams (HKALE). There are also schools offering the curriculum of the US, Australia, France and more.
International Schools in Hong Kong
International education in Hong Kong has an excellent reputation, with many locals who can afford it choosing to send their kids to international schools to improve their English and give them the global outlook and connections that this exposure can bring. It originated in part with religious organisations, with Catholic or Anglican schools rising up to meet educational and cultural needs of expatriates. It wasn’t until the 1960s, however, that the sort of education we now think of as provided by international schools started to become available, with specific nationality schools such as French. The Hong Kong International School, with a US syllabus, opened in 1966. With the boom in moneyed immigration that followed, international schools carved out their niches – Singapore, Jewish (the Carmel School), Hindi- and Urdu-language (Sir Ellis Kadoorie School), even combinations such as seen in the Norwegian International School (Christian education through Norwegian). It’s become a thriving market for international education a la carte.
While the International Baccalaureate is definitely gaining favour, as it’s seen as the most truly international and well-rounded curriculum for parents who wish their children to have options for universities worldwide, the UK curriculum remains extremely popular and the local Hong Kong system uses a localised version of it. Again, there are more specialised curriculum options available however, from places like the German Swiss International School (UK / German) or the French International School, which effectively puts students straight into the French state system.
The English Schools Foundation (ESF) was set up in 1967 to provide a state-aided English-language education (UK curriculum) for native speakers. Originally the idea was to separate students with English as their mother tongue, but by now the schools accept any students whose English is deemed good enough for them to keep up with the syllabus. The result has been the creation of an extremely multicultural (and popular) system, with over 15,000 students from 50-plus countries in a system that covers kindergartens, primary schools and secondary schools, as well as a special needs school, throughout Hong Kong. Primary school students are interviewed to see if their English is sufficiently good before being allowed to enrol; secondary students also take a written test.
Entry to good schools in Hong Kong, whether international, ESF or local, tends to be extremely competitive, with parents pulling out all the stops to get their kids in. But there’s no need to panic; you’ll be able to get your kids into a school that you and they are happy with. You’ll have an advantage if you’re looking for a school that matches your particular niche, for example if you’re French and wish to enrol your children at a French-language school. Of course, you’ll want to contact the admissions department at each school you’re interested in for your children to find out about entrance requirements and procedures.
One concern international parents often have, given that overseas assignments have a tendency not to follow the patterns of education, is that their kids will be out of options if they arrive in Hong Kong in the middle of a school year. It’s not an unfounded fear, particularly when it comes to international schools, which tend to have long waiting lists. However, in a sense the cause of the problem is also the solution – Hong Kong is an international city with a big expat turnover, and for every family suddenly arriving there’s a family heading off to their next stop, leaving spots available. Waiting lists can be shorter than they first seem, since many people apply to more than one school and by the time newcomers arrive have settled their kids in the one they got into. Companies are also able to take advantage of a scheme that allows them to reserve school spots for employees. In other words, there’s no need to panic – even if your child doesn’t get into an international school (and they definitely may be able to) they’ll have a good change of finding a place at an excellent ESF school and you can decide whether you want to transfer them at the end of the school year.
International School Admissions
Expect a waiting list and a competitive interview for international schools, and higher fees. Some kids get added to waiting lists by parents immediately after their birth. However, remember that these same kids tend to be on multiple waiting lists, and that not all of them will end up passing the language test. Some of them may not even be in Hong Kong by the time Junior needs to buy his first schoolbag. Being an actual expatriate will certainly be in your favour as well, since international schools strive to make sure they retain their multicultural flavour. Nonetheless, don’t tarry and don’t hesitate to apply for multiple schools yourself as well.
Once it’s clear the prospective student’s English level is sufficient, interviews focus on academic ability and past performance, and whether the child will flourish in an international environment with high academic standards. As pointed out above, people from the country, religion or community that an international school avowedly serves have an advantage, as of course do siblings of current students.
The great advantage of Hong Kong is the existence of academically excellent English-language schools that are considerably cheaper than international schools, which for expats in most cities around the world are the only option for an accessible education for their children. Fees are reasonable, although a levy of HKD25,000 per student (refunded when the child leaves) was introduced in 2011.
Entry to ESF schools is also considerably more straightforward for foreigners compared to international schools, in part because the ESF philosophy is one of inclusion and open admissions. There is no academic standard to be met, and there are facilities for children with special needs. In fact, if your family is non-Chinese-speaking the child will be considered Category One, since they speak no Mandarin or Cantonese and thus would find local education extremely difficult. This means they have priority when it comes to admissions over Cantonese-speakers. However, the prospective student must have a standard of English considered sufficient for English-language education to be found suitable for entry. This is ascertained through an interview rather than a test.
You can apply to an ESF school in your catchment area (contact ESF to find out what that is) as well as to one or both of the ESF Private Independent Schools. Application is made online, and supporting documents are delivered to the specific school. Applications made before October 1 are looked at in random order, so there’s no advantage in applying earlier as long as you make that deadline. As usual there are advantages to being a sibling of a current student, as well as to having attended another ESF school.
Local School Admissions
If your child is kindergarten age, there’s no reason not to consider sending them into the local system, which boasts excellent educational standards. And there’s a considerable bonus, which is that your child will emerge a few years later speaking excellent Cantonese or Mandarin. But this is not just an option for the very young; Hong Kong has local schools which teach through English, while of course also providing Cantonese and Mandarin courses on a daily basis.
You also don’t need us to tell you that it’s a myth that all foreign professionals transferred to Hong Kong are rich, or that in both mainland China and Hong Kong – and, in general, globally – companies are being more careful about allocating big all-inclusive expatriate packages. Fees for local schools are extremely affordable, and your children will be immersed in local culture in a way impossible elsewhere.
But there are still reasons this tends to be a third choice. Not all children are ready to thrive in such a different environment. Perhaps more importantly, you’ll find a heavy academic workload from quite a young age, and more pressure than Westerners generally want their children to be exposed to at school, even at secondary school stage. There’s less of a focus on the ‘whole student’ and extracurricular activities, sport, art and the like all take a back seat to academic achievement. Of course, this varies from school to school, and Hong Kong tends to do a good job of educating its children to grow into independent thinkers. Nonetheless, it’s something to very much take into account when making a decision.
You’re guaranteed a place in a state school; however, application for specific schools (known as Discretionary Place Admission) can be extremely competitive – remember, you’re competing with the local population. Different schools have different criteria at this point, with advantages if a sibling is already studying there and so on.
Foreigners interested in the local system, however, are most likely to apply to Direct Subsidy (DSS) or private schools in the local system. Here you’ll find yourself dealing with individual schools, much as you probably would back home or with international schools. Generally, once your application is accepted, your child will then have one or two interviews and a written test. There’s no central clearing system for any of this, you simply have to contact each school that interests you and find out what you need to provide and how their system works.
There’s a thriving industry of child coaching and advice for parents in Hong Kong, and some parents pull out all the stops to get their kid into the school of their choice. Whether you’ll have an advantage as a foreigner or not is hard to say – the school might be inclined to like the idea of a little diversity, or they might be worried about language and cultural differences. Generally your chances should be as good as anybody else’s – though you probably won’t have spent years planning your strategy.