How to Get Into a Good School in Hong Kong

A guide to the school system in Hong Kong, including ESF, international and government schools; curricula and fees, and school places and the application process.
How to Get Into a Good School in Hong Kong
By Carli Allan
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There are two main types of school within Hong Kong. The government-run schools offer free primary and secondary education. The private schools are divided between international schools, those schools that are operated by Hong Kong’s largest provider of private education, the English Schools Foundation (ESF), and Direct Subsidy Scheme (DSS) schools that receive subsidies from the government.

Confused? Don't be. In this guide we take you through the options available to you as a resident in Hong Kong...


School places
Both government and international schools offer places to local and expat families alike; however, the Cantonese speaking government schools are favoured by Hong Kong nationals, and the majority of expats opt for an education at one of Hong Kong’s many international schools.

Demand has outstripped supply for many years in Hong Kong’s international schools, but recent action by the government could see 3,500 more primary places and 780 extra secondary places. The government’s Education Bureau, which controls the development and expansion of all international schools, is actively supporting growth within this sector. The School Allocation Exercise (SAE) is an open and competitive bidding process for the allocation of vacant school premises and greenfield sites – and in 2008 the Education Bureau made a crucial decision to extend this process to international schools.

Consequently, several new international schools have opened as part of the SAE. Most recently, American School Hong Kong opened a kindergarten and primary school in 2016, and a middle school in 2017; it will add a high school to its Tai Po campus in 2018. Shrewsbury will open a primary school in 2018; the French International School is expanding its student population across multiple locations with the opening of a new campus in 2018; The Harbour School opens two new campuses in 2017; and Malvern College will open in 2018.

While many expats seem to prefer well-established schools run by the English Schools Foundation (ESF) and private schools such as Kellett School and American International School, places are more readily available at new schools such as Nord Anglia International School and Harrow International.

International schools: at a glance

In 2016-17 there were:

  • 20 primary schools
  • Eight secondary schools
  • 23 all-through schools
  • 1 special school
  • 37,757 students

There are at least five new international schools opening between 2017-2019, so the choice is widening year on year.

English Schools Foundation (ESF)
The English Schools Foundation (ESF) was founded in 1967 to manage a network of English-speaking schools. Until 2016, ESF schools received a government subsidy, which meant that fees were lower compared to other international schools. However, this annual HKD 283 million subsidy from the government is being phased out over the next 13 years; in 2017-18, Years 1 and 2 will no longer be subsidised by the government. Parents are already bearing the brunt of the change, and ESF fees for the 2017-18 academic year were raised between 5.4 and 27.5%. 

ESF has a traditional structure of separate primary and secondary schools; the exceptions to this are its two all-through Private Independent Schools (PIS), Renaissance College and Discovery College. The ESF has nine primary and five secondary schools located across Hong Kong, which are all non-selective. The schools are divided into geographical zones and only accept students within a certain catchment area. 

All ESF schools have the same fee structure, which runs from HKD 106,500 (US$ 13,619) for Years 1 and 2 through to HKD 129,100 for Years 12 and 13. All new students starting from August 2015 have to pay a non-refundable capital levy (NCL), which starts at HKD 38,000 in Year 1 and decreases to HKD 3,800 by Year 13.

After working with A Levels for more than 40 years, ESF schools switched to the International Baccalaureate (IB) programme in 2007. All five of its secondary schools offer IGCSEs and the IBDP; there are also plans to introduce the International Baccalaureate Career-related Programme (IBCP) from 2018 at some secondary schools including West Island School. All primary schools are currently phasing in the IB Middle Years Programme (MYP) for Years 7 to 9 to replace the previously bespoke curricula offered by each school. 

The ESF average score in the 2017 IB results was 35.8, which compares very favourably with the global average of 29.9.

The admissions process for all ESF schools includes an online application, interview and assessment, and parents should apply schools during the Central Application period (Sept 1 to 30) by indicating their area of residency; applications are also received throughout the year though.

Most ESF schools have a waitlist and its website is updated as places become available.

  • Parents can submit one online application per child with their selected preference of schools
  • The selected school must be within your ‘home zone’
  • Students must be able to cope with an English-medium curriculum 


Private Independent Schools (PIS)
Private Independent Schools (PIS) are part of the international schools’ sector and offer a non-local curriculum. These schools are given government assistance, which is limited to land on a 10-year lease and a grant to construct a school building. They are founded to meet the demand for school places from local families who are seeking an alternative to international schools, and at least 70% of their student population must be Hong Kong permanent residents. 

PIS include Discovery College and Renaissance College, which are both run by the ESF; they differ from other ESF schools as they do not have a catchment area, do not offer IGCSEs (instead they offer the full IB programme), and tuition fees are slightly higher. Other PIS include Yew Chung International School Hong Kong (YCIS), Independent Schools Foundation Academy, International Christian School, Po Leung Kuk Choi Kai Yau School and Po Leung Kuk Choi Kai Yau School.


International schools
In Hong Kong, international schools are generally autonomous in that they decide on the curriculum offered, the student admission, criteria and fees. There is a mix of independent schools and those run by global international school groups such as Nord Anglia Education and ESOL Education.

The majority of schools here follow the International Baccalaureate programme (IB) and/or the British or American curriculum. There are British, American, Australian, French, German, Canadian and Indian schools, as well as more generic ‘international’ schools. While some international schools will follow one curriculum, many in Hong Kong mix and match different curricula and styles of teaching. There are also some international schools offering a truly bilingual education with two parallel streams, such as the German Swiss International School Hong Kong (GSIS) and the French International School.

  • 21 schools offer the International Baccalaureate Diploma Programme (IBDP) (including ESF)
  • Roughly 20 schools offer IGCSEs (including ESF)
  • Four schools offer A Levels, including Discovery Bay which launches the curriculum in 2017; this number will rise to five when Malvern College opens in 2018

There is a wide choice of all-through schools offering an education from nursery through to Grade 12/Year 13 (IBDP and A Level), and a smaller offering of standalone primary and secondary schools.

All schools teach Chinese (Mandarin, not the local dialect Cantonese) from kindergarten through to the college years. International schools have a greater focus than local schools on sport, the arts and other extra-curricular activities. This is reflected in the state-of-the-art facilities on many international campuses, and the lengthy list of extra-curricular activities offered to all international students.

The academic year runs from August to June at the majority of schools. There is no centralised system of inspections or reports for international schools, but some schools are inspected independently by agencies such as the British Schools Overseas (BSO) and the Independent Schools Inspectorate (ISI).

Annual tuition fees are high, ranging from HKD 110,000 to 160,000 for Year 1 primary through to HKD 122,000 to 195,000 for Year 13 secondary – and that’s often just the tip of the iceberg. You’ll also need to budget for additional charges (some optional) including an annual non-refundable capital levy, application fees, enrolment fees, technology fees, contributions to the parents’ association, extra-curricular activities, exams and field trips. Extra costs also include uniform, school transport and lunches. Education in Hong Kong is expensive for a reason though: campuses have state-of-the-art facilities, modern classrooms, the latest technology, international teaching staff and opportunities for global study.

International schools are required to seek the government’s approval for any fee adjustment.

The Education Bureau states,

“International schools need to justify their fee adjustment proposals by their explicability, benefits to students, whether the schools demonstrate sound financial position and the impact in enhancing students’ learning.”

International schools: application process

International schools accept applications from new students throughout the year. Apply as early as possible as some of the top-performing schools can have waiting lists for certain year groups. Most schools require students to sit an entrance exam, typically to test for English and maths proficiency.

The most competitive schools will sell monetary debentures that give you priority in the admissions process; these range from HKD 500,000 for an ESF school to HKD 10 million for a top international school. Priority can also be given for nationality, for example German, Swiss and Austrian nationals prioritised by the German Swiss International School, and siblings at the school.

To apply to an international school, you need to submit a completed application form (for many schools this is online) and the following documents:

  • Copies of applicant’s school reports for the current and previous year
  • Copies of reports for each grade of high school completed
  • One passport-sized photograph
  • Photocopy of applicant’s birth certificate or his/her passport and Hong Kong Identity Card (HKID); a passport copy must provide date of birth and a valid HK visa status
  • An application fee, which is non-refundable

Parents will then be contacted with a date for an admission interview or assessment at the school. 


International vs ESF schools

The main differences between the two are:

  • Students can only apply to an ESF school within their residential catchment area; students can apply to an unlimited number of international schools, and in any area
  • Class sizes are typically larger in ESF schools
  • All ESF schools follow the IB programme, and offer IGCSEs and the IBDP; international schools offer a range of programmes including the IB and the UK National Curriculum, and offer a choice of IGCSEs, the IBDP, A Levels, AP, SATS and more
  • Tuition fees are cheaper at ESF schools, although this may change in the future with anticipated steep fee increases 

Direct Subsidy Scheme (DSS) Schools
Direct Subsidy Scheme schools are private primary and secondary schools that receive a subsidy from the government. The scheme was introduced by the Education Bureau in 1991 to help improve the offering of private education in Hong Kong. DSS schools have the freedom to design their own curriculum and set their own school fees. Although DSS schools must focus on offering a curriculum that targets local students and prepares them for local examinations, some also offer the IB programme.

The curriculum varies between schools. Some will teach in English and offer a choice of mainstream or elementary Chinese as a second language as part of an international curriculum that includes IGCSEs, A Levels or the IB programme; others teach in Chinese and follow the Hong Kong curriculum that leads to the Hong Kong Diploma of Secondary Education (HKDSE). Several DSS schools offer students the choice of an international or local curriculum.

Fees are typically significantly cheaper than international schools, and most schools have their own admissions policy rather than following the government’s Primary One Admission system (POA) or Secondary School Places Allocation (SSPA) scheme.

Popular DSS schools with expats include the Creative Primary and Secondary schools, HKMA Li Kwok Po College, Po Leung Kuk Ngan Po Ling College, Good Hope Secondary School and YMCA.

Government schools
Some expats choose not to take the international schools route, and instead send their child to a Cantonese-speaking government school.

Government schools are fully funded by the Hong Kong government, they teach primarily in Cantonese, and they are open to and free for all children. There are roughly 600 government primary schools and around 500 secondary schools to choose from, and the curriculum is based on the UK system.

Exams are held in the final two years of primary school, which determine the secondary school that each student may be eligible to attend. Secondary school includes the junior years (Forms 1, 2 and 3); after this, students enter Forms 4 to 6, a period called Matriculation, which prepares them for university. At the end of Form 6, students take the Hong Kong Diploma of Secondary Education (HKDSE) exam.

The academic year runs from September to June, the average class size is 27 in primary and 28 in secondary, and the only additional costs for parents tend to be uniform and books.

In response to the shortage of places at international schools, the Education Bureau is encouraging expats to apply to a government school. Foreign students can enrol in the local school system on the condition that they hold a valid visa and a Hong Kong Identity Card (HKID); once accepted, they are signed up to various programmes for non-Chinse speaking students (NCS) to help them settle into the school.

There is also a choice of Direct Subsidy Scheme (DSS) schools, which are semi-private schools that receive government funding but have greater autonomy. Some DSS schools such as the top-performing St Paul's Co-Educational College offer the IB programme.

Government schools: application process

For primary schools, parents must apply to the Primary One Admission system (POA). They have the choice of applying for central allocation admission, where they are given a choice of schools within their neighbourhood, or discretionary places admission, where they can apply to just one school in or out of their residential area.  

Students must be five years and eight months in the September that they wish to enrol in P1. Applications are made in September, parents make their choice of schools in February, and places are allocated in June.

Under the Secondary School Places Allocation (SSPA) system, students are allocated a place based on their primary results. New arrivals can apply directly to the Education Bureau’s school places allocation section.


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