Hong Kong boasts one of the most reputable education systems in the world, giving parents confidence in the standard of education. There are more than 50 international schools that are popular with Hong Kong expats, offering more than 10 international curriculums. These include US, UK, French, German, Australian, Canadian, Japanese, Korean, Singaporean and the International Baccalaureate.
This article explains how the school system works in Hong Kong, and hopes to demystify the application process.
How does the school system work in Hong Kong?
The Hong Kong education sector is made up of both local and international schools. With a high value placed on education culturally, schools can be vibrant and competitive.
Hong Kong’s education system can be divided into three groups1:
- Government – featuring schools which are government-funded and free for pupils.
- Subsidised – such as the English Schools Foundation (ESF), which offers partially-funded places for local and non-Chinese speaking children.
- International schools – offer private places, with costs met by parents. Employers may contribute to costs.
The local school system is taught in Cantonese, which is why many students from other countries attend a private international school. This has led to a real growth in the international schooling sector in Hong Kong, with more than 50 international schools that provide a range of English-based curriculums that you could expect from your home country.
One of the oldest schools in Hong Kong is the English Schools Foundation (ESF), which dates back to when the British occupied Hong Kong and British children attended British-styled schools. These schools and the communities created around them are largely unchanged today and many expats will live close to where their children attend school.2
“Although I had originally planned to move my boys from a local school to an international school at the secondary stage, they ended up making the switch earlier – simply because they were learning English as a secondary language. I did a lot of exploring across my network and found out what other parents had done. These days, there are a lot of Facebook groups around that can help.”
Anna Evans, Hong Kong expat
Hong Kong school application process
The registration process for international schools in Hong Kong can appear complicated, and the admission of expat children can be competitive. Ruth Benny, founder of Top Schools, a consultancy that helps parents find schools for their children, recommends that expat families apply as soon as they know they are relocating to Hong Kong. And be aware you may not get your first choice: “We recommend that people apply to four or five schools,” she says.
By applying to a number of schools you can increase your chance of your child being accepted into a school of your choice. Many schools often have long waiting lists, so make sure you apply as early as possible, as many schools will accept an application a year or two in advance. There are some international schools that will even accept applications as soon as your child is born, including Discovery Bay School, French International School, German International School, Kellet School and Kiang Su & Chekiang School.3
International schools operate their own admission procedures, with most requiring an assessment and interview process. Application priority is typically given according to the child’s nationality, siblings already at a school, and debenture holders, rather than the date of application.
Education fees explained
Many parents are unaware of the fees associated with enrolling a child into a school4, in addition to annual tuition fees. According to ITS Education Asia5, annual tuition fees can reach up to HK$250,000. For most international schools, the entry school requirement will require an application fee, an entrance test fee, an enrolment or denture fee, plus the annual tuition fees.
Starting costs – A separate application fee, assessment fee and deposit will be required by each school that you apply to, and the fees typically range from HK$1,000 up to HK$3,500. Deposits are only charged when you accept a placement and these can run as high as HK$10,000. The deposit and assessment fees are usually non-refundable.
Annual tuition – This can begin at around HK$100,000 for primary school and reach up to HK$250,000 for secondary school.
A debenture – A one-off advance payment of up to HK$500,000 per child6 that goes towards financing a school’s community and projects. Depending on the school, a debenture may be refundable when a child leaves, but some schools may hold onto 5% or 10% so be sure to ask about your debenture refund. The cost of a debenture can vary enormously and can come as a bit of a shock, particularly if you have a large family. If you have a relocation package, your company may help you with a loan to pay the debenture, or they may have already pre-paid debenture with an international school. If neither of these two options are available to you, it’s not uncommon to apply for bank loan to help pay for the debenture.
Additional costs – While the location of an international school may play a part in your choice of accommodation, children routinely travel by school bus. This can cost between HK$6,000 and HK$9,000 per year, with uniform fees typically ranging from HK$500 to HK$1,500. There will probably also be additional costs for school trips, meals, textbooks, examinations and extra-curricular activities to consider.
65 % of Hong Kong students are estimated to be undertaking additional tuition.
Some of the international schools7 in Hong Kong for expats include:
American International School
Finding the right place for your children is key to a successful transition into the Hong Kong education system. Undertaking research on the schooling system and applications process before you leave will help you determine what you need to consider and apply for in advance. Once you arrive, follow up any applications with a call to the administration office to book an appointment to visit the schools with your family.
Expat children who attend school in Hong Kong grow up with a network of international friends from a diverse background of cultures and languages. With a wide variety of international schools and curriculum choices, Hong Kong is considered to be a great place for education.
The information provided in this article is designed as a guide and reference point to what you might expect in Hong Kong. Please be sure to check any information with local Hong Kong authorities to ensure information is valid and timely.