Education in Hong Kong

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A comprehensive guide about the education system and international schools

If you’re relocating with your family, understanding the education system and the variety of international schools in Hong Kong is a top priority. But should you pick one of Hong Kong's high-flying public schools or choose an expensive international school? We weigh the pros and cons as well as the costs.

Hong Kong’s education system is world class, and both the private and public schools have strong academic reputations.

Before school, several years of kindergarten is the norm and we’ll also explore the option of hiring a domestic helper to provide childcare in Hong Kong. Children in Hong Kong start primary school at age six for six years, followed by five years of secondary school education.

While many expats assume that they’ll have to opt for one of the expensive international schools, this section also covers government initiatives aimed at helping non-Chinese speaking students (NCS) fit into public schools.

We also look at the education culture in Hong Kong’s public schools: some expats feel alienated by the highly competitive system that’s split up by academic ability from secondary school.

Whether you choose a public or private school, there are many different primary, secondary, and universities to choose from.

How is the education system in Hong Kong?

The Hong Kong school system is one of the most competitive in the world. Students attending the so-called Grant Schools, Hong Kong’s elite secondary schools, receive a high-quality education and often enter the world’s top-notch universities without difficulty. There’s, however, another side of the coin too: Students whose examination results at the end of their primary education are not up to par are left with the places at sub-standard secondary schools in Hong Kong.

Schools in Hong Kong are publicly funded. The main language of instruction at most of Hong Kong’s schools is Chinese. A great number of expats, however, prefer to send their children to an international school, which offer a different curriculum – and usually charge steep tuition fees. Mainly, this is due to the language barrier. Expat children who did not attend a Hong Kong kindergarten are often simply not able to follow class work in local schools and feel more comfortable in an international environment. However, some expat parents also feel that they do not agree with the workload and the competitiveness their kids would deal with at many public schools in Hong Kong, despite the great opportunities of finding a job in Hong Kong later on.

Following a prolonged public debate, the Hong Kong government administered a reform of the education system. The government has also reacted to the high number of children coming to Hong Kong from abroad and established international programs to help them adjust to the public school system. This article aims to give you an overview of the school system, the ongoing reform, and the requirements to consider if you decide to enroll your child in one of the local schools in Hong Kong.

The Public School System in Hong Kong

Public schools in Hong Kong are organized quite similarly to the British system. Children attend primary schools for 6 years, followed by three years of junior secondary education and another two years of senior secondary education. Finally, those students who want to go to university attend another two-year course leading to advanced level examinations. The government runs some public schools in Hong Kong and subsidizes a large number of others, which are organized by charitable associations and religious organizations.

Primary Schools

Students start primary school in Hong Kong at the age of six. Due to limited capacities, primary school students are usually divided into two groups: One group attends classes in the morning, the other in the afternoon. However, some schools in Hong Kong have started to offer all-day programs as well. At the end of their primary education, children in Hong Kong take their first important examinations. The results of these tests determine which secondary school they may attend.

Secondary schools in Hong Kong are categorized into three bands according to their academic standards. Band 1 schools have the highest academic standards and the best reputation. Through a centralized admission system, students receive places at different schools according to their exam grades. Only those who do outstandingly well are granted a place in the best secondary schools in Hong Kong.

Secondary Schools

Junior secondary school is compulsory and remains free for all students. However, those who choose to attend a senior secondary school have to pay a certain tuition fee. As this fee is standardized and heavily subsidized by the government, it is not nearly as high as what private schools charge their students.

Senior secondary school prepares students for the Hong Kong Certificate of Education Examination (HKCEE), which they have to pass in order to graduate. A large number of students go on to an additional two-year course and then take the Hong Kong Advanced Level Examination (HKALE), which will enable them to go to university. Undergraduate programs at Hong Kong’s universities take another 3 years to complete.

Daycare and kindergarten

Raising Your Child Away from Home

A popular proverb says it takes an entire village to raise a child. Most of us would probably agree that it takes at least a good kindergarten and skilled kindergarten teachers to raise an expat child in Hong Kong or anywhere else in the world. This article aims to give you a valuable insight into childcare in Hong Kong.

While maternity leave and parental benefits leave a lot to be desired, you will easily find good childcare opportunities and excellent kindergartens in Hong Kong. Until your child is old enough to attend a kindergarten in Hong Kong, you can register your little one at a childcare center or easily hire someone to take care of them at home. Once they have reached the appropriate age, choosing the right kindergarten in Hong Kong is the next challenge you need to face. Kindergartens in Hong Kong vary considerably by the different teaching philosophies, curricula and religious affiliations– not to mention the noticeable differences in the tuition fee. Moreover, you can choose between a local and an international curriculum.

Maternity Leave and Other Benefits

Depending on the labor law of your home country, you might be surprised that working mothers in Hong Kong are only entitled to 10 weeks of paid maternity leave. Maternity leave usually begins between 2 and 4 weeks before the baby’s due date. During this time, you receive 80% of your monthly income of the last 12 months. Unfortunately, there are no legal provisions in Hong Kong which allow fathers to take parental leave. If you are a father who would like to care for his newborn during the first weeks, you should afford to take some time off. On the upside, women who are having a baby in Hong Kong receive excellent medical care. For all the details on maternity leave in Hong Kong and your rights as a pregnant employee, check the website of the Hong Kong Labor Department.

In Hong Kong, there are no child benefits which will be automatically granted to every child. The Hong Kong Social Welfare Department does provide a range of family benefits aimed at families with severe financial difficulties. In order to be considered eligible for this financial assistance, you need to file a special application at the Social Welfare Department and you will be tested on income as well as assets.

The only financial benefit which the government grants to all parents in order to help them cope with the financial burden of raising a child is a substantial income tax benefits. If you pay income tax and you have an unmarried child under the age of 18, either you or your spouse can claim a generous child allowance on your taxes. The same applies to parents with children between 18 and 25 who study full-time at a university, college, or another educational institution.

International schools

For lots of expats in Hong Kong, one of the most difficult endeavors during their life abroad is choosing an international primary or secondary school for their child – and actually getting a place at the school in question. At the moment, there are about 50 international schools in the region covering kindergarten, primary, and secondary education. This number seems disproportionately high compared to its expat population but the demand has long outpaced supply as attending a Hong Kong international school has become increasingly popular with the local population as well.

You might wonder if it actually has to be one of the expensive international schools, or if you can also send your child to one of the local schools in Hong Kong instead. We will tell you everything you need to know about the pros and cons of your child attending an international school. This article furthermore provides you with information on the different types of international education, and the degrees which your child can obtain. Last but not least, we would like to tell you about the procedure of enrolling your child in a particular school and how to best get one of those coveted places at a Hong Kong international school.

Local vs. International Schools

In addition to the local public school system, a respected private school system with many different international schools has long been established, and many expats decide to send their kids to one of these Hong Kong international schools. However, as mentioned above, these schools are becoming more and more popular with local Chinese families as well.

There are a couple of things you should consider when deciding whether to send your child to a Hong Kong international school or to a local institution. The duration of your stay is a major deciding factor. For a short stay, a Hong Kong international school would probably be the better option. However, going to a local school can help your child become accustomed to Hong Kong’s culture and society. This can be beneficial in the long run.

The Pros and Cons of International Education

There are some important advantages of sending your child to a Hong Kong international school. Classes are usually smaller than in local schools, teachers use a more Western-style teaching method and curriculum, and the schools are generally not as competitive as local schools. On the downside, the biggest disadvantage of international schools is simply their cost. While public schools are free for all students, an international school might charge you anything from HKD 100,000 to HKD 180,000 or more in annual tuition fees, depending on the school and the grade your child attends.

If your kid is familiar with the Chinese language in Hong Kong and you want them to become fluent and write in hànzì (Chinese letters), you may find that the level of Mandarin and Cantonese taught in international schools is not adequate. Few of the international schools are actually bilingual, so a local public school might be the better choice in such a case. Keep in mind that you might have to take your child to a  doctor in Hong Kong to receive the health documents necessary for admission.

Higher education

The universities in Hong Kong have recently developed excellent reputations both within Hong Kong’s borders and beyond. The University of Hong Kong and the Chinese University of Hong Kong in particular were awarded top spots in international university rankings. Furthermore, the government is currently devoting a lot of its attention and resources to strengthening the country as a regional education hub. Therefore, universities in Hong Kong might be a more than reasonable choice if your children want to pursue a college education while your family is staying in Hong Kong.

Altogether, there are 13 universities in Hong Kong and other institutions of higher education to choose from, all of which offer internationally recognized degrees to their students. Hong Kong’s university degrees include Bachelor’s degrees and postgraduate degrees, with both research-based programs and post-grad courses. Although their total number is still relatively small, more and more foreign students are choosing to attend one of Hong Kong’s universities these days. Most university programs are taught in English, so there is no need to worry about your Chinese language skills. However, it can’t hurt to learn about Hong Kong’s culture and social etiquette beforehand.

Institutions of Higher Education

There are 13 institutions of higher education and universities in Hong Kong which are allowed to award academic degrees. The following eight of these schools are universities funded publicly by the so-called University Grants Committee (UGC). The UGC is a non-statutory advisory committee which supports the government on matters concerning both funding and development of universities in Hong Kong.

All in all, about one third of all students in Hong Kong receive some kind of undergraduate education. In addition to the universities in Hong Kong financed by the UGC, there are 4 self-financing academic institutions that offer higher education:

Other Degrees and Courses

Moreover, there are a number of locally-accredited institutions and universities in Hong Kong offering sub-degree courses such as associate degrees and higher diplomas. You can find more information on these courses by browsing the Information Portal for Accredited Post-Secondary Programs provided by the Hong Kong government.

There are also a great variety of distance-learning classes and other courses offering non-local qualifications. To create a better overview of the numerous courses popping up everywhere and to maintain certain quality standards, the Hong Kong Education Bureau requires all providers of such non-local courses to file an official registration. The Education Bureau keeps an up-to-date list of registered non-local courses that fulfill the government’s requirements.

InterNations GO!
by InterNations GO!
02 March 2016
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