How to Choose a School in Hong Kong

For a family considering a move to Hong Kong, finding an appropriate school for your children has to be top of mind. Since most expat children will not arrive with Mandarin or Cantonese language skills, they will likely join the competition for limited spaces in international schools offering their home language.

The limitation is not so much related to the number of international schools, for there are quite a few: about 40 at primary level and 30 at secondary level. These numbers includes non-US and non-UK schools, many of which offer English as a primary language or have an English track in combination with the sponsoring country language or Mandarin.Historically these schools were made up primarily of students of expats, but the proportion of local Chinese students has increased in recent years. One factor influencing this is the perception that the English language education in local Hong Kong schools has declined since the Chinese takeover of Hong Kong in 1997. Affluent local parents send their children to the international schools to get better English language education that will offer their children global opportunities in the future. Thus an increased admission of locals is one element of the competition for limited spaces.

The second concern that makes admission to the international schools difficult relates to the unique process of funding known as “debentures.” A debenture is a financial debt holding that a company or parent purchases from a school for possible admission for a student. The school uses the interest from the debenture amount for capital funding. Many, but not all, debenture principal amounts are refunded in large part after the student leaves the school. Some, however, do depreciate, perhaps so quickly that a second debenture may be required for a single long-term student!

Debentures may be purchased by companies and rolled over for children of other employees. If you are invited by your company to move to Hong Kong, this is one of the first things you should investigate. If your company doesn’t hold a debenture, they may be able to purchase one from the school or on a resale market. Some schools reduce the price of a second debenture for more than one child in the school.

Having a debenture generally gives the student preferential treatment, putting him or her at the top of the admissions list, assuming academic acceptance criteria are met. The impact then is that debenture-holders take up many of the spots available in the schools, leaving fewer for non-debenture holders. Most international schools currently have long waiting lists.

Since debentures are highly sought after, their price has risen dramatically, some as high as $1M HKD ($130K US). The debenture is just part of the cost of education, however. Annual tuition ranges from $45K to $200K HK for primary school and $75K to $200K HK for secondary school. This generally does not include bus service and other fees.

About a dozen of the seventy schools noted are part of the English Schools Foundation (ESF), a government-subsidized Hong Kong school system for resident (including short-term expat) children who speak English as a native language. These schools still require parent tuition payments, but they are at the low end of the range noted. And they do have a Nomination Rights Scheme for priority placement that is similar to a non-refundable debenture. While students at non-ESF international schools can live anywhere in Hong Kong, ESF placement is based on residence in a specific school zone.

As with everything else, crowded conditions and limited space on Hong Kong Island have hindered school expansion, but several additional international schools are in planning stages for New Territories.

If you are fortunate enough to get your child into one of the Hong Kong international schools you’ll probably be very satisfied with the education he or she receives. The school will likely have many of the features common to top-tier private schools: small class sizes, strong academic programs (e.g. AP or IB), enriched cultural programs (in this case, taking advantage of the Asian setting), and rigorous language instruction. Additionally the school will offer extensive opportunities to interact with students and parents from other countries.

“Going native” is an option as well. Local Hong Kong schools offer excellent education, with a very heavy focus on academics. Many Hong Kong schools are crowded and some have faced the issue by using facilities in split shifts and on Saturdays. These schools have some English and Mandarin training, but most subjects are taught in Cantonese. If other members of the expat family are not skilled in or learning Cantonese, this will probably be a very tough choice for a child. Chinese schools are extremely competitive, so an expat child with limited language capability will likely be placed with the poorest students and may fall behind where he or she would be in the home country. Tutoring and homeschooling are additional options that can help close the gap.

Given the limited openings, high costs, geographic restrictions, and extensive paperwork required, the best advice for a potential Hong Kong expat parent is to start the education investigation immediately. Your child’s school situation may need to be sorted out before you select a place to live, perhaps even before you say “Yes!” to your offer of an expat assignment.