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Local vs International Schools in Hong Kong - which is better?


Abstract image depicting education choices in Hong Kong.

Hong Kong is a vibrant and dynamic city that offers a wide range of educational opportunities for children. As a parent, choosing the right education system for your child is one of the most important decisions you will make.


In Hong Kong, parents have the option of sending their children to either local or international schools. Each system has its own advantages and disadvantages, and it's crucial to understand the differences before making a decision.

​Hong Kong is home to 54 International schools, with 22 operated by the ESF.

Understanding the differences between local vs international schools

Local schools in Hong Kong follow the local education system and are primarily designed for local students. These schools are funded and regulated by the government, and the curriculum is based on the local standards. On the other hand, international schools in Hong Kong follow different educational systems, such as the British, American, or International Baccalaureate (IB) curriculum. These schools cater to a more diverse student population, including expatriate families and students from different cultural backgrounds.

​As of the 2022/2023 school year there were 593 Local Primary schools.

What are Local Schools?

 

Hong Kong's public educational system is composed of two types of local schools: government schools, run by the state, and grant schools, run by local charitable or religious organisations. Many of the most renowned schools, boasting a history of success, belong to the latter. Both forms of schools follow the same curriculum, which requires Chinese language classes, but the other courses are taught either in English (EMI) or Chinese (CMI). Education for primary and secondary levels is free of charge for permanent residents, making local schools a great option for those on a budget.


Pros and cons of local schools in Hong Kong

Local schools in Hong Kong have several advantages. Firstly, they offer a strong foundation in the local language, Cantonese, which is essential for children growing up in Hong Kong. Local schools also provide a deep understanding of the local culture and traditions, allowing students to develop a strong sense of identity. Additionally, local schools are generally more affordable compared to international schools, making them a viable option for families on a tighter budget.


However, local schools also have their limitations. The class sizes in local schools tend to be larger, which can result in less individual attention for students. The teaching methods may also be more traditional and exam-focused, placing a significant emphasis on rote learning. Furthermore, the competition for places in top local schools can be intense, with limited availability and high demand.



Young asian children writing in class.


 

Carol Dweck, a Standford University Professor has recently criticised the methods of learning in local schools, saying that learning should be "joyful", focused on understanding and not "drilling" or rote learning.

What are International Schools?

 

International schools are not run by the government, and have complete control over student admission, course material, tuition costs, and curricula from a variety of nations, as well as the International Baccalaureate (IB) programme. These schools are often a preferred choice for families with expatriate or English-speaking backgrounds, but often have lengthy waiting lists and prioritize siblings of current students, family members of alumni, and debenture holders.


Pros and cons of international schools in Hong Kong

International schools in Hong Kong offer a unique educational experience that is tailored to the needs of an international student body. These schools provide a multicultural environment where students can learn from and interact with peers from different countries and backgrounds. The smaller class sizes in international schools allow for more personalized attention and a greater focus on individual needs. Moreover, the teaching methods in international schools often emphasize critical thinking, creativity, and independent learning.


However, international schools also have their drawbacks. The tuition fees for international schools in Hong Kong are substantially higher compared to local schools. This financial burden may not be feasible for some families. Additionally, the language of instruction in international schools is primarily English, which may pose a challenge for non-native English speakers. It is therefore important to consider the language abilities of your child when deciding between local and international schools.


​It would cost an estimated HK $2.7M for each child to go through the international school system for the full 12 years from Primary to Secondary.

 


an asian boy counting coins.

Factors to consider when choosing between local and international schools

When deciding between local and international schools in Hong Kong, there are several factors that you should consider. Firstly, think about your child's language abilities and whether they are comfortable studying in English or Cantonese. Secondly, consider the cultural exposure you want your child to have. International schools offer a more diverse and multicultural environment, while local schools provide a deeper understanding of the local culture. Thirdly, assess your child's learning style and determine which teaching methods would suit them best. Finally, take into account your budget and financial capabilities.


Academic curriculum and language of instruction in local and international schools

Local schools in Hong Kong follow the local curriculum, which is based on the standards set by the Education Bureau. The primary language of instruction in local schools is Cantonese, with Mandarin being taught as a subject. English is also taught, but the level of proficiency may vary.

On the other hand, international schools in Hong Kong offer a range of curricula, such as the British, American, or IB curriculum. The language of instruction in international schools is primarily English, with a strong emphasis on developing English language skills.


Cultural diversity and exposure in local and international schools

Local schools in Hong Kong provide a deep immersion into the local culture and traditions. Students have the opportunity to learn about the rich history of Hong Kong and China and develop a strong sense of identity. However, local schools may have limited exposure to different cultures and may not provide the same level of diversity as international schools.


International schools in Hong Kong offer a multicultural environment where students can interact with peers from different countries and backgrounds. This exposure to different cultures can broaden their horizons and foster a global mindset.


Extracurricular activities and facilities in local and international schools

Both local and international schools in Hong Kong offer a range of extracurricular activities and facilities. Local schools often have a strong focus on academic achievements and may offer a limited range of extracurricular options compared to their counterpart. International schools place a greater emphasis on holistic development and offer a wide variety of activities, such as sports, arts, music, and community service. Additionally, international schools usually have modern facilities and resources to support a well-rounded education.


Cost considerations for local and international schools

One of the most significant factors to consider when choosing between local and international schools in Hong Kong is the cost. Local schools are generally more affordable compared to international schools. The tuition fees for local schools are subsidized by the government, making them a more affordable option for families on a tighter budget. On the other hand, international schools have substantially higher tuition fees, which can vary depending on the curriculum and facilities offered. It's essential to consider your financial capabilities and weigh the cost against the benefits of each system.


Testimonials from parents who have chosen local or international schools

As a parent, it can be helpful to hear from other parents who have made the decision between local vs international schools in Hong Kong.


"We chose a local school for our daughter because we wanted her to have a strong foundation in Cantonese and a deep understanding of the local culture,"

says Mrs. Wong, a parent in Hong Kong.


On the other hand, Mr. Wright, an expatriate parent, shares,

"We opted for an international school for our son because we wanted him to have a diverse and multicultural environment that would prepare him for a global future."

These testimonials highlight the different considerations and priorities parents have when choosing an education system for their child.


Choosing the right education system for your child

Choosing between local and international schools in Hong Kong is a decision that should be based on careful consideration of various factors. It's important to understand the differences between the two systems and assess what aligns best with your child's needs and your family's priorities. Consider the academic curriculum, language of instruction, cultural exposure, extracurricular activities, and cost when making your decision. Ultimately, the right education system for your child is the one that provides them with a nurturing and supportive environment to thrive academically, socially, and emotionally.


 

What other schooling options are available?

Apart from the local and international schools, there are also three other types that you may wish to consider when searching for the best school for your child. These include: Direct Subsidy Scheme (DSS) schools, Private schools, and ESF schools.


What are DSS schools?

 

Direct Subsidy Scheme (DSS) schools in Hong Kong are private schools at the primary and secondary levels that receive government funding through the Education Bureau's subsidy scheme. These schools must meet certain standards, including having qualified teachers and adequate facilities, to be eligible for the scheme. DSS schools have the autonomy to design their own curriculum (although some do offer the International Baccalaureate Programme) and charge school fees, and while they can select their own students, they are not allowed to conduct written entrance tests.


What are Private schools?

 

Private local schools in Hong Kong refer to schools that are privately owned and operated. These schools are not government-run and do not receive government funding. They have the autonomy to design their own curriculum and set their own fees. Private local schools in Hong Kong may follow the local curriculum, but they are not obligated to do so. Instead, they have the freedom to adopt alternative curricula or educational approaches. These schools cater to a wide range of students, offering different educational philosophies, teaching methods, and extracurricular activities.


What are ESF schools?

 

ESF schools in Hong Kong refer to the English Schools Foundation, which is a prominent organization offering 22 schools with English-medium instruction in the city. These schools hire mostly teachers and administrators from the UK, although other nationalities can also be hired. ESF schools follow the International Baccalaureate (IB) curriculum and offer a comprehensive programme of extra-curricular activities.

A complete list of all ESF schools in Hong Kong can be found here .

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