Tuition, Fees and Debentures
Tuition fees for international schools in Hong Kong tend to be quite high, and do not include other associated costs such as non-refundable application fees and reservation fees.
Unlike their local counterparts, international schools in Hong Kong do not receive direct government subsidies. Funding comes entirely from the private sector, and fees are determined on a user-pay basis. Depending on the relocation or compensation package you’ve negotiated, international school fees for your children may be partially or fully subsidized by your employer.
Most of the international schools have a corporate debenture or capital levy program. A debenture is a lump sum — essentially an interest-free loan, which may or may not be reimbursed after the child leaves the school, depending on the school’s rules — that must be paid before a child is accepted to the school. (A capital levy differs from a debenture in that it is paid every year and is never refundable.)
A debenture is a lump sum — essentially an interest-free loan — that must be paid before a child is accepted to the school.
In many cases, a parent’s employer guarantees the debenture, a sum that may be refunded or transferred to cover other children sponsored by the same company. If your firm does not provide this debenture, you may need to pay for a private debenture or capital levy on top of the school fees. The requirements at each school will differ.
The curriculum taught in international schools can vary. While most offer American and British-style curricula based on the majority of graduates who intend to pursue higher education in the US and the UK afterwards, there are a number of international schools teaching programs geared towards further study in other major countries.
Such schools make this clear from their name, for instance, the Australian International School, the Canadian International School, and so on.
Depending on which you choose, your child will most likely be studying for the GCE Advanced Levels (A-Levels) or International Baccalaureate (IB) program at upper secondary level to prepare them for entry into university. Some schools, including the American International School and the Hong Kong International School, offer Advanced Placement (AP) courses for those pursuing higher education in the US. Many parents will make a decision based on which of these programs is being offered. There are also a number of institutions offering programs to children with special needs (read more).
English is the medium of instruction at most international schools, although a handful offer a bilingual learning experience and the option of two different curricula within the same school. One such institution is the German Swiss International School (GSIS), which offers two “streams” following the British and German school systems, taught in English and German, respectively.
English is the medium of instruction at most international schools, although a handful offer a bilingual learning experience and the option of two different curricula within the same school.
GCE Advanced Level (A-Levels)
The General Certificate of Education (GCE) Advanced Level, or A-Level, is a subject-based qualification awarded by educational bodies in the United Kingdom upon graduation from secondary school. A-Levels require studying three or four subjects in depth simultaneously over a two-year period, and sitting for an examination at the end of each year invigilated by an official assessment body.
A-Levels are recognised by many universities as the standard for assessing student applications into England, Wales and Northern Ireland. Many such universities partly base their admissions offers on a student’s predicted A-Level grades, with the majority of these offers conditional on achieving a minimum set of final grades.
Most international secondary schools in Hong Kong teaching a British curriculum will offer the A-Level examinations, which are a traditional choice for students wishing to pursue higher education in the UK.
International Baccalaureate (IB)
The International Baccalaureate (IB) program is an academic curriculum for secondary schools and is very popular among international schools in Hong Kong. The program itself aims to develop inquiry, knowledge and caring and to encourage students across the world to become active, compassionate and lifelong learners. It was established in 1968 to provide students with a balanced education, to facilitate geographic and cultural mobility and to promote international understanding. Four different IB programs are now available for students aged 3 to 19: the Primary Years Program, Middle Years Program, Diploma Program and Career-related Program.
There are 65 schools in Hong Kong offering one or more of the four IB programs. In some schools, the IB curriculum is taught from kindergarten through to Grade 12 (UK’s Year 13), while in others, IB may only be offered at the upper secondary levels. The IBO website has a list of IB schools in Hong Kong.
Advanced Placement (AP) is an academic program that offers students an opportunity to take college-level courses in high school. AP is well respected among US universities and colleges and helps students to stand out in the admissions process.
AP courses in more than 25 subjects are available to secondary students of international schools in Hong Kong. Students taking AP classes receive high school credits as they fulfill the course requirements as outlined by the school, and they may be eligible to receive college credits depending on results of their exams and choice of college; each college or university has a different policy regarding scores of AP exams and whether to award credits.
AP exams are offered by the US-based College Board. The Hong Kong Examinations and Assessment Authority (HKEAA) is one of the examination centers appointed by the College Board to hold AP Exams in Hong Kong. A directory of schools offering AP classes is available through the College Board’s website.
Chinese Language Instruction in International Schools
Many expat families see a posting to Hong Kong as a great opportunity to give their children the increasingly valuable gift of Chinese language skills. Although Cantonese is dominant across Hong Kong society, the dialect taught in international schools is Mandarin. Additionally, most international schools use the mainland’s simplified characters rather than traditional characters (as used in Taiwan and Hong Kong).
If attaining proficiency or fluency in Mandarin is a top priority for your children, look for an immersive bilingual program where at least 50% of classroom instruction is conducted in Mandarin. Schools with well-regarded bilingual programs include:
- Chinese International School
- Independent Schools Foundation Academy
- Kiangsu-Chekiang College
- Singapore International School
- Victoria Shanghai Academy
Supply and Demand
For many years, the city suffered a crucial shortage of international school places, exacerbated by the increasing number of local families wanting an English-language education for their children.
The Hong Kong government responded by proactively supporting the expansion of existing schools in Hong Kong and approving the construction of new ones. As a result, the situation is now greatly improved; arguably, it’s swung too far in the other direction as relocation driven by the pandemic has made it hard for many international schools to fill seats.
That being said, well-established schools in areas with a large expat community (e.g. Mid-Levels, Southern District) still often have long waiting lists. Kindergarten and primary international school places in these areas tend to be particularly oversubscribed. For parents with young children and hearts set on a particular school, enrolling in an “interim school” until your first choice becomes available is a viable and very commonly taken route.
Well-established schools in areas with a large expat community still often have long waiting lists.
English Schools Foundation (ESF)
The English Schools Foundation (ESF) was set up in 1967 to provide primary and secondary education on par with schools in the UK. Additionally, ESF built their first kindergartens in 1999 and now operate five throughout Hong Kong.
ESF is the largest provider of English-medium international education in Hong Kong and operates 22 schools. All ESF schools teach a British curriculum and accept both local and expatriate students, although foreign passport holders receive admissions priority. ESF’s fees have traditionally been lower than those at other international schools, thanks to government subsidies dating back to ESF’s colonial-era founding. However, the government subsidy is being phased out (amid some controversy) and is due to end completely by 2029.
ESF schools are assigned depending on the student’s address (with the exception of Discovery College and Renaissance College — see Private Independent Schools below). Programs are also available for children with special educational needs.
ESF is a through-train system; all primary students are guaranteed a place at an ESF secondary school. Starting with the August 2020 cohort of 3-year-old kindergarteners, kindergarten students are also guaranteed a spot in ESF primary school (assuming they can benefit from a mainstream, English-medium education).
ESF is a through-train system; all primary students are guaranteed a place at an ESF secondary school.
ESF Admission Policy
ESF accepts online applications for the first year of kindergarten in September of the preceding year. Children are invited to the kindergarten for a “play visit” in December, with holders of a HK$500,000 kindergarten debenture receiving priority interviews. Applicants for K2, or for K1 outside of the September admissions period, may apply at any time and are placed on a waiting list.
Primary and Secondary
ESF primary and secondary schools require a “one form” application system. This means parents may only submit one online application per child with their selected preference of schools.
Students applying for enrollment at an ESF primary or secondary school are placed on a waiting list and invited to interview when vacancies arise. Priority for an admissions interview or assessment is based on certain ranked criteria; visit the ESF website for more detail.
Private Independent Schools (PIS)
Of the 22 ESF schools in operation, two are what’s known as Private Independent Schools (PIS). Like private international schools, PIS offer a non-local curriculum and are wholly funded by the private sector.
PIS primarily cater to demand from local families seeking an English-language alternative to public sector schools. Consequently, PIS are required to ensure that at least 70 percent of their student population are made up of Hong Kong Permanent Residents.
Aside from the two operated under ESF, there are five other PIS in Hong Kong. These include:
- Discovery College (ESF)
- Renaissance College (ESF)
- The Independent Schools Foundation Academy
- International Christian School
- Po Leung Kuk Choi Kai Yau School
- Victoria Shanghai Academy
- Yew Chung International School – Secondary
Applying to International Schools
Due to high demand, waitlists for admission to international schools can be very long, and securing a place at your first choice isn’t something you should take for granted.
This is especially the case for schools on Hong Kong Island. While applying, try to keep an open mind. There are some excellent alternatives in Kowloon and the New Territories, as well as on Lantau Island.
If you are interested in a particular school for your child, it is advisable to apply long before arriving in Hong Kong. Many parents “cross-apply” to a few different schools, making waitlists seem much longer than they really are. Adopting the same strategy might be wise.
Your employer can be a good source of information on local international schools, and they may be able to help with school applications.
Points to Consider
The consideration process should involve at least one visit to prospective schools to meet with staff and observe classes in action. Things to ask about include:
- Educational philosophy
- Student-teacher ratio
- Teaching methods and materials
- Type of qualifications offered at upper secondary level (GCE A-Levels, IB)
- Foreign language instruction, especially Mandarin (compulsory at many schools)
- Remote learning arrangements in case of school closure
- Availability of Special Educational Needs (SEN) courses
- Fire and other safety procedures
- Bus services
There are several good online directories of international schools:
- International Schools in Hong Kong
The EDB’s searchable, filterable database for primary and secondary international schools.
- Profile of Kindergartens and Kindergarten-cum-Child Care Centres 2020/21 (EDB)
The EDB’s searchable, filterable database for preschools. Select “non-local” for English-medium kindergartens or “local” for Cantonese-medium kindergartens.
- English Schools Foundation (ESF)
- Top Schools School Finder