The Hong Kong education and schooling system explained
The schools provided by the Hong Kong Education Department (EDB – Education Bureau) can be divided into three main groups: government schools; subsidized schools, which are usually administered by charitable bodies; and private schools run by different organizations where admission is more often decided by academic merit (schools such as DBC and DGS are example of these types of schools).
Aside from the government system, there are private independent schools. The style of education, the language(s) of instruction and the international curricula offered by these schools appeal to both expatriate and local parents. Many of these schools have waiting lists and all charge higher (and in many cases, much higher) tuition fees than local schools.
In the past, the local education system has been very exam-orientated. However, in recent years there have been some moves towards fewer exams ad more continuous and formative assessment. Schools usually have a strict discipline code and virtually all students wear school uniform.
Primary schools used to be separated into morning (AM) and afternoon (PM) schools as a method of dealing with the problems of a lack of space and the large student numbers. However, with changing demographics and a falling birth rate, most primary schools have moved to become whole-day schools.
While most schools are co-ed, there are a number of well-known schools with good reputations which are single-sex.
Since 1997, there have been changes to a lot of kindergartens as a way of professionalizing them. Most of the changes have involved minimum teaching qualifications for both kindergarten teaching staff and principals. As the government has also placed more emphasis on the importance of early childhood education, the curriculum in kindergarten has now been designed to provide a sound foundation for students.
The majority of local Primary schools in Hong Kong are Chinese medium of instruction and the primary curriculum covers a wide range of subjects including Social Studies, Science, Chinese, English, Mathematics, Music, Arts and Physical Education.
Students are allocated to Secondary schools through their performance in three examinations taken in Primary 5 and Primary 6. Schools are extremely competitive and parents naturally have a strong preference for their child to be allocated to a top or higher band school.
Recently, primary school numbers have been shrinking, causing the closure of some schools and resulting in the need for some teacher redundancies.
Class numbers are traditionally much higher in Hong Kong than they are in Western countries. An average class, in both primary and secondary school could have over 35 students and it can be as many as 45. The shrinking enrollments have seen a lot of debate about smaller class sizes but so far the numbers of students in a class have not been greatly reduced.
The first year of secondary school, known as Form or Secondary One, follows six years of primary education. Forms 1 – 3 have compulsory attendance and in junior secondary, the learning is broader, without students choosing specific study areas.
The majority of local secondary schools became Chinese medium of instruction (CMI) after the Handover in 1997. However, since then many have gone back to an English medium of instruction (EMI). In 2013, 112 out of 400 secondary schools were EMI.
Students in Forms 4-6 now prepare for the HKDSE, the examinations for which are held at the end of Form 6. There are four core subjects – English, Mathematics, Chinese and Liberal Studies. Students then choose two or three elective subjects from a choice of 20. There are also some applied learning subjects, modeled on the idea of the BTEC and six other modern foreign languages which can also form part of the students’ choices.
International school students do not take local public examinations. Once, the UK GCSE/A-levels were popular among many of Hong Kong’s international schools but now the International Baccalaureate (IB) is a much more common programme. Some schools mix the two programmes, retaining IGCSE for 16 year olds, while using the IB Diploma at the higher secondary level. Many country-specific international schools teach a syllabus from their own country. Students also might take the SAT or IELTS in order to gain entry to an overseas university.
Several direct-subsidy ‘local’ schools with a good reputation now also offer the IB or the UK GCSE/A-levels. One of the reasons for this might be the government’s new 3+3+4 curriculum, as parents are concerned how the HKDSE will be viewed if students want to use it to gain tertiary entrance abroad.
Tertiary education is important in Hong Kong. There are eight universities and several other tertiary institutions without university status. All the tertiary institutions offer a range of programmes including undergraduate and post-graduate degrees, as well as Associate degrees and Higher Diplomas.
The number of places available for undergraduate degrees is substantially less than the number of students who actually fulfill the entry requirements for general admission to university. From the beginning of the academic year 2012, most courses were extended to four years, in line with the government’s policy of 3 + 3 + 4 (three years of junior secondary, followed by three years of senior secondary then 4 years of university). For students who fail to gain entrance to a degree programme, studying an Associate degree or a Higher diploma, which may articulate with a degree course later on, is a popular option. It is also sometimes possible to gain a course transfer form a successfully completed Higher diploma or Associate degree into an overseas degree programme with some credit transfer.
Of the Hong Kong universities, The University of Hong Kong and the Chinese University of Hong Kong have the best reputations. The Hong Kong University of Science and Technology has been developing a strong name in the areas of Technology and Business.
In terms of post-graduate study, the trend for local Hong Kong people is to complete a post-graduate qualification abroad. In terms of post-graduate students at local universities, a significant number of them come from Mainland China.
Life-long learning has become a popular catch cry from the government and certainly taking a course seems to be a common activity among the adult population. The majority of the universities have schools which offer non-degree, adult learning courses and there are a range of other institutions as well, offering professional, general education and interest courses. Language courses, especially English, Mandarin and Japanese are common, and many adults study as a means of improving their prospects in the employment market. The government has even established a scheme which enables adult learners to apply for course fee reimbursement for approved courses. There is also the Open University of Hong Kong, run along similar lines to the UK one, which gives many people opportunities to study for a degree.
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At the desk where I sit, I have learned one great truth. The answer for all our national problems - the answer for all the problems of the world - come to a single word. That word is "education".
Lyndon B. Johnson