If you’re wondering how to choose a secondary school in Hong Kong we’ve got everything you need to know.
From Mandarin classes, to nailing the IB extended essay and choosing the right university, there’s a lot to think about when it comes to educating your family. If you’re wondering how to choose a secondary school in Hong Kong, IB Educator Alethea Bleyberg has put together this comprehensive guide on everything you need to know. Now sit back and get ready to learn.
How to choose a secondary school in Hong Kong
If you’re new to Hong Kong and have a child in the last four years of their schooling, finding a school that is the right fit can feel especially daunting. Undoubtedly you have heard a plethora of confusing acronyms – PIS, DSS, ESF, EDB –, not to mention the abbreviations of schools names that all sound the same (yes, CAIS, CIS, and CDNIS are all different schools), school names that are strikingly similar (Delia Memorial School and Delia School of Canada are not related in any way), and geographic confusion (no, Island School is currently not located on Hong Kong Island…).
Add to that differences in policies on debentures, capital notes and nomination rights, admissions testing, and waiting list preferences and it is understandable that the amount of information to compare and contrast for each school can feel overwhelming. If this sounds familiar, below are some pointers to help you navigate the landscape.
1. Type of School
Categorising types of school in Hong Kong isn’t easy as there are many classifications: government schools, direct subsidy schools (DSS), English Schools Foundation (ESF) schools, international schools, and private independent schools (PIS). The most important thing to keep in mind is that most government schools only offer the Hong Kong Diploma of Secondary Education (HKDSE) which is taught in Cantonese, so most expats will need to consider schools that offer non-local curricula which include ESF, PIS, or international schools, as well as some DSS schools.
As DSS schools are allowed to set their own curricula, some choose to offer non-local qualifications, often alongside the HKDSE. For example, Po Leung Kuk Ngan Po Ling College, Delia Memorial School Glee Path, Li Po Chun United World College, and St Paul’s Coeducational College offer the IB Diploma and YMCA of Hong Kong Christian College and Diocesan Girls’ School offer A-Levels.
Of all options, DSS schools will be the most affordable as they receive a government subsidy while PIS and international schools will be the costliest, although prices vary greatly from school to school. ESF schools have a long history in Hong Kong and, while not as affordable as they once were, they are still reasonably priced compared to many other international schools.
While you can afford to be a little experimental with curriculum in primary school, most senior secondary students are firmly focused on what comes next: a university degree. If your child wishes to return to their country for higher education, you may wish for them to sit the national exit qualifications for your country i.e. German Abitur, French Baccalaureat, Ontario Secondary School Diploma (OSSD) etc. If this is the case, you are likely to be limited to a relatively small number of schools that offer these specialised curricula; the OSSD is only offered at Canadian International School (CDNIS) and Delia School of Canada, for instance. Even Advanced Placement courses are only offered at a handful of schools in Hong Kong such as International Christian School (ICS), Hong Kong International School (HKIS), The Harbour School, Concordia International School, American International School and Christian Alliance International School (CAIS).
If following a national curriculum is not a consideration, you may wish to consider international options instead. By far the most popular international curriculum on offer for senior secondary students in Hong Kong are the two programmes offered by the International Baccalaureate, the Middle Years Programme (MYP) and the Diploma Programme (DP).
Over 170,000 students worldwide undertook DP assessment in 2020 (exams were cancelled due to Covid-19) of which 2,293 students were located in Hong Kong in 34 different schools. Hong Kong has some of the best IB Diploma results in the world; in the May 2020 session 1 in 10 students who achieved a top score of 45 points were from Hong Kong schools.
The MYP, which culminates in Grade 10/Year 11 is offered by 15 schools in Hong Kong. IGCSEs, the internationalised version of the British GCSE qualifications and also undertaken in Grade 10/Year 11, are also perennially popular in Hong Kong, being offered by over 20 schools including German Swiss International School (GSIS), French International School (FIS) and Kellett School. International curricula such as the IB Diploma are recognized by colleges and universities globally, although students need to pay careful attention when choosing their subjects and levels as universities and courses have specific course requirements for students to be eligible to apply.
Students following an applied learning pathway might be interested in either the BTEC or the IB’s Careers Programme (CP) pathway, which are offered through ESF schools.
3. Subject Choice Availability
Although schools may offer the same programmes, they may not necessarily have the same subjects on offer. This can be important if your child has a particular degree programme in mind that has specific entry requirements. For instance, if your child aspires to study Theatre in the UK, it would be beneficial for them to have taken A-Level Drama & Theatre or IB Theatre. However, not all schools that offer A-Levels or the IB Diploma offer Theatre. For instance, YMCA, Kellett School and Independent Schools Foundation Academy (ISF) do, but Kiangsu-Chekiang College, International Section and Singapore International School do not. Other subjects that may not be offered at all schools include Design Technology, Computer Science, Music, Business Management, Psychology, Philosophy and Environmental Systems and Societies.
If your child is thinking of applying to the US, there are fewer subject specific requirements, but since college credit is offered by many colleges for particular courses/levels, this may also be a consideration in subject and level choices.
4. Language Requirements and Provision
Many schools in Hong Kong have a bilingual Chinese-English mission and approach which may require students to take Chinese as part of their IB Diploma Programme, as is the case for Chinese International School and ISF Academy, for instance. This means that students that do not have a strong grasp of Chinese language already, will not be eligible to join these schools at senior secondary level.
Some schools offer students the option to self-study their mother tongue, such as Li Po Chun UWC and ESF schools do, but most do not. The variety of second language options on offer will also vary by school so if this is an important consideration, make researching this a priority.
5. University Guidance and Admissions Support
In order to ensure that the schools you are considering are matched with your child’s academic abilities and ambitions, make sure to ask about exam pass rates, average grade awards / scores and university admissions statistics. Most schools have a document called “School Profile” available on their websites which summarises students’ academic results in exit qualifications and which lists the universities their students were admitted to.
It is also important to consider how much support you expect the school to provide in the university application process to ensure the school can meet your expectations. Some schools have very low counsellor-to-student ratios and can provide full support in admissions testing, personal statement writing and application completion for multiple destinations whereas other schools have many more students per counsellor and only provide a basic level of support. Consider whether this is important to you, or whether you are prepared to hire an independent education consultant to help your child with the university admissions process outside of school. Ask schools how big and experienced their university guidance team is, and if they have recently supported applications to the country destinations your child will apply to.
6. Learning Support Provision
Similarly, if your child has a learning difference and requires personalised support, ensure the school can meet your child’s needs. Schools’ ability to provide assistance varies hugely and is not necessarily commensurate with fees charged. Some schools, such as Hong Kong Academy and The Harbour School, have specialisms in supporting students with diverse learning needs. Honest communication about your child’s needs during the admissions process is vital in ensuring your child can be academically successful in the schools you are considering placing them in.
School culture is an abstract, nebulous concept and yet when visiting a school, you can instantly ascertain many things about it: How student-centred does it feel? How formal or informal does it seem? Are students wearing a uniform and what is the uniform like? Can you hear students’ laughter in the corridors? Are the student ambassadors lively and enthusiastic about their role or reluctant and sullen? Are the corridors decorated with student work? Are the classrooms modern and well-resourced? Are there learning spaces for students to enjoy between lessons, such as study areas beyond the library? What kind of prominence is the library given in the school? What spaces are there for the creative arts, for sports and for physical activity?
The answers to these questions will tell you a lot about the school’s culture and how compatible that is with your family’s values. Choosing a school where your child will feel comfortable, fit in and find friends easily should be a priority as any school transition in the sensitive teen years is already a stressful experience.
An important part of school culture in many schools is religion. Many schools in Hong Kong, such as International Christian School, Yew Chung International School, Hong Kong Adventist Academy ELCHK Lutheran Academy and Elsa High School, have an explicitly religious mission, which may include religious education, chapel services and other religious celebrations and traditions. Being aligned with this aspect of the school’s vision and mission may also be an important consideration, and explicitly required for admission to the school.
8. Extra-Curricular Activities
Outside of the curricular provision, after-school activities and opportunities for participation in service learning, student leadership, experiential learning, sporting, creative and academic extension activities can be vitally important to students’ experience and enjoyment of school.
This is especially the case if these activities are likely to be important in building the experience and skills necessary to support competitive university applications i.e. inter-school league experience to gain sports scholarships in the US or Model UN and Mock Trial experience to enhance an application for law at a British university. Therefore, make sure you research what the after-school activity programming is like in your prospective schools – how is it scheduled, facilitated, prioritised and charged for, and how do students qualify for competitive activities?
What facilities does the school have on-site – a swimming pool, squash courts, a black box theatre – and how is access arranged amongst different sections of the school’s population? How is the school managing its service learning programmes during Covid-19 closures?
9. Practical Consideration
Lastly, consider the practical. How far is the school away from where you will be living? Long commutes are the norm for students in Hong Kong, but this doesn’t mean they don’t take a toll. Research shows that teenagers’ biological clocks run behind those of adults and younger children by up to two hours so getting up at the crack of dawn to get onto a bus for 90 minutes to get to school by 7.30am is likely to lead to an irritable and sleep-deprived student.
If they are going to tutoring or activities after school, where will those be located? What time does the school day start and finish, and how will this impact your family’s daily schedule? These can all be important considerations in trying to juggle work, school and home life responsibilities in a manageable way.
Moreover, ensure that the schools you are considering have availability for the year that your child is entering. As more expat families have left Hong Kong in the last 18 months, there may be places that have become available in senior secondary year groups, even in highly sought-after schools. If the school is selective, consider how likely they are to meet the admissions standards for an academically rigorous programme such as the IB Diploma. The IB itself does not set any requirements for students to take its programmes but schools will have different policies so you will need to meet with each school you are considering individually.