Today I’m kicking off a longish (okay: practically endless) series on the primary school application process here in Hong Kong. I’ve got some inherent interest in school choice policy, but my real motivation is much simpler: the Family Tall has just been through the whole process in getting Daughter Tall a primary school place for next September.
This is part of a series on how to choose and apply to a Primary School in Hong Kong. You can see the full list of articles on the left.
If you've reached this page via a search engine, you'll probably want to read the introduction first.
Note that this series of articles is devoted to Hong Kong’s 'local' schools, i.e. the ones for Hong Kong kids who can speak -- and have been prepared to learn to read and write -- Chinese. 'Local' schools also tend to follow a curriculum that's mandated by the Hong Kong Education Bureau, although there are exceptions I'll note as we go. There’s a whole other world of international schools that I don’t know much about, since Mrs Tall and I have decided to send Daughter Tall on the local route.
I thought at one point about keeping a kind of ‘running diary’ of the process as events transpired, but feared this approach might end up generating more heat than light. In retrospect, given the way things went, I'm pretty sure this was the right choice.
In this first installment, I’ll take you through the structure of Hong Kong's school system, and point out some of the basics of the Primary 1 application process along the way.
The first fact parents must get straight is that there are three types of local schools: Government/Government-aided; Direct Subsidy Scheme (DSS hereafter); and private. All three have their own rules and practices for admission. This creates enormous potential for confusion, and is very much the reason for making this the first article in the series: if you can't get this stuff straight, you're going to be frequently confused (as I was at many points in the past few months!).
Let’s get the seemingly-most-complex — but in practice, the easiest — of the three forms of application out of the way first.
Government/Government-aided schools: Most Hong Kong schools are fully funded by the Hong Kong government, and must admit their students according to the Government’s two-stage admissions scheme.
This huge group of schools can be further divided into two major sub-categories. Sorry to complicate things, but you’ll hear the terminology involved frequently. First, there are a number of truly ‘government’ schools run by the Hong Kong Government itself. Their names reflect this, e.g. ‘Kowloon Tong Government Primary School’. But most government-funded schools in Hong Kong are actually run by private organizations such as churches and community groups, and are called ‘aided’ schools. These schools receive full government funding, and must follow the Government’s curriculum and rules for admitting students, but also have a limited degree of autonomy in the way they’re run. Some of Hong Kong’s most famous and reputable school systems — e.g. Maryknoll and LaSalle — are ‘aided’ schools. And so are just about all of Hong Kong's worst schools, too.
Admission to Government/aided schools is carried out in two stages. First, in the autumn of the year before the student is to be admitted, i.e. almost a year in advance, parents can apply for ‘discretionary place admission’ to a single school of their choice. This school doesn't need to be in their school ‘net’ — i.e. the geographical catchment area they live in, which is the equivalent of a school district in the USA, or maybe an LEA in the UK.
At the discretionary place admission stage, Government/aided schools can fill half of their places, but there’s a catch: over half of these discretionary places are de facto reserved for siblings of children already in the school, and for teachers’ kids. The remaining places -- which can't be less than 20% of a school's total places -- are allocated according to a ‘points system’ that gives advantages for a range of factors, e.g to first-born kids, to kids whose parents belong to the same religion/community organization as the one running the school, to children whose parents are themselves graduates of the school, and several others. It’s more complicated than I want to explain, but -- surprisingly for a huge governmental bureaucracy -- the HK Education Bureau does an excellent job of it themselves. Their main page on Primary 1 applications is here, and they've got an admirably crisp two-page summary of the two-stage application process here. I'd also recommend watching two EB videos that systematically explain discretionary places admission and the central allocation (which I'll say a bit more about in a minute).
The discretionary places admission scheme at first seems cumbersome and potentially unfair, but the more I looked at it, the more I could see its logic. If you find that you won’t get many points for the school you’re interested in, you’re probably right in thinking your kid won’t get a place this way. Still, there’s often a chance to gain admission to a decent school, so it may be worth making an attempt if you have a reasonable target school in mind. The trick is trying to find out, historically, how many points are needed to get into the school you're interested in, and then making sure your kid has that many. You can of course roll the dice and try to get into a really good school with a lackluster point total, but then you're essentially throwing away this chance altogether.
Discretionary places are assigned in November, and parents whose kids get them must decide within a few days whether to take them or not.
The rest of the places in Government/aided schools are assigned in the infamous ‘Central Allocation’ that takes place the following January, i.e. the January of the year your child is to start P1. Participants must attend an ‘allocation centre’, where they submit their prioritized list of choices of schools within their geographical net. Then they wait until June to hear what they’ve got, after the Government computers have churned out the results. The Central Allocation is touted by the Government as completely impartial, but rumors swirl around its mysteries.
Finally -- and don't expect the EB to tell you about this -- there's one more chance to get into a government-funded school of your choice, immediately after the Central Allocation. It seems at least some schools are allowed to reserve a limited number of places and admit kids via individual application, even at this late stage. I know people who have successfully done this, but their stories of rushing around from school to school sound very stressful indeed.
There’s more that could be said about the Government/aided schools, but for now let’s move on to the other two types of Hong Kong schools, which have very similar admissions approaches.
Direct Subsidy Scheme (DSS) schools: DSS schools receive some Government funds (the mechanism for determing their funding is: they can charge tuition fees, within limits, and then the Government gives each DSS school the difference between the amount they’ve collected, and the amount they would have received as ordinary aided schools for the number of students they’ve registered). DSS schools are also granted fairly wide latitude in terms of choosing their students, setting their curricula, and so on. Many of them advertise themselves as providing an alternative to Hong Kong's traditional style of teaching.
The DSS scheme was launched in 1991, and ordinary 'aided' schools can apply to be reclassified as DSS schools at any point they think they're ready. In practice, only pretty good schools seem to be granted this privilege, which essentially transforms them in one go from a government-controlled school to a quasi-private school. And if our experience is any indication, the DSS scheme is a wild success. We applied to quite a few DSS schools, and all of them had huge numbers of initial applicants, far overwhelming the number of places available.
DSS schools have almost complete freedom in admitting students. They therefore don't hold to the Government's geographical nets, although some do seem to favor students from their immediate areas. They also -- uniformly, in our experience -- conduct their admissions via application forms and one or two rounds of interviews, just like the private schools do. And they can set their own timetables and deadlines, so the only way to find out what you need to do to apply to each individual DSS school is visit its website, or call its office for information, then follow the instructions you're given.
If you're interested in DSS schools, there's more information about them from the Education Bureau here, including a list of DSS schools. I'm not providing a link to this list -- you can find the link on the page I have linked above -- since the list is updated as new schools are added. Currently there are only about 20 DSS schools at the primary level in all of Hong Kong; there are quite a few more at the secondary level. There are a few that teach in English (except for Chinese language/culture).
One important note: if your child is offered a place in a DSS school, and you go ahead take it, you'll be asked to sign a form that removes your child from both the Discretionary Places Admission and the Central Allocation for Government/aided schools. This is completely understandable, in that DSS schools are still at least partially Government-funded, so you shouldn't be allowed to hang on to places in two different admissions systems.
This little quirk puts some parents into a quandary. Let's say Mr and Mrs X apply to a DSS school, and then their kid gets admitted. They then have a look at the points system for the discretionary places admission, and realize their kid's got a legitimate shot at an even better aided school. Now they must decide: do they drop the DSS place and hold out for the discretionary admission place, or hang on to the sure thing (i.e. the DSS place) and forget about the discretionary place? We know of people who got themselves into this exact situation, and had some unpleasant agonizing over what to do.
Private schools: As the name implies, private schools do not receive Hong Kong Government funds. They therefore can do as they please when it comes to choosing and admitting students. Some are run by churches and charitable organizations, but there are also some secular options. Like DSS schools, Hong Kong's private schools require formal applications and interviews, and their practices vary widely, so you must search out the information you need on a school-by-school basis. There really are no shortcuts.
There's a special type of private school in Hong Kong that I also should mention here. They're new schools established as part of the Government's most recent schools innovation, i.e. the 'Private Independent Schools' or PIS scheme. These schools are given land and grants to get established, but then must support themselves via tuition fees. They also must admit at least 70% local kids, but the rest can be international students. At present there is just a handful of such schools in operation -- e.g. Renaisssance College in Ma On Shan; The International Christian Quality Music School in Diamond Hill; the Independent Schools Foundation Academy and the Victoria Shanghai Academy in Wanchai; and Po Leung Kuk Choi Kai Yau School in Shamshuipo -- but more are slated for development.
The EB, for reasons we may speculate upon, provides little information on this scheme. The best description of the PIS scheme I can find is in this EB prospectus on international education options in Hong Kong (note .pdf file). You can also find a brief but helpful comparison between aided, DSS and PIS schools in this .pdf file, which is in fact from the EB site.
I'll discuss applying to and interviewing at DSS and private schools in much more detail in an article down the road a bit. The next step, though, is to organize all this information into some kind of chronological order. I'll do this in my next article.
I'll recap here some of the helpful links I mentioned above, plus a few more.
The first set you'll need is for the relevant Education Bureau pages:
The Hong Kong Government also funds/more or less runs an alternative education site that's ostensibly aimed at students and their parents, called HKEdCity. It's a helpful but sometimes frustrating source of information. Here are some links to help you navigate HKEdCity:
HKEdCity's Primary Schools Profiles page. This is an essential link, since it provides access to information on every local school in Hong Kong, in English.
There are two ways to gain access to the schools profiles on HKEdCity. There’s a search engine, which seems to respond to words found in school names. It works pretty well, even if you can just remember one or two terms correctly.
You can also just use the list of links provided on this page to Hong Kong’s geographical districts, then run through the lists of schools you find there.
Once you gain access to an individual school’s profile, make sure you check out all of the links in the menu on the left-hand side of the page; the initial page you’ll see in each profile contains only general information about the school. There’s also a helpful option for printable .pdf summaries of each school profile.
I found myself using these HKEdCity quite often, for a couple of reasons. First, you can see lists of all schools in each district – private schools are profiled along with Government/aided and DSS schools. And second, although most schools in Hong Kong have websites, many don’t maintain English versions, so although HKEdCity’s info is pretty basic, it’s the best you’re going to find for many schools.