Primary school applications in Hong Kong: the basics

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 Education Bureau homepage

The EB's pamphlet on the Discretionary Places Admission and the Central Allocation scheme (.pdf file)

The EB's main page on school admissions schemes

The EB's main page on primary school admissions

The EB's video introduction to the Discretionary Places Admission Scheme (launces video player)

The EB's video introduction to the Central Allocation (launches video player)

The EB's information on 'through-train' schools

The EB's information page on Direct Subsidy Scheme (DSS) schools

This useful document (.pdf) from the EB compares the features of aided, DSS and PIS schools

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 English homepage

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.

A good source of gossip on local Hong Kong schools, and making application to them, is Note that most of this site's in Chinese, but that some discussion threads are conducted in English, or have English posts embedded in them. You can therefore still search the site for school names using Google or other search engines.


Gaming the schools admission process

In a comment on an earlier schools article, I recounted the story of someone we know in HK getting their kid baptized to increase his chances of getting into a particular school. I was quite taken aback by this, and assumed it was likely a Hong Kong-specific phenomenon.

But in the past week David Cameron, the leader of the UK's nearly-erstwhile Conservatives, has blithely condoned the very same practice, for the very same reasons. And it's spurred one India Knight to compose this rather incoherent but provative screed in the Times. It seems, at least according to Ms Knight, that Everyone's Doing It, anyway. The comments that follow are interesting, too.

Soon to HK

Thankyou for the series of articles on schools. They are indeed very informative. I am soon to move to HongKong from India and have a four year old kid. He will be five in August 2008 (2003 born). He has studied two years in India, in nursery and Lower KG. He would have been promoted to Upper KG this yar in India. I am wondering if I should enrol him in KG or in Primary. Is it really my choice? Once I am able to figure this out, I shall start shortlisting schools where I start trying for applications.

I think I should start by April already and may even have to visit once before I move to HK finally in August 2008.

Further sicne my kid so far communicates in Hindi, but he can understadn bit og english... he is not able to speak in english, but understands simple sentences. He is also not very extrovert or outspoken, but rather into himself and quiet. Is that an issue?

Look forward to advice from enlightened residents on this.
Kind Regards

Kindergarten or Primary


The government's FAQ  on primary applications starts with "To be eligible for participation in POA 2008, a child must
(a) reach the age of 5 years 8 months when he/she is enrolled in P1 in September 2008 (i.e. born on or before 31 December 2002);"

so your son will attend a kindergarten.

According to his age he'd be joining the third (and last) year of kindergarten. It would be worth asking the kindergarten whether it would be better to start in an earlier year to give more time for his English to catch up.

Good luck,


Amita, I thought it was


I thought it was important to mention that the information from MrB about the 5 years 8 months cut-off applies to the local school system, i.e. mostly Chinese-medium schools, though there are some (highly competitive) English-medium schools.

If you plan to send your son to an English Schools Foundation school or an international school, he would start primary school a year earlier, so this September, and I think they stick quite strictly to the year groupings as well. Check out the admissions page for ESF schools:

I would suggest not waiting any longer to apply as the cut-off date for main ESF allocation has already passed, and international school places are in short supply.

Good luck!

Hindi-speaking schools


In case you are worried about the language issue, I have found 2 Hindi-speaking primary schools in Hong Kong. I mean they are English-medium with some Hindi. They are run under the local system so you could wait until 2009 for admission and they are free. I think they have quite a number of Indian pupils. Check these out:

Li Cheng Uk Government Primary School  

Sir Ellis Kadoorie (Sookunpo) Primary School

Hindi info

BG, you did a much better job at answering than I did!

Thanks & regards, MrB

Soon to HK

Dear Mr. B. and BG,

Many thanks for your timely replies. Yes... I should start looking already... Based on the school, we can even decide on the place to stay. My husband's office is expected to be at a place called "Central".. and presuming it should be "centrally" located :-), it should have easy access to most places to HK.

Any advise on a nearby places to live, that may not be too hard on pocket, but decent enough to bring up a child is welcome. For the initial one year, till we get to know the place better, would rather avoid too much travel to work place.. say maximum half an hour to "Central".

Have been reading a lot abour HK though and certainly look forward to moving!

Thanks again!

Soon to HK

Amita, we've got some ideas on finding where to live over here, I suggest you read that first then ask questions on that thread.

As you mention, Central has good public transport connections, so you'll have lots of options once you have an idea where your son's schools are located.

Regards, MrB

Soon to HK

Thanks again Mr. B.

I have started doing my research on schools keeping a HK map for guidance. The two hindi speaking schools, are both in Kowloon.

I have been especially interested in ESF schools, with English as a medium of instructions and where students can also learn the local language simultaneously.

But theres only one Kindergarten school under ESF in HK island. I was also doing through the website of some other ESF schools, where the Primary Year Programme (PYP) is for 3-12 years. Therefore, since my child would be 5 by the time school starts, is it a good idea to put him directly to PYP? Going by what I understand about the curriculum and teaching styles, it should not be too hard on the kids, atleast in Primary.

I would still prefers that he goes for one year to the kindergarten school so that he gets time settle in the new environment, but since there is only one, I am looking for some flexibility.

He is already well-versed with his alphabets, and kindergarten is optional in HK (from what I read). Do all kids to to kindergarten or local residents send them directly to the PYP?

Request experienced members, especially with kids in Primary to please share their thoughts.

Kind Regards

ESF schools

Hi Amita, I'm sorry I don't know much about ESF, though I hope some of our readers may be able to help you.

You should also pay a visit to the geobaby website, as you can see they have lots of ESF discussions there, and a thread for Indian mums in HK too!


What a great, comprehensive

What a great, comprehensive article! Such a help to us parents.

English requirements for ESF schools

Following up belatedly on the thread about a quiet Hindi-speaking child whose parents were considering an ESF- here is something to bear in mind for other parents in a similar situation.

The two ESF school with which I am most familiar (Clearwater Bay and Renaissance) both have an interview at which applicants must demonstrate age-appropriate proficiency in English. Here are the relevant lines from Clearwater Bay's admissions page: "[C]hildren have to demonstrate, at an informal interview, that they can both speak and understand English. From Year 2, children need to be able to read and write English as well, at a level commensurate with their peers."

I believe this is standard throughout the system. The interviews for Primary 1 are quite open and friendly as these things go (or so I am told - parents remain in the waiting room, at least at the one we went to, while the children go off to the library to listen to a story and talk about it and play a bit), but they are not a complete formality. Sometimes a second interview chance will be granted to a child who does not perform, sometimes not.

Many children with less-than-perfect English are accepted into ESF/PIS, but I also know of several cases of children from non-English-speaking backgrounds who attended a primarily English-language kindergarten in HK NOT getting a place; their parents are fairly sure it was because they did not talk enough or respond quickly enough at the interview. These children are all bright and (in non-interview situations) as competent in English as many of their peers from similar backgrounds who did gain admission.The stories turn out happily enough - one child is attending a DSS, another got into an international school, but it was a nasty shock for their parents and led to a mad scramble for alternatives.

At least in our area, ESF admission seems to be getting more and more competitive, so this may be of real concern to parents of quiet children in general. Our son is a native English speaker, but that does not mean that at any given moment he will speak to anyone about anything, and indeed, at a practice interview at his kindergarten with a representative from the local ESF school, he did in fact refuse to participate. We assume he did better at his actual interview, and, if there were doubts, it can't have hurt that the written application showed that he has a native American parent and had lived and attended daycare in the US  until he was 4. We were wait-listed but ultimately offered a place (in the end, we decided not to send him to ESF). If your family background, language practices, and residential history as reflected in your written application and immigration documents don't offer such reassurance, I wonder if refusal is more likely.

Mr. Tall has written about the interview process for local schools and the steps some parents take to prepare for it; ESF applications may increasingly demand similar measures for shy children, especially those from a bi- or multi-lingual background.