Choosing a primary school: what do you look for?

So far in this series of articles about primary school choice, I've outlined the basics of the primary school application process in Hong Kong, and set out a timeline to help parents plan. But I've said very little about what parents should actually look for in a school, so that’s the precise purpose here. I've written about some of these factors before, when Mrs Tall and I were in the midst of the process ourselves, but I think my perspective on them is quite a bit clearer now, and my thoughts here should be better developed.

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.

The following is simply an annotated list of the factors Mrs Tall and I juggled as we considered which schools we’d apply to. For us, no single factor was make-or-break; we found ourselves playing some of them up when a school we liked – or that had accepted Daughter Tall – exhibited this characteristic, and vice versa. But we kept coming back to most of them in the end.

Medium of instruction

If you’re not a native speaker of Chinese, and you want to have some involvement in the day-to-day progress of your child’s education in local school, you’re going to need to look for a school that does at least some of its teaching in English (beyond the subject of English itself, that is).

In the past, quite a few Hong Kong primary schools were English medium, or at least claimed to be. That mostly ended in Hong Kong’s wave of patriotic reunification fervor in the 1990s, when the Government decreed that nearly all Government and aided schools had to switch to ‘mother-tongue instruction’. Even then, though, there were exceptions (mostly ‘famous’ schools).

Now, with the advent of the DSS schools, there are more options creeping back onto the scene. For example, Luk Hing Too, a DSS school in Tseung Kwan O, teaches several primary schools subjects in English (i.e. English, music and science), a couple in Putonghua (Chinese language and culture) and one in Cantonese (math). Evangel College, also a DSS school, teaches all subjects (except for Chinese language and culture) in English.

I saw the implications of this choice factor immediately as I tried to get information about schools. Schools that do at least some of their teaching in English tend to have bilingual websites and applications forms; those that teach only in Chinese often don't bother. This brought home to me rather sharply what the next few years would be like if Daughter Tall were to attend a Chinese-medium school.

Through train or not

Once you’ve been through the grind of applying for kindergartens, then seemingly almost immediately again for primary schools, you may be fed up with the whole school choice scenario, and dread the thought of doing it all over again when your daughter reaches primary 6 and needs to go on to secondary school. And by ‘you’, I of course mean ‘I’.

Thus the attraction of the ‘through train’ school -- i.e. once your kid is in for P1, she’s in for the whole show, right through Form 6 or 7. Many Hong Kong schools now are ‘through train’, or have arrangements to send their graduates to a particular secondary school. They will usually advertise this feature heavily, as it’s a significant plus for many parents.

An additional benefit of a through train primary school is that, at least theoretically, it’s likely to put less pressure on its students. Why? Because it won’t be judged according to how many of its graduates make it into ‘name’ secondary schools. This is an ongoing battle for stand-alone primary schools in Hong Kong, as this single criterion underlies much of a school’s reputation.

The down side of a through train school is that you’re locked in. If you or your child doesn’t like it, you’ll have to try to transfer to another school later on, or hang in there through P6 and then apply to other secondary schools anyway.

Also, one warning: some Hong Kong primary schools will advertise a ‘link’ or ‘association’ with a secondary school, but be sure to read the fine print: this doesn’t mean it’s necessarily a through-train setup. That is, some secondary schools pick and choose the best graduates from an associated primary school, but won’t guarantee them admission. This is another potentially high-pressure scenario for the primary school, and hence for you and your child.

Teaching philosophy

Although Hong Kong’s local school system is infamous for its traditionalist, high-pressure approach, there are now increasing numbers of variations on the theme, especially at the DSS schools.

Although I’m quite deeply traditional when it comes to educational methods and philosophy, I still don’t want Daughter Tall to suffer too much for my principles! So when we started hearing rumors about the Full Metal Jacket-style regimes at a couple of the private schools on our initial list, we quickly did some crossing out.

Conversely, we rejected applying to a couple of schools that have gained reputations for really pushing ‘creativity’. I’m not a big believer in a school’s ability to teach – or even foster – something as intangible, elusive and rare as true creativity, and I want Daughter Tall to be well-grounded in the basics, so we crossed those schools out, too.

Information about teaching philosophy is very hard to nail down. Most Hong Kong schools – like most schools just about everywhere – lard up their promotional materials and websites with lots of high-blown edu-jargon that sounds great to the uninitiated, but that to a cynical veteran of the education field like me just sounds like more pap. Perhaps the best word-of-mouth benchmark to seek out for schools you're interested in is how they view and assign homework. Schools that assign homework heavily are likely to be more on the traditionalist/structure-and-discipline end of the continuum, whereas schools that genuinely don't give out lots will be more progressivist/'creative'.

Co-ed or Single-sex

The vast majority of Hong Kong's schools are co-ed, but there are a few single-sex options. There are both practical and pedagogical reasons you might want to consider a single-sex school. First, as SKMama notes in this comment, if your child gets into a single-sex school, it's certainly better down the road if her sibling(s) is of the same sex. Otherwise you forfeit all the potential advantages your later children might have for getting into the school to which your first-born has been admitted. Second, a lot of recent study (and breast-beating) in the field of education has focused on the relative lack of success boys are having in contemporary schools. There's a renewed conviction among many education specialists that single-sex education really may benefit many children. (Note that this is in fact one area of education research in which I tend to believe the press, both because it seems reasonable and consistent with common-sense evidence, and because it runs counter to the most popular trends in education theory.)


All government and aided schools in Hong Kong are free. DSS schools can charge a limited amount of tuition — up to around 35K per year at the primary level. Private schools can of course charge what the market can bear, but their costs aren’t always what you’d expect, i.e. some are relatively cheap because they receive internal funding from the organizations that sponsor them. We came across private school costs ranging from amounts similar to the DSS upper limit, i.e. the 35K/year, up to about twice that. But none of the local private schools we investigated was even close to the cost of the top-end international schools, and only the most expensive cost as much as ESF schools do.

I won’t say much more about cost, since this is going to be a highly individual factor; you know how much you can pay – and are willing to pay.


For many Hong Kong people, this the single meaningful criterion for picking a school: if it’s a ‘good’ school, then that’s good enough – don’t confuse me with lots of irrelevant details about educational philosophy and religious affiliation!

Although ‘reputation’ is a mostly-unquantifiable commodity, it nevertheless has real value in Hong Kong. The SAR is a small place with quite a number of long-established schools that are hence almost universally known. Being an 'old boy' or 'old girl' of one of these schools has real potential value in a society in which guanxi (i.e. appealing to, and making use of, personal connections) is not unimportant. Indeed, Hong Kong is small enough that even the names of new DSS schools, i.e. ones that are only a few years old, will be familiar to most parents of school-aged children. Education is important in Hong Kong; school names are in the air; and for many people reputation is paramount. I suspect most Hong Kong parents have a well-articulated hierarchy of where schools are situated in terms of reputation, and many people will throw a lot of other factors under the decision-making bus if a big-name school sends an acceptance letter.

I have to admit that reputation is one of those things that you -- I -- can consciously push aside as of limited importance in the abstract, but that is very hard to discount in practice, when you are involved in choosing between actual schools. Your mileage may vary, of course, but my guess is that you too will find it hard to keep a shorthand school-ranking system out of your mind . . . .


Hong Kong is so compact that dozens — even hundreds — of schools are within reach for people living in the urban areas. There are geographical catchment areas that make a difference in the Government’s Central Allocation scheme, but in the earlier Discretionary Places period these geographical restrictions are suspended; you can apply to any school you want. DSS and private schools also don’t need to stick to geographical nets.

Nevertheless, there are reasonable limits -- at least there were for us. We live in Tseung Kwan O, so we were okay with schools in TKO itself, and in central and eastern Kowloon. Our line was drawn at about Sham Shui Po or so — farther west than that, and we thought it would just be too far. And crossing the harbor was pretty much out, as were any schools deeper into the New Territories, e.g. in Shatin or beyond.

But lots of Hong Kong people aren’t held back by these petty geographical limitations. They’re either willing for their kids to travel long distances to and from school or, especially if Junior gets into a really good school, they’ll move.

Religious affiliation

I’m a Christian, and Daughter Tall is being raised as one, so I preferred a school that's at least associated with a Christian church. This leaves lots of choice in Hong Kong, although the degree to which schools’ religious affiliation affects their day-to-day instruction and operations varies. It also meant that we ruled out schools run by non-Christian religious organizations, e.g. Buddhists and Taoists. Since there aren’t many of these in Hong Kong, it was not much of a limiting factor.

Conversely, however, if you wish your child to be educated in Hong Kong in a secular environment, you’ll be seriously reducing your choices, especially at the top schools, most of which are at least nominally Christian.

The next installment recounts some of our experiences putting together an application package/portfolio.


Educational lard

Mr Tall,

Above you wrote:

Most Hong Kong schools – like most schools just about everywhere – lard up their promotional materials...

Check out this high-cholestrol paragraph from a school we visited on the weekend:

In order to facilitate the development of multiple intelligences, our school offers not only the key learning areas but also various modules and extended learning activities. This enables our students to achieve holistic growth and all-round development through rich learning experiences and quality programmes.

I've just had a rather scary thought. You know the application letter you described? At first it seemed so over the top that even the first two paragraphs should have been a spoof. But maybe it's exactly the right tone if you're sending it to people used to writing paragraphs like the one above?



Yes, there is no jargon like unto edujargon! That's a spiky little example you've got there, with 'facilitate' 'multiple intelligences' 'key learning areas' 'modules and extended learning activities' 'holistic growth' 'all-round development' and 'rich learning experiences'.

Note also that the 'various modules and extended learning activities' seem to be mutually exclusive with the 'key learning areas' -- it's good to know lots of extended learning time will be spent on unimportant learning!

It's a bit sad, isn't it? It makes you hope that it's all just bad marketing, and that the real teachers in the real classrooms will just get down to business and teach the little monsters to do some readin' writin' and cipherin'!

Peer Group

I hadn't thought about this. Then at one school's open day the head teacher mentioned 'a good peer group' as one of their plus points. So I added that as another point to consider. After all, children will be soaking up at least as much about how the world works from their fellow students as they do from their teachers.

Then of course the next question is - what makes a peer group 'good'? There's no one answer of course, it all depends on what you expect to get from school.

If school is about moving up in the world, you'd be pleased to insert your child into a peer group of children from well-off, well-connected families.

Or are you hoping your child will pick up a good understanding of how to deal with many different types of people (eg so they don't end up with this problem)? Then a peer group drawn from a broader mix of society would be good.

In many cases, school is all about getting good academic results. Then you'd hope for a peer group that is academically strong.

Here at familyB, I think we'd define 'good' as meaning 'from families with similar values as ours'. Which is a bit of a surprise. At first I thought we'd go more for the 'deal with lots of different types of people' approach. But as a child I remember wishing there were more people like me at school!

I'd like 'Well-off, well-connected' to be neutral, not something we'd seek out, but a bonus if it was there. But in practice I feel a bit wary about this group, and whether "well-off" translates into a dollar-based pecking order. A friend's daughter who started at a well-known primary school this term reported some of the first words from her new desk mate were "I've got five Nintendo DS".

How did you think about peer groups when choosing a school?