Center on International Education Benchmarking

System Design

Pre-school education is available to students between the ages of 3 and 5, though all pre-school and kindergarten programs are run by private organizations. Students attend primary school between the ages of 6 and 12. Parents may apply for admission to a government or “aided” school of their choice; the success of their applications is determined by the Education Bureau’s (EDB) set criteria for each school. Typically, the school can fill up to 50% of their places with children who are not in their local neighborhood. 60% of the non-local admissions are reserved for siblings of current students or children of staff, making up about 30% of the school’s total admission. Forty percent of the non-local admissions (20% of the school’s total) are allocated for students outside of the school’s neighborhood. Students are awarded points to determine their eligibility for these positions. The highest points go to the previously mentioned groups, as well as to students whose parents or siblings have graduated from that school. Other points are awarded for being a first-born child, having the same religious affiliation as the school, being the right age, and having a parent belong to the organization that sponsors the school. Parents may also choose to avoid this process, and go through the central allocation process, in which their child is assigned a school based on school enrollment, parent choice and random lottery.

Following primary school, students may again choose to apply for admission to a secondary school of choice. At this level, the schools, rather than the EDB, determine their own admissions standards. Students may also remain in the central allocation system, where the assignment procedures are the same as in the primary school central allocation process. As of the 2011-2012 school year, after three years of lower secondary education, students take the Hong Kong Diploma of Secondary Education Examination (HKDSE) to determine which upper secondary school they may attend. At this juncture, around age 15, students may choose to continue in an academic track, or switch to vocational education, where they can earn a diploma that will enable them to continue with vocational training at the post-secondary level. Secondary school students often spend many additional hours a week in tutoring schools or with private tutors in order to get ahead in their classes and to prepare for the examinations.

Hong Kong has recently shifted from the British model, in which students attended six years of primary school, five years of lower secondary before sitting for one set of gateway exams, and an optional additional two years of upper secondary before sitting for a second set of exams, to a model more similar to that of the US. Now, students will attend six years of primary school and only sit for an exam at the end of an additional six years of secondary school, which will help determine their entrance to university. Under the old system, university bachelor’s degree programs took three years; under the new system, they will take four years. The government undertook this change to make their universities more globally competitive by offering four-year programs.


The Education Bureau (EDB) sets the framework for school curriculum development. The framework is comprehensive, comprising detailed guides for each subject area for both primary and secondary school as well as seminars and workshops for teachers and administrators to prepare them to teach the curriculum. The curriculum is based on eight key learning areas: Chinese language, English language, mathematics, science and technology, social science and humanities, sports and arts, applied learning (workplace skills and experiences) and other learning experiences (service learning workplace visits and overseas experiences). Students who intend to go on to university must demonstrate performance in four areas: Chinese, English, mathematics and liberal studies, which is an interdisciplinary field encompassing history, social studies and civics and citizenship education, all with a focus on the major global issues of the 21st century. In addition to the learning areas, the curriculum is intended to help students develop in the areas of ethics, intellect, physique, social skills and aesthetics. Ultimately, students are expected to understand their roles in society and their national identities, possess critical thinking and independent learning skills, enjoy independent reading and lead a healthy lifestyle. Schools are responsible for formulating the day-to-day lesson plans, keeping these guidelines and end goals in mind. Because Hong Kong wants to ensure that its curriculum is rigorous by an international standard, policymakers regularly benchmark the curriculum, and update it to ensure it is up-to-date with international best practice.


Externally assessed exams are managed by the Hong Kong Examinations and Assessment Authority (HKEAA). Up to the 2011-2012 academic year, students take the Hong Kong Certificate of Education (HKCEE) and the Hong Kong Advanced Level Examination (HKALE) at the end of lower and upper secondary education, respectively. These system-wide exams are considered to be comparable to the British system of O- and A-level examinations.

Under the new system, students will now take the Hong Kong Diploma of Secondary Education (HKDSE) after completing six years of secondary education, instead of taking the test at the end of lower secondary and another test at the end of upper secondary education. The first class will sit for this exam in 2012. Students will be tested in four core subjects (Chinese, English, math and liberal studies) as well as two to three elective subjects. The HKDSE will be offered in 20 elective subjects and foreign languages in addition to the core subjects.   Students will be assessed based on set standards of expected achievement, which are broken down into five levels of competence. These exams will serve as an admissions component to institutes of higher education. Additionally, school-based formative assessments will now also be counted as a component of public examination results, so that a greater sense of student knowledge and skill level can be taken into account.

The Hong Kong Examination Authority (HKEAA) also provides a number of school-based assessments that individual schools may administer to their students. These assessments are standardized but are marked by the students’ teachers, rather than an external body, and may count towards a school’s public assessment results. The HKEAA also suggests that these assessments be used as part of a student’s academic development, as they allow teachers to be aware of student problems and progress and they can adjust accordingly.


There are no examinations between primary and secondary school in Hong Kong. Under the current system, students must take the Certificate of Education Examination after the first five years of secondary school (age 15 or 16) which will lead either to two more years of school, or entrance into a profession. If a student chooses to complete an additional two years of secondary schooling, they must take A-level examinations at the end of two years, which help to determine what type of higher education they may pursue. Students can enter vocational education immediately after the O-level exams, and are eligible for higher vocational education after completing secondary vocational education.

Under the new system, there will be no gateway tests until the end of upper secondary school, at which point the gateway exam (the HKDSE) will determine a student’s higher education prospects.

The Structure of Hong Kong’s Educational System



Primary schools run on one of three schedules: morning, afternoon and whole-day schooling. Based on the government’s recommendation, most primary schools have adopted or are in the process of adopting whole-day instruction. Students are taught, for the most part, in Chinese as the main instructional language, and English is incorporated as a second language. In some primary schools the primary and secondary languages are reversed. Curriculum reforms in 2001 and 2002 placed a new emphasis on expanding teaching styles and activities to promote achievement for students with a wide range of learning needs, and to that end, students have experience with group and practical learning in addition to more traditional teaching practices such as lecturing.

This philosophy extends into secondary school. Students complete the first three years of secondary school in age-based cohorts; around the age of 15, they then can decide to leave academic-oriented education for vocational education. Recent government reforms ensured funding for all types of upper secondary education, meaning all students may undertake six years of secondary education regardless of academic performance.

At all levels of compulsory education, the government promotes “life-wide learning.” This philosophy promotes learning in “authentic environments” such as science museums or farms and provides a connection between the classroom and extracurricular activities. The government has also placed a new emphasis on technology in the classroom, which has resulted in an overhaul of schools’ technological infrastructures, information technology training for teachers, and the development of an e-Learning initiative. These efforts are intended to promote an understanding of the uses and abuses of digital resources as well as to prepare students to live and work in the twenty-first century.

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