Center on International Education Benchmarking

Hong Kong emerged as a world educational leader on the first PISA assessment in 2000—a feat that is all the more impressive considering that Hong Kong has essentially rebuilt its education system since 1997, the year Hong Kong was returned to China after a century and a half of British rule. Hong Kong outperformed almost every other nation in the 2009 PISA assessment, ranking fourth in reading and third in both mathematics and science. In 2015, Hong Kong students ranked second in the world in reading and mathematics and ninth in science.

Hong Kong’s unique history is key to understanding the development of its top-performing education system. China ceded Hong Kong to the British in the 19th century, and signed a 99-year lease in 1898. By the time the lease ran out, Hong Kong had become one of the world’s great capitalist trading and financial centers. Hong Kong became a Special Administrative Region of China in 1997, and attempted to marry its intensely capitalist economy with Communist China. The process took place under a policy captured by the slogan, “One Country, Two Systems.” Although part of China, Hong Kong was allowed to maintain most of the systems it had previously developed, including its education system.

Hong Kong schools are a hybrid result of both its British and Chinese heritages. Until the 1960s, schooling in Hong Kong was a very elite affair. There was only one university, which admitted only 100 to 200 students a year. Access to both secondary school and university was determined entirely by examination. Education planning was based on projected workforce requirements, which is why so few slots were available in higher education. After the 1960s, there was an explosion of new schools as aspirations for education soared, and there was a great debate as to whether to offer three years of free schooling after primary education. Nine-year compulsory education was put in place in 1978 and secondary education was nearly universal by the end of the 1980s. The expansion of higher education followed through the 1980s.

But by 1999, employers were demanding new employees who would be prepared for an increasingly complex workplace.  As blue collar work moved to mainland China and Hong Kong’s economy focused more and more on high value added services, the need for these new skills became increasingly urgent for Hong Kong students. A curriculum focused on memorization and a didactic approach to teaching were inadequate for the challenge.

In response, the Hong Kong government launched a broad public conversation about the goals of the education system, and carefully studied education in many other countries. The result was a new design for education in Hong Kong, focused on preparing students for a 21st century economy. The exams following primary school were abolished and a new curriculum developed, shifting schools from rote learning designed to enable students to pass exams to curriculum and teaching designed to encourage real learning and active engagement. The planners focused on education for understanding rather than the accumulation of facts or the performance of procedures: the goal was to create learning experiences for students that would enable them to acquire and demonstrate understanding by applying what they were learning through the use of real-life situations as part of the instructional process.

The structure of the education system also changed. Beginning in 2009, Hong Kong provided six years of secondary education for all students, with a new gateway examination at the end of upper secondary education beginning in 2012. Reforms to teacher and school leader training have ensured that Hong Kong has educators with the knowledge and skills to prepare students to reach these goals. Alongside the reforms in basic education, Hong Kong expanded its vocational education offerings to better prepare young people for the workplace. In the last decade, these changes have been matched by reforms in the higher education system, including opening admission to a broader range of students, introducing experiential education and expanding overseas exchanges.

The tradition in Hong Kong, unlike mainland China, is for minimal government intervention in the schools. Allowing schools to adapt curriculum frameworks to best meet their needs, and shifting toward school-based management, has reinforced this tendency in recent years. It is this tradition that led the government to promote the profound changes just described not by fiat but by involving many people at many levels in deciding what was to be done and by implementing reform through extended discussion rather than regulation.



Ethnic Makeup

Chinese 92%, Filipino 2.5%, Indonesian 2.1%, other 3.4%


$341.4 billion; $61,500 per Capita

Major Industries

Services: 92.3%; Industry: 7.6%; Agriculture: 0.1%


Unemployment: 3.1% ; Youth Unemployment: 5.9%