Center on International Education Benchmarking

System Structure

In 2009, Hong Kong combined lower and upper secondary school into six years of school for all students.  As part of this change, Hong Kong eliminated national assessments at the end of lower secondary schools and put in place a single assessment, the Hong Kong Diploma of Secondary Education (HKDSE) exam, at the end of secondary school. The university bachelor’s degree programs were also expanded from three to four years in an effort to make universities more globally competitive.

Currently, voluntary kindergartens serve children ages 3 through 6, with half-day programs fully funded by the government. Kindergarten enrollment is almost universal. Starting at age 6, students are entitled to 12 years of free public primary and secondary school, nine of which are compulsory. Most schools, over 90 percent, are run by voluntary charitable or religious groups. These schools, called “aided schools,” are fully funded by the government and adhere to national curriculum frameworks. About 5 percent of schools are run by the government and another 5 percent are direct subsidy scheme (DSS) schools. DSS schools are run by voluntary organizations but can charge tuition, set their own admission criteria and have flexibility to tailor instruction.

Parents apply for admission to a government or aided primary school through the Primary One Admission system. This system reserves a set of places that are assigned based on parent preference, first to siblings of current students or children of staff and then based on a points system set by the Education Bureau (EDB). Points are awarded for factors like having parents or siblings who graduated from a school, being a first-born child, having the same religious affiliation as the school, and having a parent belong to the organization that sponsors the school. The rest of the slots are assigned by lottery, with ranked preferences. Students apply to DSS primary schools directly to the school.

Following primary school, assignment to secondary school follows the Secondary School Places Allocation system. This system functions in a similar way to the system for primary schools except that schools, rather than the EDB, set criteria for admission, which often include an interview. Students who are not assigned to the reserved places are then assigned by a lottery with preference given to the highest-performing students. After the first three years of secondary school, students can choose to leave and start a secondary vocational program which are offered by a range different providers but not by most traditional secondary schools. The admission process for these programs varies, but typically students submit their academic records directly to a vocational education provider and participate in an interview.

Standards and Curriculum

The Education Bureau (EDB) sets the framework for school curriculum in Hong Kong. Schools have broad latitude to adapt the framework to local needs. The framework of the current curriculum (for pre-prinary through secondary) has been in place since 2002, following the release of two major reports — Learning through Life (2000) and Learning to Learn (2001) — which focused on the need to shift Hong Kong’s education system from one centered around rote learning to one aime at developing 21st century skills. Pre-primary and upper secondary were added to the framework in 2006 and 2009.

The curriculum covers all subject areas for primary and secondary school as well as related professional development guidance for teachers and administrators. The framework is organized around eight Key Learning Areas (KLAs): Chinese language education; English language education; mathematics education; science education; technology education; personal, social & humanities education; arts education; and physical education. It also identifies sets of Generic Skills, such as collaboration and problem-solving, and Values and Attitudes, such as perseverance and responsibility.  These are incorporated across the KLAs. The curriculum requires five Essential Learning Experiences for all students: moral and civic education; intellectual development; community service; physical and aesthetic development; and career-related experiences.

At both the primary and secondary levels, the government promotes Life-Wide Learning, which is experiential learning and emphasizes a connection between the classroom and extracurricular activities. The government added a new focus on technology in the classroom in recent years, which has resulted in an overhaul of schools’ technological infrastructures, information technology training for teachers, and the development of an e-learning initiative.

Assessment and Qualifications

There are no national assessments in Hong Kong until the end of upper secondary school. Before 2009, students took the Hong Kong Certificate of Education Examination at the end of lower secondary school and the Hong Kong Advanced Level Examination at the end of upper secondary education. In 2009, these two exams were replaced by a single exam — the Hong Kong Diploma of Secondary Education (HKDSE) — which students pursuing postsecondary education take at the end of upper secondary school. The HKDSE is administered by the Hong Kong Educational Assessment Authority (HKEAA).

Students are tested in the four core upper secondary school subjects (Chinese language, English language, mathematics, and Liberal Studies, a cross-disciplinary subject focusing on current events) as well as two to three elective subjects. There are 20 elective subjects and six foreign languages from which students can choose. Each year, previous-year exams and examples of student work are publicly released to aid preparation. In some HKDSE subjects, there are also School-Based Assessments (SBAs) that teachers must administer during the school year. SBAs count for between 15 percent and 50 perent of students’ overall HKDSE results, depending on the subject. This was put in place in 2012 so that students can receive ongoing feedback and a broader picture of student knowledge and skill level can be taken into account. As of 2019, there will be SBAs in 14 HKDSE subjects, slightly more than half of all core and elective subjects. The HKDSE exam qualifies students for a variety of postsecondary pathways, including four-year degree programs, other academic postsecondary education, vocational education and training, higher education abroad, or entry into the workplace through the Civil Service.

Students interested in pursuing education in technical subjects can take one of two paths: 1) stay at secondary school and take the HKDSE and then apply to one of several technical training institutes to pursue an advanced diploma or a vocational BA degree; or 2) leave secondary school after the first three years and enter a secondary-level vocational program that leads to a Diploma of Vocational Education (DVE). Only about 10 percent of students leave secondary school before the HKDSE to pursue a DVE.

The HKEAA also administers the Territory-wide System Assessment (TSA). The TSA measures whether students have achieved “basic competence” in Chinese, English and mathematics in grades three, six and nine. Territory-wide results are reported publicly, while school-level data is reported only to individual schools to inform teaching and learning. Student-level results are not reported. In response to concerns about excessive focus on TSA preparation at the primary school level, beginning in 2018 third grade testing will be done as a sample and no school-level data will be reported for that grade. Primary schools can still choose to administer the test to all grade three students in order to receive school-level data. All students in grades six and nine take the TSA, but since 2012 grade six students have only taken it every other year.

EDB also makes formative assessment tools available in Chinese language, English language, and mathematics to support teaching and learning in the subject areas assessed on the TSA. These can be used flexibly by schools and teachers to gauge student progress and are not a component of TSA results. There is also a Web-based Learning and Teaching Support website, which provides teachers with resources to target instruction to student learning needs identified through these assessments.

The Structure of Hong Kong’s Educational System

Notes for this diagram:

1. The number of years required to earn a Diploma in Vocational Education is determined primarily by the number of years of academic upper secondary school completed before beginning the program, as students enter the Youth College at different points.

2. Students’ scores on HKDSE determine qualifications for different postsecondary pathways. Students with high enough HKDSE scores who choose to attend VTC institutions can enter directly into Bachelor Degree programs without first completing the Higher Diploma.

3. Associate Degrees from Post Secondary Degree programs allow students to continue on to Bachelor Degree programs at either Universities or VTC Institutions.