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Context 

Hong Kong emerged as a world leader in education at the turn of the century, performing at the top of the first PISA in 2000. That Hong Kong essentially rebuilt its education system since 1997, the year Britain returned the region to China after a century and a half of British rule, makes this feat all the more impressive.  It has stayed near the top of the PISA charts ever since, although it slipped slightly in science in 2018. Its performance is among the most equitable across the globe, with variation in scores on PISA explained by socio-economic status far lower than the OECD average. Hong Kong also has one of the lowest percentages of low-performing disadvantaged students and one of the highest percentiles of resilient students, defined as students from the lowest socioeconomic quartile who are among the top performers on PISA. 

Hong Kong’s 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 to the region in 1898. By the time the lease ran out, Hong Kong had become one of the world’s great capitalist trading and financial centers. When Hong Kong became a Special Administrative Region of China in 1997, the region attempted to marry its intensely capitalist economy with China’s Communist system. 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. However, in 2020, after public protests over a new law, the Hong Kong government adopted laws aimed at quelling dissent. This has led some to suspect that China will exert more influence over the region going forward.

Hong Kong schools represent a hybrid of British and Chinese educational traditions. Until the 1960s, schooling in Hong Kong was an elite affair. A single university admitted only 100 to 200 students per year. Rigorous exams determined access to both secondary school and university. Hong Kong’s education planning was based on projected workforce requirements, which is why so few slots were available in higher education. After the 1960s, as aspirations for education soared, a new crop of schools emerged, along with a great debate over whether to offer three years of free schooling after primary education. The government instituted nine-year compulsory education 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, local employers had begun to demand employees better prepared for an increasingly complex workplace. As blue-collar work moved to mainland China and Hong Kong’s economy focused more and more on highly specialized value-added services, the need for new skills became increasingly urgent for Hong Kong students. A curriculum focused on memorization and a didactic approach to teaching failed to meet the challenge.

In response, the Hong Kong government launched a broad public conversation about the goals of the education system that included public forums and involved a broad range of stakeholders. Hong Kong leaders also 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. Hong Kong abolished the exams following primary school and developed a new curriculum designed to encourage learning for understanding and active engagement. This shift away from rote learning and toward more creative, interactive classrooms has enabled students to demonstrate understanding through the use of real-life situations as part of the instructional process. 

The structure of the education system also changed.  In 2009, Hong Kong extended compulsory school to include six years of secondary school and in 2012 it introduced a new exam at the end of upper secondary school designed to ensure that students have met the standards in the curriculum and are prepared for postsecondary education and training or the workplace. At the same time, Hong Kong expanded vocational education offerings and better aligned them to changing industry needs and upgraded teacher and school leader preparation and development.  Reforms of higher education have followed, including opening admission to a broader range of students, introducing experiential education, and expanding overseas exchanges.  Despite these reforms, a large percent of students enroll in private afterschool tutoring to prepare for secondary school admission as well as university admission.

Quick Facts

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Population

Population: 7,263,000 

Population growth rate: 0.20%

Demographic makeup: Chinese 92%, Filipino 2.5%, Indonesian 2.1%, Other 3.4%

Source: CIA World Factbook, 2021

GDP

GDP: $449 billion

GDP per capita: $59,848 (2019 estimate in 2010 dollars)

Source: CIA World Factbook, 2021

Employment

Unemployment rate: 2.93% (2019)

Youth unemployment rate: 8.7%

Source: CIA World Factbook, 2021

Economy

Highly service-oriented economy

Key services industries: financial services, trading and logistics, tourism, and professional services

Source: CIA World Factbook, 2021

Postsecondary Attainment

Ages 25+: 29.1%

Source: World Bank, 2017

Governance

Governance Structure

Hong Kong’s central education authority is the Education Bureau (EDB), led by the Secretary for Education. The EDB is responsible for the development, review, and implementation of education policies, programs, and legislation for pre-primary through post-secondary education. The EDB also monitors the work of several key organizations in education, including the Hong Kong Examinations and Assessment Authority, an independent statutory body responsible for administering jurisdiction-level assessments, and the Vocational Training Council, the largest vocational and professional education and training provider in Hong Kong. The EDB has four Regional Education Offices that support school operations by providing leadership on school development and improvement; supporting implementation of EDB initiatives, such as curriculum reforms; and organizing regional opportunities for teacher collaboration.

There are three types of government-funded schools in Hong Kong. Aided schools, which make up more than 80 percent of schools, are run by voluntary charitable or religious organizations but receive full government funding and follow the government curriculum. Direct subsidy scheme schools, which make up fewer than 10 percent of schools, are also run by voluntary organizations but can charge tuition in addition to government funding and have more flexibility in admissions criteria and curriculum. The government requires them to set aside funds to support scholarships for low-income students, in exchange for their subsidy.  Government schools, which are fully funded and run by the government and follow the government curriculum, make up fewer than 10 percent of schools. 

While the EDB and the Regional Education Offices retain a central role in education governance, curriculum reforms and a shift to school-based management in the early 2000s increased school autonomy and responsibility. To facilitate school-based management, aided schools have been required to establish school-based Incorporated Management Committees (IMCs) since 2004. In addition to representatives of the “school sponsoring body,” the organization that operates the aided school, an IMC includes the principal, an independent member, and at least one representative teacher, parent, and graduate. The IMC is responsible for creating policies consistent with the goals of the school sponsoring body; managing financial and human resources; promoting student learning; and participating in school improvement.

Planning and Goal Setting

Each year, Hong Kong’s Chief Executive issues a detailed Policy Address that outlines key goals and policy initiatives across all government sectors, including education. The Policy Address reviews progress to date and sets concrete goals for the future. In the most recent 2020 Policy Address, new policy initiatives for the education sector included providing a broader range of secondary school Applied Learning courses (elective courses in professional and vocational fields) and investing HK$2 billion (US$258 million) over three years in developing technology and resources for blended learning, including an online platform for educators to share instructional materials.

Hong Kong also regularly forms task forces or other working groups to develop recommendations for the education system with public input. In 2017, for example, the government formed eight task forces to conduct a large-scale review of the education system in areas like school management, home-school cooperation and parent education, and curriculum and assessment. By the end of 2020, all eight task forces had completed their work, and the government had accepted their recommendations. In addition to soliciting public input, several of the task forces conducted international benchmarking to inform their recommendations.

Education Finance

Aided schools receive a salary grant, which covers the salaries of teaching and non-teaching staff, and an additional block grant, which they can use flexibly to meet their needs. The amount of the block grant depends on whether the school is a primary, secondary, or special education school and how many classes it operates, as well as its eligibility for school-specific grants. These grants cover spending on school-specific needs like information technology or educational psychology services and may be awarded on a per-pupil, per-class, or per-school basis, depending on their purpose. There are also other grants for specific purposes such as the Learning Support Grant, which is awarded on a per-pupil basis to support students who are struggling academically in primary schools and students with special needs in primary and secondary schools.

In 2017, Hong Kong spent only 3.3 percent of its GDP on education, lower than the OECD average of 5 percent.  When Chief Executive Carrie Lam took office that same year, she pledged to increase education spending. In 2018-19, spending went up by 26 percent in real terms compared to the prior fiscal year, a boost quickly followed by an additional increase of about 12 percent in 2019-20. Education spending as a share of total public spending is expected to decline slightly in 2020-21, however, as Hong Kong’s economy recovers from disruptions caused by the coronavirus pandemic and the widespread protests.  

Accountability

As part of its Quality Assurance for Schools Program, the EDB developed a mandatory School Development and Accountability Framework that includes two components: school self-assessments and external school inspections.

All public schools are required to participate in three-year cycles of self-assessment in order to develop, implement, and report on school-wide goals. At the beginning of each three-year cycle, schools create their own School Development Plans, which identify improvement goals. Year-by-year implementation strategies and success criteria are specified in Annual School Plans. At the end of each year, each school must conduct a self-assessment to measure progress toward its goals. The EDB provides a set of resources that schools use to self-assess, such as stakeholder surveys for educators, parents, and students. Schools produce annual reports for the school community summarizing the results of self-assessment, known as School Reports. Self-assessment also informs revisions of schools’ Annual School Plans and, at the end of each three-year cycle, new School Development Plans.

To complement the self-assessment process, the EDB carries out External School Reviews (ESRs). Schools are generally chosen at random for ESRs and notified approximately three months in advance. ESRs are conducted by teams of three to four EDB officers and one practicing educator, who receives specialized training in conducting ESRs. Schools are required to make ESR reports available to parents and other members of the school community. In addition to ESRs, the EDB conducts Focus Inspections, which address specific topics such as teaching and learning in particular subject areas. Focus Inspections, which the EDB uses to inform its policies, are typically conducted by inspectors with expertise in that subject area. Like ESRs, Focus Inspections do not follow any set schedule, but in practice they are conducted more frequently. In 2016-17, more than twice as many schools received Focus Inspections as received ESRs.

Regional Education Offices help schools implement improvement strategies based on the results of ESRs. The format of the ESR report was recently revised to provide more tailored feedback for improvement based on each school’s context and priority areas. Schools are now able to request more in-depth reviews of particular areas in which they want to improve, and the ESR team can adjust the number of days spent at a school depending on its size and needs. School sponsoring bodies, the charitable or religious organizations that operate aided schools, also have the option to nominate schools they oversee to receive ESRs if they think they could benefit from expert feedback.

The results of Hong Kong’s Territory-wide System Assessment (TSA)—a low-stakes assessment of Chinese, English, and mathematics skills administered to students in grades 3, 6, and 9—are also used to design and support school improvement efforts. The EDB does not use TSA results to rank schools or label those in need of improvement, but schools can apply for support services provided by the EDB based on their own results. EDB support officers, who visit schools regularly to assist in their improvement efforts, collaborate with teachers on using assessment data, including TSA results, to adjust curriculum and instruction to address student learning needs. In 2017-18, more than 60 percent of primary schools took advantage of EDB-provided support services focusing on one or more of the three TSA subjects.

Hong Kong does not have a formal teacher appraisal system.

Foundation of Supports

Supports for Young Children and Their Families

Hong Kong’s Maternal and Child Health Centers (MCHCs) provide free prenatal care services, including health education, for expectant mothers. Hong Kong also provides 14 weeks of paid maternity leave (extended from 10 weeks in December 2020) and five days of paid paternity leave, both at 80 percent of salary, capped at a dollar amount. New parents have access to ongoing parenting education, including workshops and one-on-one counseling, through the MCHCs.

Children up to age 6 receive free health care services through the MCHCs, including regular check-ups and monitoring through the Health and Developmental Surveillance program, which aims to identify developmental delays or needs early and connect children with the appropriate support services. Monitoring covers developmental areas such as motor skills, language and communication, social behavior and play, self-care, vision and hearing, and any specific concerns parents or guardians raise during appointments. 

Childcare centers, all of which are privately operated, serve children ages 0-3 in Hong Kong and are overseen by Hong Kong’s Social Welfare Department. About half of childcare centers are government-subsidized, which lowers family fees. In other childcare centers, family fees cover the full cost of care but profit margins are capped by the government to promote quality and limit fees. Low-income families with children enrolled in full-day care can apply to the government’s Child Care Centre Fee Remission Scheme, which reimburses between 50 percent and 100 percent of childcare fees, depending on income and other needs such as special education.

Capacity in childcare centers is limited, however, and there are long waiting lists to enroll. Often, parents rely instead on relatives or other home-based care. As of 2018, only about half of 2- to 3-year-olds were enrolled in childcare centers, while the enrollment rate of 0- to 2-year-olds was below 5 percent.  Hong Kong is taking steps to increase access to childcare, including pledging to seek available land to build new centers and subsidize existing childcare centers to expand the number of children they serve. Hong Kong has also adopted a revised planning strategy that will prioritize children ages 0-2—the highest-need age group—in the creation of new childcare facilities. Nonetheless, the demand for center-based childcare is expected to continue to exceed supply in 2021.

To increase access to quality home-based childcare, in recent years Hong Kong has begun providing government-subsidized childcare training programs for grandparents. In 2016, the government launched the two-year Pilot Project on Child Care Training for Grandparents, which provided part-time childcare training courses for more than 500 grandparents.  In late 2019, the project re-launched for another two-year training cycle serving 1,200 grandparents.   

Supports for School Age Children

Hong Kong funds a variety of supports for students in primary and secondary schools. This funding is provided directly to students; to support programs for these students within schools; and to service providers that operate outside schools.

Government supports for low-income students include the School Textbook Assistance Scheme, which provides funding for textbooks and other school expenses, and the Student Travel Subsidy Scheme, which provides funding for students to take public transportation to school. Schools also receive government grants for after-school programming—including extracurricular activities, tutoring, and activities designed to build skills like self-directed learning and goal-setting—for low-income students. In 2019, Hong Kong introduced a new HK$2.5 billion (US$333 million) fund to allow low-income students to participate in out-of-classroom learning experiences organized or recognized by their schools.  Hong Kong also provides non-means-tested financial support directly to families of all preschool, primary school, and secondary school students in the form of student grants. The grants were introduced in 2018-19 and became permanent in 2020-21.  

For students new to Hong Kong, the government funds a six-month full-time initiation program to support the development of students’ Chinese language, English language, and other skills before school enrollment. A 60-hour orientation program provides additional support during the transition to full-time school. In addition, the government operates a Summer Bridging Program, which serves primary school students learning Chinese as well as their parents, and has designated approximately 20 Chinese Language Learning Support Centers, which provide Chinese language classes and other outreach.  A parent information package detailing these and other support services is available in six languages (including Indonesian, Tagalog, Thai, Hindi, Urdu and Nepali) in addition to Chinese.

The government also provides supplemental funding directly to schools to provide language learning and other supports for students learning Chinese. Beginning in 2020-21, the government increased funding for schools enrolling fewer than 10 Chinese language learners to ensure all students have access to these support services, regardless of their share of a school population.

Learning System

Preschool

Hong Kong has dramatically expanded its preschool sector over the last decade and has prioritized low-income children in this expansion. In 2007, the government began providing families with vouchers for half-day services in kindergartens, which serve children ages 3 to 6, through the Pre-primary Education Voucher Scheme (PEVS). In 2017-18, the Free Quality Kindergarten Education Scheme (FQKES) replaced the PEVS and began providing these subsidies on a per-pupil basis directly to kindergartens. The subsidies provide tuition-free half-day kindergarten for 3- to 6-year-olds, regardless of income, and kindergarten enrollment is almost universal. Low-income families receive subsidies for extended-day programs. Additionally, the government has built kindergarten facilities in public housing to ensure access to these programs.

All kindergartens in Hong Kong are run by private providers but almost all receive public funding. About 90 percent receive funding through FQKES, which requires them to follow the jurisdiction-wide Kindergarten Education Curriculum Guide. This document, introduced in 1996 and most recently revised in 2017, sets developmental objectives for children in six broad areas: physical fitness and health; language; early childhood mathematics; nature and living; self and society; and arts and creativity. It also provides guidance for kindergartens on pedagogical approaches.

There are special supports in place in kindergartens for young children learning Chinese. As part of FQKES, an additional grant is given to any kindergarten with eight or more students learning Chinese. This grant may be used to hire instructional staff to support students’ language development or for other services, including teacher training or improved communication with families. Hong Kong also provides wraparound supports for young children with special needs and their families. The Labour and Welfare Bureau’s On-site Preschool Rehabilitation Services, which began as a pilot program in 2015 and became permanent in 2018, provides support within kindergarten classrooms from “multi-disciplinary service teams,” including social workers; speech, occupational, and physical therapists; and psychologists. These service teams also work with teachers and parents to guide them in supporting children with special needs. 

Primary and Secondary Education

System Structure

Starting at age 6, students in Hong Kong are entitled to twelve years of free public primary and secondary school, nine of which are compulsory. Parents apply for admission to a government or aided primary school through the Primary One Admission system, which was designed to increase equity in and to reduce competition for admission to top primary schools. In the first round, parents apply directly to the school of their choice and places are based on a points system set by the Education Bureau (EDB). Points are awarded for factors like having parents or siblings who graduated from the school, being the eldest child in the family, having the same religious affiliation as the school, and having a parent belong to the organization that sponsors the school. Schools fill about half of their available places in the first round. In the second round, the rest of the slots are assigned by a central lottery, with ranked preferences.  Students apply directly to direct subsidy scheme primary schools, as they have more flexibility to determine admission criteria. 

Following primary school, assignment to secondary school follows the Secondary School Places Allocation system. This system functions similarly to the system for primary schools except that schools, rather than the EDB, set criteria for admission, which often include an interview. Students who do not receive a place by direct application in the first round are divided into three groups based on academic performance and then assigned randomly within each group, with the top-performing group assigned first.  Student preferences are taken into account; if spaces in preferred schools are not available, students are assigned to schools with open places in their area of residency.

After the first three years of secondary school, students can choose to shift from upper secondary school to a full-time upper secondary vocational program, offered by a range of providers but not by traditional secondary schools. The admissions 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 EDB sets the framework for school curriculum in Hong Kong. The framework for the current curriculum 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 aimed at developing 21st century skills. In 2014, Hong Kong began a process of ongoing review and revision of the curriculum originally introduced in the early 2000s. This process is known as Learning to Learn 2+. 

The curriculum covers all subject areas for primary and secondary school as well as implementation guidance for teachers and school leaders. The framework is organized around eight Key Learning Areas (KLAs): Chinese Language Education; English Language Education; Mathematics Education; Science Education; Technology Education; Personal, Social, and Humanities Education; Arts Education; and Physical Education. At the secondary level, four core subjects are identified: Chinese, English, mathematics and Liberal Studies, a cross-disciplinary subject focused on social and global issues.  In 2021, this subject was renamed Citizenship and Social Development and the amount of teaching time devoted to this was reduced.  The curriculum also identifies sets of Generic Skills, such as collaboration and problem-solving, as well as Values and Attitudes, such as perseverance and responsibility, to be incorporated across the curriculum. Hong Kong also offers three levels of gifted education: in-classroom, supplemental enrichment and a full-time gifted education academy.

In an effort to broaden the types of learning experiences available to all students, the curriculum also requires that schools and teachers incorporate five Essential Learning Experiences into teaching and learning: Moral and Civic Education; Intellectual Development; Community Service; Physical and Aesthetic Development; and Career-related Experiences. The curriculum recommends that these be provided through a combination of in- and out-of-classroom learning. At both the primary and secondary levels, the government promotes Life-wide Learning—experiential learning that emphasizes a connection between the classroom and extracurricular activities. 

In 2017, as part of a broad review of Hong Kong’s education system, a Task Force on Review of School Curriculum was charged with making specific recommendations to better meet students’ diverse learning needs and prepare all students for the future. The recommendations of the Task Force, released in 2020, include creating more time and space for students to pursue non-academic activities to promote their holistic development, enhancing STEM education in primary and secondary schools, further promoting applied learning, giving values education higher priority, starting life planning education earlier and expanding the criteria used for university admission. The Education Bureau accepted these recommendations and plans to implement them gradually.

Assessment and qualifications

There are no high-stakes, jurisdiction-level assessments in Hong Kong until the end of upper secondary school. Before 2009, students were required to take two high-stakes exams, one at the end of lower secondary school and another at the end of upper secondary school. In 2009, these were replaced by a single gateway exam—the Hong Kong Diploma of Secondary Education (HKDSE)—at the end of upper secondary school. The HKDSE is administered by the Hong Kong Examinations and Assessment Authority (HKEAA).

The HKDSE tests students in four core subjects—Chinese, English, mathematics, and Liberal Studies, a cross-disciplinary subject focusing on current events—as well as two to three elective subjects. It is not yet clear how and when the HKDSE Liberal Studies exam will change.  Students choose among 20 electives and six foreign languages based on what they plan to study at university. Students can also choose up to two of their elective exams from a set of Applied Learning subjects, which combine practice and theory in broad professional and vocational fields like Media and Communication. Each year, the EDB releases previous-year HKDSE exams and examples of student work to aid preparation. In slightly more than half of all 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 percent of students’ overall HKDSE results, depending on the subject. SBAs were introduced in 2012 so that students can receive ongoing feedback and so that overall HKDSE results can reflect a broader picture of student knowledge and skill level. The HKDSE qualifies students for a variety of post-secondary pathways, including two and four-year degree programs at community colleges and universities, vocational education and training including technical degree programs, higher education abroad, or entry into the workplace through the civil service.

The HKEAA also administers the low-stakes Territory-wide System Assessment (TSA). The TSA measures whether students in grades 3, 6, and 9 have achieved “basic competence” in Chinese, English, and mathematics. Jurisdiction-level 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 testing at the primary school level, since 2018 only a sample of grade 3 students has been tested and no school-level data have been reported for that grade. All students in grades 6 and 9 take the TSA, but, as of 2012, grade 6 students are only required to take it every other year.

Learning Supports

Struggling Students

In primary schools, the EDB provides additional funding to support struggling students, defined as those who are two or more years behind in at least two out of three core subjects: Chinese, English, and mathematics. Struggling students are identified by teachers using the EDB-developed Learning Achievement Measurement Kit. The additional funding, awarded to schools on a per-student basis, is used to provide “add-on” supports such as small group teaching, pull-out programs, or supplemental instructional time after school. Schools decide how they will use the funding to provide these supports, which can include hiring more teachers or teaching assistants.

In secondary schools, Hong Kong takes a different approach to supporting struggling students. Instead of additional funding, the EDB provides additional teaching positions to secondary schools with high numbers of low-achieving students. These students are identified during the secondary school admissions process based on their scores on internal school assessments taken in the final two years of primary school. Internal assessment scores are placed on a common scale so they can be compared across the jurisdiction. The EDB calculates how many extra teachers to send to a given secondary school based on the number of students that school enrolls from the bottom 10 percent and bottom third of each cohort. 

Special Education

The Early Identification and Intervention Programme for Primary One Pupils with Learning Difficulties helps ensure that students with special needs are identified early. Through this program, teachers observe the learning and social adjustment of all students for the first few months of primary school and then administer the Observation Checklist for Teachers for any student suspected of having special needs. The screening assessments for secondary school teachers vary, but in general, students’ special needs are identified during primary school. Based on the results of teacher-administered screening assessments, students can receive follow-up assessment and diagnosis by educational psychologists or other specialists. 

Students identified with mild to moderate special needs receive services in mainstream schools, while students with severe or multiple special needs receive services in special schools. As of 2017-18, about 9 percent of students in Hong Kong were identified as having special needs, and about 85 percent of those students were enrolled in mainstream schools.

Mainstream schools receive designated funding to implement the jurisdiction-wide 3-Tier Intervention Model for students with special needs. The model includes supports ranging from early identification and differentiated instruction in the regular classroom to intensive, individualized supports. Supports are flexible, and students can move among the three tiers of support as needed, depending on their progress. Mainstream schools also have Special Educational Needs Coordinators to lead the school’s student support team and help the principal develop and implement a whole-school plan for students with special needs. To support mainstream schools, the EDB operates two Special Education Services Centers and provides resources for teachers and administrators, including online training courses designed to build capacity to support students with special needs. 

Digital Platforms and Resources

Hong Kong provides a wide range of curriculum-aligned resources to support online teaching and learning. Resources are created by the EDB and centrally curated to facilitate access and ensure quality, but teachers have autonomy to decide whether to use or adapt them for their students. 

Teachers access these resources through the EDB One-stop Portal, an online portal managed by Hong Kong Education City (HKEdCity). HKEdCity is a government-owned company responsible for facilitating exchange of instructional resources and development of a professional community among educators; supporting students’ online and self-directed learning; and helping parents to support their students’ learning. The EDB One-stop Portal provides a library of instructional resources searchable by subject, grade, and resource type. It also includes resources to support formative assessment, professional learning resources for teachers, and multimedia resources, such as the EDB’s Educational TV (ETV) programming. In addition to the general EDB One-stop Portal, HKEdCity manages other sets of online resources designed for more specific purposes, such as English Campus for supporting English language learning. While Hong Kong does not use a single jurisdiction-wide online learning platform, the EDB provides guidance on a range of commonly available platforms from which schools and teachers can choose. 

The Hong Kong Chief Executive’s 2020 Policy Address committed to additional investments in building the education system’s capacity for online and blended learning. This initiative, to be implemented over three years, will include creation of an online platform to help educators share their teaching and learning materials and provision of devices and internet access to schools and students in need.

Career and Technical Education

Governance 

Vocational education and training (VET) in Hong Kong is directed by the Vocational Training Council (VTC), a government-funded statutory body. The VTC serves two main functions: advising the Chief Executive on VET policy, including making regular reports on its status, and providing VET directly to students through its 13 member institutions. The VTC’s leadership council is made up of 18 non-government representatives including leading figures in education, industry, and the service sector, as well as three senior government officials: the Commissioner for Labor; the Director-General of Trade and Industry; and the Deputy Secretary for Education. The goal is to ensure communication between the education sector and industry and inform policy decisions based on actual workforce needs. Together, the 13 member institutions of the VTC are the largest provider of VET in Hong Kong. Other providers include the Construction Industry Council and the Clothing Industry Training Authority, which provide VET in those specific industry areas.  

The Hong Kong Council for Accreditation of Academic and Vocational Qualifications plays a key oversight role in VET by determining which programs are eligible for accreditation and inclusion in the Hong Kong Qualifications Framework (HKQF). The HKQF serves as an organizing structure for the VET system, standardizing the competencies and skills associated with different vocational qualifications and clarifying which programs lead to each qualification. Although programs do not need to be accredited and included in the HKQF in order to operate, this is an indicator of program quality and increases programs’ attractiveness to students. The government also has several Qualifications Framework Support Schemes, mostly in the form of grants or registration fee subsidies, to incentivize education and training providers to participate in the HKQF.

Hong Kong has struggled with the public perception of VET as a second-choice option and has made ongoing efforts during the past decade to improve its attractiveness, despite the availability of well-paid technical jobs and increasing unemployment among university graduates. In 2014, the government established the first Task Force on Promotion of Vocational Education, which made recommendations for improving and promoting vocational programs, including facilitating closer collaboration between VET providers and employers and upgrading VET facilities. In 2018, a second Task Force on Promotion of Vocational and Professional Education and Training was established to review progress on the 2015 recommendations and make additional recommendations. The government accepted this Task Force’s new recommendations in 2020. They include increasing career exploration opportunities for lower secondary school students and implementing new communications strategies to improve public understanding of VET program options.  Upgrading VET and shifting its image in Hong Kong remains a challenge, particularly amid the economic setbacks during the coronavirus pandemic.

System Structure

Prior to 2008, government funding for secondary education in Hong Kong covered only full-time general education; students who wanted to enroll in full-time VET paid tuition. In 2008, the government began funding full-time VET at the upper secondary level, hoping this would encourage students who would otherwise have dropped out to continue in education or training. Students now have the option to transition to a full-time, tuition-free vocational program upon completion of lower secondary school. 

There are a range of certificate- or diploma-level VET programs available at the upper secondary level. The most common is the Diploma of Vocational Education (DVE) program, which is provided by the Youth College, a VTC member institution. The DVE prepares students for employment or further education and training, although students who wish to continue to a bachelor’s degree program must first complete a one- to two-year Higher Diploma. Overall, only about 10 percent of students pursue full-time VET at the upper secondary level, and two-thirds of these students enroll in a DVE program. 

There are multiple vocational programs and providers at the post-secondary level. The Technological and Higher Education Institute (THEI), established in 2012, offers “honors” bachelor’s degree programs in technical fields. Hong Kong also launched a pilot program in 2018, the Diploma of Vocational Baccalaureate, that allows students to proceed directly from upper secondary-level VET to a technical bachelor’s degree at THEI without first completing a Higher Diploma. This program aims to make VET more attractive to students who plan to go to university but prefer hands-on learning.

Students who remain in full-time general upper secondary education instead of transitioning to full-time VET have the option to take two-year elective courses, called Applied Learning courses, in vocational and professional fields. About 9 percent of upper secondary school students take Applied Learning courses, similar to the share of students who take other elective subjects. In 2020, the government accepted a recommendation from the Task Force on Review of School Curriculum to further promote enrollment in Applied Learning courses. Implementation of this recommendation has begun, and measures include providing early exposure to Applied Learning options at the lower secondary level and allowing students to enroll in Applied Learning courses in grade 10, rather than waiting until grade 11. 

CTE Programs

Curricula for DVE programs are developed by the VTC and Youth College, the VTC member institution that offers DVE programs, with input from industry. In total, there are 18 DVE programs organized around three themes: Business and Services, Engineering, and Design and Information Technology. Each program has its own curriculum, which includes five general subjects—vocational Chinese, vocational English, mathematics, information technology, and whole-person development—that are common across all programs, as well as a set of required, industry-specific vocational subjects that vary by program. Students can also take general or vocational subjects as electives. Completing a DVE takes from one to four years, depending on the program and the number of years of general secondary education students complete before enrolling. There is no standardized jurisdiction-level assessment at the end of the DVE program; instead, internal assessments determine whether students receive credit for each required subject and are ultimately awarded the DVE. 

Students who earn a DVE can enter the workforce directly or proceed to a Higher Diploma program at a VTC institute or an associate’s degree program at a community college. Higher Diploma programs are generally one- to two-year programs in technical fields whereas associate’s degree programs are generally two- or three-year programs that are more academically oriented and typically lead students to university for further study. After earning a Higher Diploma, students can pursue a technical bachelor’s degree in fields like engineering or nursing, offered by VTC institutions like the Technological and Higher Education Institute or at universities. In some cases, students who have completed a Higher Diploma can enroll directly in the final two years of a degree program in a related field. Aside from VTC Youth College, there are alternative VET programs offered at the upper secondary level that lead to either a VET certificate or an advanced VET certificate; both certificates allow graduates to go directly into the workforce or enter post-secondary VTC institutes to earn a diploma or higher diploma.

Like all other general upper secondary subjects assessed on the HKDSE, Applied Learning subjects have a jurisdiction-level curriculum that serves as a general framework for course providers—generally vocational or post-secondary institutions, in cooperation with upper secondary schools—to develop their own curricula. Students’ scores in Applied Learning courses are determined by assessments administered by the course provider throughout the course. Any Applied Learning course a student takes is recorded as an elective subject on the Hong Kong Diploma of Secondary Education (HKDSE) at the end of upper secondary school. Applied Learning courses are also registered as certificate-level qualification programs on Hong Kong’s Qualifications Framework, meaning that students receive a vocational certificate in addition to their HKDSE score. 

Teachers and Principals

Since 1997, when Hong Kong gained independence from Britain, it has dramatically expanded its teacher workforce, raising requirements gradually and providing supports to train teachers in the new curriculum. Most recently, Hong Kong has updated the professional competencies for teachers and school leaders and established a professional ladder for educators.

Teacher Recruitment

Faced with a decade of declining student population due to the low birthrate, Hong Kong took steps starting in 2001 to adjust the supply of teachers, including temporarily reducing the number of available spaces in teacher preparation programs. Each institution offering a teacher education program sets its own admission requirements, which generally include practical tests and at least one interview to assess aptitude for teaching and fluency in both English and Chinese.

In order to be hired as a teacher, a candidate must apply for registration at the Education Bureau (EDB). Candidates become either registered teachers, who have earned a teaching qualification by completing teacher training and hold a bachelor’s degree or higher, or permitted teachers, who have a bachelor’s degree but do not have formal teacher training. Permitted teachers may become registered teachers after completing in-service training. Neither type of candidate is required to pass a test in order to become registered.

Teaching is a respected profession in Hong Kong. Teachers are paid according to the Master Pay Scale of the Civil Service Bureau and are generally well-compensated compared to professionals with similar education. Starting salaries are determined by level of education, teacher preparation, and years of experience. During the 2019-20 school year, Hong Kong invested HK$1.5 billion (US$191 million) to implement an all-graduate teaching force policy in all public schools, meaning that all Hong Kong teachers must hold bachelor’s degrees and will be paid at the bachelor’s degree-level. Although a bachelor’s degree has been required for new primary and secondary school teachers since 2004, there were not enough degree-level positions to pay all teachers in line with their level of preparation.  

Teacher Preparation and Induction

Hong Kong had a two-tier teacher training system prior to 1994. Primary and lower secondary school teachers were prepared in two- or three-year sub-degree-level programs at government-run Colleges of Education, while upper secondary school teachers typically completed a post-graduate diploma after finishing university education. In 1994, the five Colleges of Education joined together to form the Hong Kong Institute of Education, and the EDB began phasing out sub-degree-level preparation programs. Prospective teachers now study in undergraduate or post-graduate programs at any of five institutions: the Hong Kong Institute of Education, which specializes in educator preparation; three comprehensive universities that have designated educator preparation programs; or the Open University of Hong Kong, which specializes in distance learning. 

The EDB has become increasingly involved in teacher education, producing guidelines for the professional growth of new and existing teachers. A general Teacher Competencies Framework was introduced in 2003, and a new set of Professional Standards for Teachers was released in 2018. Students in full-time teacher preparation programs complete practical teaching experience in local schools under mentor teachers. Once teachers are hired by schools, they are provided with one year of support from experienced teachers trained as mentors by the EDB. This is done through the Teacher Induction Scheme, started in 2008. 

All teachers in kindergartens are required to hold at least a postgraduate Certificate in Early Childhood Education. To help kindergartens attract and retain high-quality teachers, the Education Bureau (EDB) encourages kindergartens to design school-based career ladders that allow teachers to take on additional responsibilities and earn higher salaries as they gain experience and expertise. The EDB offers a framework that includes four positions: classroom teacher, senior teacher, vice principal, and principal. The EDB also recommends that kindergartens prioritize hiring and promoting applicants who have a bachelor’s degree in early childhood education as well as specialized training in areas like Chinese language learning or special education. 

Teacher Career Progression

In 2017, the EDB established a Task Force on Professional Development of Teachers charged with making recommendations on the development of a comprehensive professional ladder for educators. In addition to holding public consultations on the topic, the task force studied systems for teacher career progression in other jurisdictions, including Victoria (Australia), mainland China, Singapore, and the UK. In early 2019, the task force submitted a public report containing its recommendations to the EDB. The report concluded that a professional ladder should be established and proposed a broad conceptual framework that would link career progression to three elements of teachers’ professional growth: new sets of professional competencies for teachers and principals released in 2018, which focused on student-centered approaches and professional autonomy for teachers; professional values and conduct; and aspiration for advancement through self-reflection. During the 2020-21 school year, as a first rung on the ladder, the EDB began offering enhanced professional learning opportunities for new and practicing teachers geared toward professional growth.

At present, primary and secondary school teachers can be promoted to senior teacher, deputy principal, and principal. Some senior teacher positions have specific focus areas, such as Primary School Curriculum Leader. Schools also flexibly deploy senior teachers as heads of core subject departments, like Chinese or mathematics, or leaders of key areas, like extracurricular activities or support for students learning Chinese. Promotions to senior teacher positions require specific training courses, with standards set by the EDB. These positions increase teachers’ points on the Master Pay Scale of the Civil Service Bureau. The framework for a professional ladder proposed by the Task Force on Professional Development of Teachers maintains these promotion positions but aims to more closely link career advancement to the new professional competencies.  

Teacher Development

Hong Kong teachers are required to complete 150 hours of professional learning every three years. The Teacher Competencies Framework (TCF), which schools can adapt to their own contexts, guides teacher professional learning by tracking the development of teachers’ competencies in the areas of Learning and Teaching, School Development, Student Development, and Professional Services to the Community. The TCF, developed in 2003, was updated in 2018 with a new set of professional teaching standards based in part on those of other high-performing systems.

Formal professional development courses and other programs are offered through the EDB, universities, and the Hong Kong Teachers’ Center, a resource center provided by the EDB that offers opportunities for teacher professional learning and collaboration. For example, the Centre for Educational Leadership at the University of Hong Kong facilitates lesson observation and discussion between teachers in different education systems—such as Hong Kong and mainland China or Singapore—through videoconferencing. Peer-to-peer lesson observation has been implemented across all schools and follows a common structure developed by the EDB. The jurisdiction-level primary and secondary curricula also recommend that schools organize schedules so that teachers can engage in collaborative lesson planning.

The EDB offers rotations for teachers and EDB staff to facilitate collaboration across the education sector and provide exposure to other career pathways. Teachers may temporarily transfer to the EDB, EDB employees may take temporary non-teaching positions in schools, and EDB employees may apply for temporary transfer within the EDB.

Principal Recruitment, Education, and Development

The 1999 shift to school-based management in Hong Kong gave principals a great deal more authority and responsibility than before. The EDB developed training to prepare them for these new roles. In 2002, a Continuing Professional Development Framework was introduced to guide initial and ongoing professional learning. The framework spells out professional requirements—including formal leadership programs and school-based professional development activities—for principals at three key stages:

  • Aspiring principals complete the Certification for Principalship. The three steps to Certification are a needs analysis; a Preparation for Principalship program, which includes an action research project; and a professional development portfolio assessed by the EDB.
  • Newly appointed principals are required to complete an induction program; a leadership development program that meets the EDB’s standards; and continuing professional development activities within their first two years of service. By the end of their third year, they must also complete a study visit to mainland China that includes seminars and school visits.
  • Serving principals with more than two years of experience are required to complete 150 hours of continuing professional development over three years, as well as create a Continuing Professional Development plan which they must update annually.

The Continuing Professional Development Framework also sets the expectation that principals will continue to seek opportunities for professional growth throughout their careers in a process of lifelong learning, in addition to required training. The Framework lays out six core areas of leadership, which guide the training and professional development of principals. The six areas are 1) strategic direction and policy environment, which includes planning for the future and ensuring community involvement in the process; 2) learning, teaching, and curriculum development in order to ensure coherence; 3) teacher professional growth and development; 4) staff and resource management, including collaboration and empowerment; 5) quality assurance and accountability to provide feedback to students, parents, and the community; and 6) external communication and connection to the outside world. The Continuing Professional Development Framework was recently updated with a new set of professional standards for principals, released in 2018.