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
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.
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.
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.