Navigating Education in Hong Kong: Local Schools vs. International Schools

Posted: Jan 19 2024Last Updated: Jan 19 2024

In a highly competitive Hong Kong educational landscape, parents face a crucial decision regarding their children's education - should they opt for a local or international school? Picking the right school is a big deal, as it can shape your child's future. In this article, we're here to help you navigate the differences between these two systems, weighing their pros and cons to make an informed choice for your children.

Overview: Local vs. International - What's the Deal?

Let's start with the basics. Local schools in Hong Kong are like an extension of kindergarten. They run for six years, mainly in Chinese, with a sprinkle of Mandarin and English here and there. Parents usually need to pick a local school when their child reaches K3 in kindergarten. These schools follow the provincial curriculum, but some government-funded ones also offer a taste of international studies.

By contrast, international schools play by different rules. You've got to register your child early, around K2, and they can kick off in Grade 1. International schools often offer a complete educational journey from primary to secondary. Suppose you're thinking about sending your child overseas to study later. In that case, international schools usually sync up well with global curricula.

Spotting the Differences

Now, let's dive into the details - what sets these two systems apart in Hong Kong in 2023?

Local Schools (Public Government Schools)


  • Master the language: Local schools focus primarily on Cantonese/Mandarin so your children can master Chinese.
  • Cultural Embrace: Your child will soak Hong Kong culture like a sponge. It goes beyond the dim sum and traditional clothes; they'll genuinely connect with the local way of life.
  • Local University Entrance: Local schools are well-aligned with the local university entrance examination system, which can provide a smoother transition for students intending to pursue higher education in Hong Kong.
  • Economically friendly: The Hong Kong Government provides 12 years of free primary and secondary education to all children through public sector schools, with many subsidies and funding.


  • Homework Overload: Homework can be like a never-ending mountain, leaving less time for fun and other activities.
  • Exam Stress: Exams rule the roost. Midterms and finals can make or break a child's grade, and this intense focus on tests might not be the best way to prepare them for life.
  • Language Barrier: Non-Cantonese speaking students may face difficulties adjusting to the language of instruction, especially if they do not have prior exposure to Cantonese.

International Schools (Private and ESF-subsidized)


  • English Language Proficiency: International schools prioritize English language education, offering a strong foundation in English, which can be beneficial for students who are not fluent in Cantonese.
  • Global Outlook: These schools introduce your child to the world. They mingle with peers from different countries, becoming global citizens with a broader mindset.
  • Diverse Teachers: International schools typically employ teachers with international qualifications and experience, ensuring a high standard of education and a diverse range of teaching methodologies.


  • Pricey Tag: There’s no sugar-coating it; international schools can be expensive. Scholarships exist, but they rely on tuition fees and debentures.
  • Limited Local Cultural Immersion: While international schools may offer opportunities for cultural exchange, some parents may feel that their children are less immersed in the local culture and society.

International School Curricula Choices

International schools in Hong Kong offer a range of curricula, with the International Baccalaureate (IB) and A-Level systems being popular choices. They cater to various nationalities, including German, British, Swiss, Japanese, and more. The IB program is a standout, known and accepted worldwide. Even local students, sans foreign passports, can apply and enrol in these schools, with around 30% of their students being Hong Kong locals.

Switching to an International School from a Local

So, you've decided to switch to an international school. But when's the right time? For starters, the names of grade levels can be confusing. Some use "Year," while others use "Grade." For example, Year 1 equals K3, and Grade 1 equals Primary 1. It's best to aim for the lowest grade level the school offers. Try to switch during Year 1 or Year 7 because everyone is new, and there are orientation activities to help your child settle in. Transitioning to Year 10 is also an option. Many students do this to gear up for overseas studies. Some students leave during these years, meaning more vacancies are available.

Notable International Schools in HK

Here are some notable international schools in Hong Kong, each with unique characteristics. Please note that this is not an exhaustive list; there are other renowned international schools in Hong Kong.

  • The English Schools Foundation (ESF): Hong Kong's largest English-medium organisation of international schools and well-known for its extracurricular programmes (ESF Sports).
  • Harrow International School: Offers a unique blend of British education, character development, cultural integration, and global perspective.
  • Kellett School: cultivates a love of learning and confidence for life in all students.
  • American International School (AIS): Adopts a positive, student-centred approach to teaching and learning. AIS values the sense of community within the school.
  • Hong Kong International School (HKIS): Fosters the next generation of collaborative, creative and resilient leaders, focusing on experiential learning and an American-inspired curriculum.
  • Canadian International School: Balances academics with extracurricular activities for a well-rounded education.
  • Carmel School: Focuses on Jewish culture, offering a holistic development approach.
  • Chinese International School: Provides a dual-language (Mandarin and English) program and prepares students for the IB program.

Choosing between local and international schools in Hong Kong is a monumental decision, and it's crucial to understand that there's no universal solution. Local schools immerse students in a rich linguistic and cultural environment. They offer a deep dive into the Chinese language and culture, allowing students to become proficient in Cantonese and Mandarin while developing a profound connection to Hong Kong's heritage. On the flip side, international schools adopt a global perspective. They offer an education that transcends borders, emphasising English proficiency and providing exposure to diverse cultures. These schools prepare students to thrive in a rapidly global world where English is often the lingua franca.

The decision hinges on your child's unique needs and your family's aspirations. Consider your child's language abilities, future educational goals, and your desired cultural exposure. Take your time to research and weigh the pros and cons of each system and remember that your child's educational journey is a pivotal factor in shaping their future. Ultimately, your child's growth and development should be at the forefront of this vital decision-making process.


You May Also Like

Hong Kong's Extreme Weather: How to Be Resilient and Be Prepared

Hong Kong is no stranger to extreme weather events, but the recent record-breaking rainfall and severe flooding have highlighted the urgent need for enhanced disaster preparedness. This article tackles the practical steps individuals can take to bet

Hong Kong's Charming Outlying Retreats

Nestled within the bustling city of Hong Kong are several enchanting outlying islands that offer a tranquil escape from the urban chaos. From the serene Discovery Bay to the picturesque Lantau Island and the vibrant Cheung Chau, these charming retre
More Insights

Tight on time? Let us do the searching for you!

OKAY.COM - iOS App StoreOKAY.COM - Android Play Store
Let's Connect
15/F, Wilson House, 19-27 Wyndham St., Central, Hong Kong
+852 2102 0888
Do you want to login
You already have an account with us? How about logging in?