Hong Kong SAR

Frederick Koon Shing Leung
Alice Siu Ling Wong
Connie Ching Yan Leung
The University of Hong Kong

Overview of Education System

In the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region (SAR) of China, several bodies contribute to the enterprise of education. The Education Bureau (EDB) is responsible for making educational decisions, including formulating, developing, and reviewing policies, programs, and legislation from the preprimary to tertiary levels. It oversees the effective implementation of educational programs.1 The EDB also has the role of monitoring the services provided by the University Grants Committee, the Student Financial Assistance Agency, the Hong Kong Examinations and Assessment Authority, the Hong Kong Council for Accreditation of Academic and Vocation Qualifications, and the Vocational Council.

The Curriculum Development Institute (CDI) is a division of the EDB. It provides professional leadership and coordinates curriculum development collaborations with local and international partners in the development of the local school curriculum in Hong Kong. It supports schools in the implementation of curriculum policies and innovation by providing schools with a coherent, broad, and balanced curriculum with flexible curriculum frameworks and diverse curriculum models, which facilitates the development of desirable learning environments and diversified learning, and disseminates effective curriculum practices. The CDI generates and advances knowledge in curriculum development through continual review, research, and evaluation. It also provides secretariat support to the Curriculum Development Council (CDC).2

The CDC is a free-standing advisory body appointed by the chief executive of the Hong Kong SAR to advise the government on matters related to curriculum development for the local school system from the preprimary to secondary levels. Its main tasks are setting the general direction for curriculum policies in school education, formulating directions of development in key learning areas, and mapping out plans and strategies for the development of different curriculum organizations. It also advises on matters related to the conducting of research and the development of learning resources in support of all levels of schooling and for children with special education needs.3 The CDC and the CDI work closely together in the development of the local curriculum. In particular, the mathematics and science sections of the institute make decisions about Hong Kong’s mathematics and science curricula, based on broad principles established by the council.

In Hong Kong, local schools, including government schools, aided schools, Direct Subsidy Scheme (DSS) schools, and private schools, follow a territory-wide curriculum. Individual schools under the DSS and the Private Independent School Scheme complement the international school sector.4 Country-specific international schools and IB (International Baccalaureate) World Schools follow a nonlocal curriculum: the former teach a syllabus from their own country and the latter teach IB programs that consist of a range of educational frameworks and curricula. All schools must be registered under the EDB’s Education Ordinance (CAP 279), and must observe the bureau’s Education Ordinance and Education Regulations (CAP 279A).5 Childcare centers are registered with the Social Welfare Department.

Before the implementation of the new education system in the 2009–2010 academic year, the education system of Hong Kong SAR followed the typical British system (6-5-2-3 structure). The current education system runs on a 6-3-3-4 structure: six years of primary school, three years of junior (lower) secondary school, three years of senior (upper) secondary school, and four years of university study. The 6-3-3-4 structure is more consistent with the system in place in China and many parts of the world. Under this structure, the first nine years of compulsory basic education, starting at Grade 1 (Primary 1), remain unchanged, and students follow the curriculum from the former structure up to Grade 9 (Secondary 3). There is no streaming by subject (i.e., arts, science, and commerce) at Grade 10 (Secondary 4) under the new structure. Students at the senior (upper) secondary level take four core subjects—Chinese Language, English Language, Mathematics, and Liberal Studies—and two or three elective subjects chosen from a list of senior (upper) secondary subjects in different key learning areas, applied learning courses, and other language courses. Moreover, other learning experiences in the areas of moral and civic education, community service, physical and aesthetic education, and career-related experiences also are included as part of the senior (upper) secondary curriculum to foster a broader scope of views, experiences, and lifelong learning abilities for students.6 At the end of the senior (upper) secondary education, all eligible students attending local schools will take a territory-wide public examination, the Hong Kong Diploma of Secondary Education Examination (HKDSE).

While DSS schools are like private schools in that students are required to pay a tuition fee, for students attending public sector schools (i.e., government schools and aided schools) education is offered free from Grades 1 to 12 (Primary 1 to Secondary 6). Full subvention also is provided for full time courses run by the Vocational Training Council for Grade 9 (Secondary 3) school leavers, giving senior (upper) secondary students an alternative free avenue to conventional education.7 Preprimary education, including childcare centers for children from birth to age 3, and kindergarten for children ages 3 to 6 (K1 to K3), is not part of compulsory education and not free. Childcare centers and kindergartens are run privately by voluntary organizations or private bodies.8 Currently, the government provides direct fee subsidy through the Preprimary Education Voucher Scheme for parents of children studying in local nonprofit childcare centers and kindergartens. For parents in need, the government provides assistance by reimbursing fees through the Kindergarten and Child Care Centre Fee Remission Scheme.9 In the 2016 Policy Address, it was announced that a free kindergarten education policy would be implemented in the 2017–2018 academic year for local nonprofit kindergartens to improve the quality of kindergarten education. The government expects this to cover full tuition fees for up to 80 percent of half-day session children. Additional subsidies will be provided for eligible whole-day and extended-daya kindergartens.10 The Guide to the Preprimary Curriculum,11 issued by the CDC in 2006, states that preprimary education should help foster children’s all-round development, including physical, intellectual, language, aesthetic, social, and emotional aspects.

Languages of Instruction

Chinese and English are the official languages of Hong Kong, but Cantonese, a Chinese dialect, is spoken by most people in Hong Kong. According to the figures of the 2011 Population Census conducted by the Census and Statistics Department, 89.5 percent of the population age 5 and over speak Cantonese as their everyday language. Another 8.9 percent of the population speak other Chinese dialects (4 percent); English (3.5 percent); and Putonghua, also known as Mandarin (1.4 percent).12 The government has adopted a biliterate (Chinese and English) and trilingual (Putonghua, Cantonese, and English) policy for education in Hong Kong.

At the primary level, there is no specific language of instruction policy. Most local primary schools in Hong Kong use Chinese (Cantonese) as the medium of instruction. Schools may choose to use Putonghua to teach Chinese Language subjects.13 At the secondary level, the government issued the Medium of Instruction Guidance for Secondary Schools in September 1997.14 The policy framework included the adoption of Chinese as the language of instruction for all academic subjects, except for English language subjects, in secondary schools, starting from the 1998–1999 academic year. Secondary schools wishing to use English as the medium of instruction must obtain approval from the government and fulfill three prescribed criteria: students must demonstrate the ability to learn in English; teachers must demonstrate the capability to teach in English; and schools must have adequate support strategies and measures for courses taught in English.

In the 2010–2011 academic year, fine-tuned medium of instruction arrangements were implemented at Grade 7 (Secondary 1) and progressed each year to a higher grade at the junior (lower) secondary level. The fine-tuning arrangements aim to enrich the English learning environment to suit the needs of students and to increase student opportunities to use and to be exposed to English. Secondary schools may adopt English for up to 25 percent of the total lesson time across subjects, excluding the lesson time for English language subjects. Alternatively, secondary schools may allocate appropriate lesson time to the teaching of one or two non-language subjects in English. Schools also may opt to teach some or all non-language subjects in English, provided that the prescribed criteria are met.15 The EDB has decided to maintain the language policy goal and overall arrangement of medium of instruction fine-tuning for the second cycle, from the 2016–2017 academic year to the 2022–2023 academic year.16

  • a In Hong Kong, “extended-day” kindergartens are called “long whole-day” kindergartens. “Long whole-day” kindergartens are different from “whole-day” kindergartens. Their service operation duration is longer than regular “whole-day” kindergartens.