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Hong Kong Education System

Hong Kong is a country with a rich history. As any nation, it had a distinct culture which was later influenced by the activities of the British colonization. It is also noted that the Chinese culture is largely influential in the ways of life in Hong Kong. One of the hallmarks of the Hong Kong evolutions is found in the developments registered in the education system. Behind this backdrop, the current paper traces the history of education in Hong Kong, and evaluates it in relation to other countries’ of learning.

History of the Education System

Various characteristics are descriptive of the Hong Kong education system. Tracing the development of the education system after the Second World War is deemed more informative in a bid to enhance the knowledge on the country’s learning model. At the end of the war in 1945, the country’s school enrollment level was below fifty thousand. According to Faure, school structures lay in ruins as equipment were damaged while textbooks were virtually non-existent. To compound a difficult situation, trained teachers were few. Thus, as Youngson conceded, besides being laborious and difficult, the rehabilitation process of the school system was also difficult. Despite the challenges, the meteoric expansion of the education system is traceable to 1949, a time when immigrants began arriving from China. With a largely young growing population, the necessity for the expansion of the school system was apparent. For that reason, it was not surprising that developing the primary school segment and teacher-training facilities was among the priority areas for local authorities.

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During the 1950s, the government launched a number of programs, which led to the construction of roughly forty-five thousand schools yearly. More changes were effected following the adoption of the White Education Policy which led to the reorganization of primary and secondary schools. The paper also identified universal primary education as the nation’s main target. To attain the objective, the expansion of the education system was identified as a sector that was in need of aid within the country.

During the 1960s and 1970s, a considerable consolidation and elevation of education programs took place as noted by Shun-hing and Leung. For instance, teacher-training programs were introduced while existing ones were improved. Initial training courses were restructured while their extension was expanded to cover a period of two years from the previous one year. Third year courses were also introduced for selected subject areas. Other services included the Advisory Inspectorate which was expanded as well as its coverage of consultative as well as supporting services. For special education, development programs were initiated while at the same time, the Curriculum Development Committee was founded.

Another notable development at the time was the reorganization of the Hong Kong Certificate of Education in regards to the running of exams. The reason for the change was to allow for flexibility regarding language choice for learners. Within the education department, a regionalized administrative structure was set up to enhance liaison in schools. Besides, an educational television network was set up to cater for primary school needs followed by an extension to the secondary level of education. Setting up such a net work was a critical step that was likely to open up the learning process owing to the wide reach that an outlet of this nature provides.

The White Paper of 1965 had stated that the ultimate goal of any educational policy was to ensure that each child had access to the best possible quality of education. The cost factor was also taken into consideration in the development of the policy paper. With the primary level of education almost guaranteed, it was possible to set sights on secondary education. Against that backdrop, the policymakers made provisions to ensure that between 15 and 20 percent of the children who completed primary school education would benefit from subsidized education. In the year 1970, a decision to expand secondary education further was reached. Steps were also taken to increase the extension of subsidized secondary education. The target was to cater for at least fifty percent of the students completing primary education. Hong Kong realized the objective ahead of schedule since by the year 1971 primary education was free, and available to all children.

During the year 1974, another White Paper was authored affirming that all children who met the requirements for secondary education should have free access to such. Besides, the expansion of the subsidized category to cater for children aged between 12 and 14 for the initial three years of secondary education was finalized. By 1979, forty percent of students between the ages of 15 and 16 were also allowed secondary school places. Thus, the White Paper of 1974 was a blueprint that would serve the secondary-level education system of Hong Kong for the following decade. The primary target of the paper was to ensure that by 1974, the government would extend free education for all secondary school students. Throughout the nine years, the children were expected to follow a common education (six in primary and three in secondary). Provisions to cater for students wishing to go beyond the nine years were also made. The free and compulsory education provision was backdated by a year as in 1978 children in Hong Kong were accorded the opportunity to learn without paying.

As from 2008/09, the government increased its sponsorship to cater for educating students for 12 instead of the previous 9 years. In addition, for full-time courses, complete subvention is provided for. The provision covers courses offered by Vocational Training Council (VTC). The intention is to give senior secondary school students an option for free conventional education.

Categories of Schools

The schools in Hong Kong under the Hong Kong Education Department (EDB) fall under three major categories: government, private and subsidized schools. Subsidized schools are often run by charitable organizations while different bodies administer private schools. Admission into the latter category of schools is pegged on merit.

Private independent schools differ from the others in distinctive ways. For instance, they offer a different style of education, use different languages in instructing, and offer an international curriculum. The said variations are some of the attractive points that pull some local parents besides appealing to the expatriate community. A big percentage of the schools have waiting lists, and charge higher fees in comparison to the local schools.

Based on an assessment of the education system, it is apparent that the local system has largely been exam-oriented. Nevertheless, now attempts have been made to reduce the number of exams while increasing ongoing and formative assessments. Often, schools operate by strict discipline codes as virtually all students adorn school uniforms.

In the past, primary schools were divided into morning and afternoon schools. The separation was intended to deal with the problem of space deficiency with a view to accommodating the large student numbers. Changing demographics occasioned by among other things, a declining birth rate, many primary schools have transitioned to full-day schools.

The value of tertiary education in Hong Kong is well documented. Currently, eight universities and several tertiary institutions operate in Hong Kong. The tertiary institutions offer undergraduate and postgraduate degree programs. Financing students at the tertiary level takes the form of advancing interest-free loans to needy students who qualify to join university. The Joint Universities’ Committee on Student Finance administers funds obtained from a government scheme for the fees. The aim is to ensure that no student misses an opportunity for higher education because of financial constraints. Over the years, the funds allocated to the scheme has been rising in reflection of the changing demographics as the number of students keeps rising.

Hong Kong and International Education

In the past, education in Hong Kong was modeled closely on the UK system of education. Such a finding is not surprising given that Hong Kong was a British colony between 181 and 1997. Upon the exit of the Britons, Hong Kong was put under the administration of the Peoples’ Republic of China. From 1997, the education system within the local schools has changed considerably. Some of the alterations reflect differences in languages as taught in primary as well as in secondary schools. Under the most recent program introduced in 2009/2010, the structure of education in Hong Kong resembles the one in the People’s Republic of China and to some extent that of the United States.

As indicated previously, free and compulsory education covered nine years. However, recently, efforts have been made to ensure that three more additional years are covered. The doing away with school fees and introduction of uniform public exams in senior secondary is a major move that is likely to make education more accessible to a big number of students. The development is in line with international trends regarding education matters since countries across the globe extend free primary and secondary education besides subsiding university education greatly. In practice, the developed world subsidizes public education heavily besides providing free primary education.

Schooling goes beyond the compulsory education as the majority of students attend kindergarten for three years before proceeding to primary school. Under the recently introduced secondary education system, three years of early secondary are preceded by three other years in senior secondary which paves the way for the Hong Kong Diploma of Secondary Education (HKDSE) exams. After the exams, students secure entry into a number of post-secondary institutions including: tertiary and vocational entities based on their scores on the HKDSE exams. The vast majority of courses offered at the university level were also set for changes in order to balance with the additional years taken in high school. Many courses were to be adjusted so that they cover four years.

Special education has gained attention in the recent past across the globe. Hong Kong seems to be keeping pace with such developments since the current policy on education addresses the issue of special education. Some of the highlights of the policy include the recommendation of physicians/ specialists, parents and children facing disabilities on how to acquire education. It is noted that students with unique needs are placed under the Special Education Needs (SEN) school systems as opposed to the regular ones. During the 2013/14 academic year sixty aided schools operated within Hong Kong. The schools cater for the needs of children suffering from physical disability, hearing impairments, visual impairment, emotional and behavioral concerns. In practice, the government subvents the special schools although they are run by non-governmental organizations. Some of the schools serve as resource centers in supporting ordinary schools to serve special needs students. The use of ordinary schools is a major way of mitigating the problem of inadequate accommodation while at the same time increasing accessibility through widening the geographical space covered.

The Education Bureau (EDB) provides additional support in the form of professional assistance and resources to ordinary public schools. Such learning centers are anticipated to deploy the resources in a flexible manner and employ a Whole School Approach in providing suitable school-based support to the students. Efforts to increase the capacity of professionals and the learning centers have also been carried out in the recent years. Trends of this nature are reflective of current international developments in the education sector as countries move to improve on their capacities to cater for the vulnerable communities.

Reference to the curriculum taught at the schools is also informative about the similarities of Hong Kong’s education system to those of the Western world. For instance, it is noted that apart from the English schools and English medium schools which are based on the British/ American systems, no differentials characterize primary schools in Hong Kong, in terms of curriculum. However, the manner in which the schools handle the curriculum varies widely. For instance, a high number of the schools still organize curriculum subjects as independent courses, and treat them formally although the child-centered approach is seen as an overarching feature of all schools. The learning-by-doing method is also gaining widespread acceptance within the country. Reference to the Green Paper of 1980 highlights the main benefits of switching to the approach.

In keeping pace with current tendencies, life-long education is now popular in Hong Kong. The government has assumed a significant role in pushing its citizens to pursue education opportunities. For instance, the Information Services Department reports that, within Hong Kong, universities and institutes offer adult learning courses. A wide range of institutions offers interest, general, and professional courses as well. Language courses such as Mandarin, Japanese and English are common in these schools. A big proportion of the adults who undertake language courses intend to enhance their employability. In order to encourage adult education, the government runs a scheme that allows adult learners to seek fee reimbursement for certain courses. The Open University of Hong Kong, which operates under the UK model of education, provides degree opportunities for the adult population.

As the case is across the world, the private schools operate as profit institutions. It is also not coincidental that the government does not meet any part of the fees paid to such schools. However, the government plays a role by regulating the fees paid. The Director of Education is in charge of approving the fees charged by the private institutions. During the time when public secondary schools lacked enough capacity, the government used to buy places in some private schools to accommodate selected students. A move of this nature is instrumental in improving both private and public sector education.

Emergent Changes

Many changes into the school system have taken place especially after 1997. For instance, kindergartens have been altered with a view to increasing professionalism. The most notable changes have bordered on the tinkering with the qualifications required for the teaching staff and principals. The authorities have also placed added emphasis on the significance of early childhood education and curriculum development with the intention to form a strong foundation for students.

Traditionally, class numbers in Hong Kong are higher compared to those in the West. For example, an average class in Hong Kong holds between thirty-five and forty-five students. However, recently, the number of students has been shrinking leading to teacher redundancies. Although the shrinking number of students has ignited debate about class student numbers, no notable reductions have made.

It is observed that international students do not participate in local public exams. Previously, the international students commonly preferred GCSE /A, UK exams. However, preference has shifted to the International Baccalaureate (IB), which is taken at the diploma level. Many country-specific schools are known to teach their country of origin programs. However, for students who wish to gain entry into foreign countries, SAT and/or IELTS remain common.

Recent developments have coincided with the advancement of local some schools to offer the IB and the UK’s GCSE/A programs. The switch by the government to have a 3+3+4 system might be the reason since parents are unsettled about how the HKDSE will be perceived for those students seeking international opportunities.

After the introduction of free universal primary and secondary education, the White Paper could investigate a more suitable system to guide the replacement of Secondary School Entrance Examination (SSEE) as educationists sought a shift from the focus on selection to allocation. Under the new orientation, up to forty percent of students would be selected to proceed to senior secondary school level.

During the 70s, emphasis was placed on balancing general development with specific attention paid to cultural and practical subjects. Towards attaining the goal of practicality in the education curriculum, technical and prevocational schools were set up. In particular, five technical schools were established and equipped so that they could offer an extensive range of subjects. Following the changes, the e Hong Kong Technical College assumed a central role within the activities of technical education in the country. The establishment of the institutions was a major step towards enhancing the link between technical and vocational training within Hong Kong. The outcome of a connection of this nature is the creation of a technological outlet within the tertiary education platform.


A common trend across the world involves governments taking proactive steps to improve education. The same case is apparent as the Hong Kong authorities initiated many developments in the education system by instituting many changes through policy-making. The Green Paper and White Papers are illustrative cases on the role of the government in improving learning. The contribution of the authorities ranged from restructuring to sponsoring learning. Through sponsorship, the government aided the expansion of education to great effect. Apart from the above mentioned forms of assistance, the government also addressed the issue of teacher-training by introducing programs to enhance their learning and ability to deliver based on the country’s expectations.

As a nation, Hong Kong has undergone many changes. Education is among the sectors that have registered notable changes. In a bid to highlight the changes, the paper reviews education in Hong Kong after the second world to date. Based on the findings, it is held that Hong Kong has made major strides in improving its education sector. The most notable changes have been on the structure of education, sponsorship/ subsidizing, teacher training and curriculum development. Without going into specific attributes, it is concluded that the country’s education system has kept pace with international changes within the education sector.

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