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Country Focus: Education System in Hong Kong

Last Updated on 5 June 2024

The education system in Hong Kong is renowned for its high literacy rates.

Hong Kong's education system is renowned for its rigorous standards and impressive outcomes. It boasts high literacy rates and significant achievements in international assessments. However, it also faces challenges, particularly around student stress and equity.

Education Reforms

The education system in Hong Kong has undergone significant reforms aimed at enhancing critical thinking, creativity, and lifelong learning skills. Key reforms include:

The New Academic Structure (NAS): Introduced in 2009, this reform restructured the secondary and tertiary education system, extending the secondary curriculum from five to six years and replacing the Hong Kong Certificate of Education Examination (HKCEE) and Hong Kong Advanced Level Examination (HKALE) with the Hong Kong Diploma of Secondary Education (HKDSE). The NAS aims to provide a more flexible and diversified curriculum, enhancing students' all-round development.

Medium of Instruction Guidance for Secondary Schools: This policy, updated over the years, encourages schools to adopt English or Chinese as the medium of instruction based on their students' needs and proficiency levels. It aims to improve bilingualism and cater to the diverse linguistic capabilities of students.

Integrated Education Policy: This reform focuses on supporting students with special educational needs (SEN) within mainstream schools. The government provides additional resources, teacher training, and specialised support services to promote inclusive education and ensure equal learning opportunities for all students.

Applied Learning (ApL) Courses: These are elective courses introduced to the senior secondary curriculum, designed to provide practical and vocational training alongside traditional academic subjects. ApL courses aim to cater to different learning styles and interests, preparing students for various career paths and higher education options.

Life Planning Education and Career Guidance: This initiative, strengthened in recent years, emphasizes the importance of career guidance and life planning education. Schools are encouraged to provide students with comprehensive career counselling, information on various educational and career pathways, and opportunities for experiential learning to help them make informed decisions about their futures.

Language Policy

A unique feature of Hong Kong's education system is its bilingual policy, where Chinese and English are both used as mediums of instruction. This policy aims to ensure students are proficient in both languages, enhancing their global competitiveness.

Structure of the Education System

Early Childhood Education

Hong Kong's education journey begins with early childhood education, which is for children aged 3 to 6 years. This stage is not compulsory but highly encouraged. Kindergartens are mostly privately run, though government subsidies are available for eligible families.

Primary Education

Primary education is compulsory and free for all children aged 6 to 12. The curriculum covers Chinese, English, mathematics, general studies, music, physical education, and arts. This stage aims to provide a balanced education and prepare students for secondary education.

Secondary Education

Secondary school education in Hong Kong is divided into two main stages:

Junior Secondary (Forms 1-3, ages 12-15): This stage is compulsory and includes a broad curriculum aimed at providing a solid foundation in various subjects such as Chinese, English, mathematics, science, humanities, physical education, and the arts.

Senior Secondary (Forms 4-6, ages 15-18): In this stage, students have more flexibility to choose subjects that align with their interests and future career aspirations. The curriculum is designed to prepare students for the Hong Kong Diploma of Secondary Education (HKDSE). Core subjects include Chinese, English, mathematics, and liberal studies, with a range of elective subjects available.

Tertiary Education

Hong Kong's tertiary education includes universities, vocational institutions, and technical schools. There are eight publicly funded universities, with the University of Hong Kong (HKU) and the Chinese University of Hong Kong (CUHK) being the most prestigious.

Vocational Education

Vocational education is provided by institutions like the Vocational Training Council (VTC), offering a range of programmes from basic skills training to higher diplomas. These programmes are designed to meet the needs of industries and enhance students' employability.

International and Private Schools

Hong Kong hosts a significant number of international and private schools, catering to the expatriate community and local families seeking alternative curricula. These schools offer diverse programmes such as the International Baccalaureate (IB), British, American, and other national systems.

The Grading System and National Exams

Grading System

The grading system in Hong Kong varies between primary, secondary, and tertiary education. In primary and secondary schools, grades are typically given as percentages or letter grades, with an A being the highest and F the lowest.

National Exams

The most crucial exam in Hong Kong's education system is the HKDSE. Taken at the end of Form 6, the HKDSE determines university admissions. Students are assessed in core subjects (Chinese, English, mathematics, and liberal studies) and elective subjects.

The Private Tuition Industry

Hong Kong's private tuition industry, often referred to as the “shadow education system“, is a multi-billion-dollar sector. The intense competition for academic excellence drives many parents to invest heavily in private tutors to give their children an edge. This industry offers a range of services, from one-on-one tutoring to large tutorial centres, often led by star tutors with significant followings.

Pros and Cons of the Education System in Hong Kong


  • High Standards and Outcomes: Hong Kong students consistently perform well in international assessments like PISA, indicating high academic standards.
  • Bilingual Proficiency: The bilingual education policy ensures that students are proficient in both Chinese and English, crucial for global competitiveness.
  • Diverse Opportunities: The presence of international and private schools offers a wide range of curricula and educational philosophies, catering to diverse needs.
  • Robust Tertiary Education: Hong Kong's universities are highly regarded globally, providing world-class education and research opportunities.
  • Vocational Pathways: Vocational education offers alternative pathways for students, enhancing their employability and catering to various career interests.


  • High Stress Levels: The intense competition and high expectations contribute to significant stress and mental health issues among students.
  • Inequality: The private tuition industry exacerbates educational inequality, as students from wealthier families can afford additional support.
  • Overemphasis on Exams: The education system's focus on rote learning and exam performance can stifle creativity and critical thinking.
  • Pressure on Teachers: Teachers face heavy workloads and pressure to ensure students perform well, impacting their well-being and effectiveness.
  • Limited Flexibility: The rigid curriculum and high-stakes exams can limit students' ability to explore interests outside of academics.

Balancing Excellence with Well-being and Inclusivity

Hong Kong's education system is a blend of high standards, rigorous assessments, and significant opportunities, making it one of the most respected in the world. However, it also faces critical challenges, particularly in terms of student well-being and educational equity. For both local and international students, it offers a competitive and comprehensive education but requires careful navigation to balance academic achievement with personal development.

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