The System, Options and Competition for Places

We hear a lot about how hard it is to get a place in an International or ESF school. Would you be surprised to know that it may be easier than getting into a local school?

Parents may apply to 12 or 15 schools before receiving one offer!

How to get into a local school

Local schools vary enormously. Of 1,658 schools in Hong Kong (give or take), 95% of them are local schools in various categories. In fact, 74% of all schools are free schools – government or aided. Getting into one of these schools is largely a lottery process. If parents are not staff or alumni, they have limited control over the admissions process. Eligible children apply through the Education Bureau’s Primary One Admissions (POA) Scheme and either are lucky enough to secure a place in a nominated school (a Discretionary Place) or they are assigned to a school, based on the parents’ address, preferences and other influencers.

So, that leaves an important group of local schools that have absolute discretion over who they accept and who they don’t. These schools are private or Direct Subsidy Scheme Schools.

Under the DSS scheme are currently 61 secondary and 21 primary schools. All of them, especially the primary schools, are very popular and therefore very competitive.

Fierce competition

For 2013/14 applications, one primary school had 5,700 applications for fewer than 200 places. At another, where the fees are higher, they received over 3,000 applications for 165 places.

See also
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Even children in the kindergarten section of the school are not guaranteed a place at primary.

The application period for these schools opens as early as May/June of the preceding year and it can be a long, painful, drawn-out affair.


The application and interview procedures at these schools can seem quite severe. It is not uncommon, for example, to require parents, or delegates, to submit all application documents in hard copy, in person during a period of just a few days. This can result in long waiting times and even queues out onto the street, starting at 6am!

Even to register for an information session is a feat in itself. Often, they are fully subscribed within minutes of the online registration opening.

The interviews are scheduled rigidly and, if you can’t make it, you drop out of the game. Schools often deliberately schedule interviews to clash with other schools. Often, the children are required to attend two interviews. The interviews can be sombre affairs with some challenging tasks for the children – even a panel interview. At a few schools, the children may meet the principal who ultimately decides their fate.

Of course, at the end of the day, parents can opt out of this ridiculousness and leave it to the EDB to assign their child to a school. Or, they could apply to an international school instead!

Ruth Benny, Head Girl of Top Schools

Ruth is a long-time Hong Kong resident, former educator of local students and school teachers and parent of two children. With 18 years experience of the education system in Hong Kong, she thoroughly understands its complexity and fierce competition. She has placed children in top schools including ISF, Victoria Shanghai Academy, Canadian International School, Hong Kong International School and ESF schools.

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