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ESF or International School?

Updated: Oct 13, 2022

Parents often ask about the difference between an ESF school and an international school for primary.

What is the difference in the definition? A few differences to note:ESFInternational/PrivatePartially government funded; partially funded by fees (until 2016)Mostly funded by feesCatchment area system – apply to only ONE ESF school, based on home addressNo geographical restrictions; can apply to a school near or far from home and as many as you like.Fully accredited to offer IB curriculumFree to run any curriculum, or a mix of curriculaLess competitivePopular schools fiercely competitive Class size large at 30Class sizes vary between 11 and 28

Let’s consider how ESF compares to the alternatives at three stages: preschool, primary and secondary.


ESF operates five kindergartens under its affiliated company, ESF Educational Services Limited. Students at these kindergartens have priority when being considered for an interview for a place at primary.

International kindergartens are numerous. They run various curricula, adopt various approaches and vary in their selection criteria and process. Some are more reputable than others. One of the very best tools in selecting a kindergarten is to analyse their graduation statistics. If the kindergarten has a good track record in having their students accepted by the primary schools you’re interested in, this would be worth considering seriously. ESF kindergartens don’t share this data and, even if they did, it will take quite a few years for any patterns to emerge under the new policy.

So, why choose an ESF kindergarten?

Judge an ESF kindergarten using the same criteria you’d use to judge any other kindergarten. Plus points for ESF: established brand name and reputation, based on excellent teaching staff and a solid curriculum, fully accredited by IBO.


ESF’s nine Primary schools start at Year 1 (Age 5). Parents can apply to only one school through what’s known as Central Allocation, based on their home address. They may apply to one or both of the ESF private schools in addition. These are Discovery College and Renaissance College.

All schools are similar in that they follow the IB PYP curriculum and cost $101,000/year (AY 2016/17).

Otherwise, ESF schools vary in size, diversity and culture.

International schools vary wildly. Very few are charging fees as low as ESF fees.


Under normal circumstances, a student graduating an ESF primary school is offered a place in the secondary school of the catchment area. ESF operates only five secondary schools.

All schools offer IB MYP and IB DP. either UK GCSEs or International GCSE  As an alternative to the IB DP, BTec is also offered for students preferring a more practical approach to learning.

ESF’s IB DP results are impressive: In 2016, 99% of candidates passed the IB Diploma with an average score of 36.1 points (out of 45).

Cost, Competition & Catchment.

A few final words on three areas:

Cost: Without a doubt, ESF schools provide a high quality education for a lot less than other schools, made possible by government funding. The trade-off, however, is the large class size. All this is likely to change over the next few years since the government has withdrawn its subsidy. See ESF: What’s Next?

Competition: At ESF schools, the competition is not nearly as intense as it is at some other top, international schools. Roughly 2.1 applications are received for every available place. This ratio is up to 12:1 in some other schools. ESF schools do select students to some extent, but the process is not too rigourous. That said, it’s risky to apply to one ESF school without any back-ups.

Catchment: The catchment area system means that parents don’t have flexibility to choose the school they  prefer. Applications are received only from eligible students with proof of address within the catchment area. If the student moves outside the catchment area, they may stay in the original school or apply for a transfer. A transfer will be successful only when a place becomes available. Until then, the student will attend the original school which may or may not have a bus route to the new address. 

At other international and private schools, no such restriction exists.

So, while an ESF school may be a good fit for your child, we now have more and more excellent international schools. Do your research thoroughly, or consider hiring us to guide you through.


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