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local or non-local? types of schools explained

Updated: Oct 31, 2022

It’s not easy to define the types of schools in Hong Kong. The Education Bureau (EDB) of the HKSAR Government defines schools for its own uses, which are of limited use to the wider population. Parents will also have different definitions. Here, we present complex information in a way that not only best reflects the facts but, more importantly, helps parents make sense of it all. We’ll use the categories:

  1. Government schools & aided schools

  2. Direct Subsidy Schools (DSS)

  3. English Schools Foundation Schools (ESF)

These three types of schools receive government funding to various extents and are therefore answerable to the Education Bureau in some way.

  1. Private schools

  2. International Schools

  3. Private Independent Schools

These three types of schools are separate from the government and operate independently from them.

Government schools & aided schools

Traditionally, about 90% of Hong Kong education has been provided by public sector institutions, providing free education for students between six and 15 years and substantial subsidies for senior secondary students. A small number of these schools are government-operated schools. These will be named “so-and-so Government School”. The vast majority are “aided”.

What’s the difference between government Schools & aided schools?

The only difference in is in the governance: Government school staff are civil servants employed by the EDB. The school is operated by and run by the EDB. Aided schools are operated and run by a sponsoring body – usually charitable – aproved by the EDB. Otherwise, they are both fully funded by the government, are free of charge and obligated to follow EDB’s curriculum and regulations. These schools offer little diversity in educational approach or curricula and follow the standard curriculum set out by the EDB. The teaching style is dominated by teacher-led lessons focused on textbook learning, with extensive rote learning for school and public examinations. Class sizes tend to be large at a maximum of 40.

DSS schools

The Direct Subsidy Scheme (DSS) was launched in 1991 by the Hong Kong government. These schools receive government funding and, at the same time, enjoy a fair amount of autonomy in making curricular choices, changing tuition fees and setting entrance requirements, etc. The amount of their funding is determined by a fairly complex calculation that accounts for the difference between the amount they receive in tuition fees, and the amount they would have received as an ordinary aided school, based on the number of students they’ve registered. DSS schools have almost complete freedom in admitting students and the procedure is very similar to private schools in that prospective parents complete an application form and, if successful, will be invited to an interview/assessment. It seems that many of them, though, require application forms to be collected and submitted by hand at particular times, which results in early morning pilgrimages and long queues. As at Sept 2011, 21 primary DSS schools exist.

Private schools

Private schools enjoy almost complete freedom in charges, choice of curriculum, selection criteria, hiring of staff, etc. Within this category, we can distinguish three types of private schools.

  1. “local” private schools

  2. International Schools

  3. Private Independent Schools

“Local” private schools

These are “traditional” private schools that typically require excellent proficiency in both Chinese and English, teach in English and Cantonese. Admissions are based mainly on academic merit. Fees are typically much less than other private schools.

International Schools

In June 2011, 32,000 students were enrolled in international schools: 13% local students and 87% other types of students. These are schools that generally contain the word ‘international’ or follow an international curriculum or self-declare themselves to be an ‘international school’.

Private Independent Schools (PIS)

The PIS scheme was established in 1999. However, all eight existing PIS schools have been established since 2004. Some of the most popular schools fall into this category i.e Renaissance College and Independent Schools Foundation Academy. These schools are given land on a 10 year lease and a grant to construct a school building. Otherwise, they are funded by tuition fees and other fundraising efforts. The only ongoing grant they receive from the government is reimbursement of rates. In return, the school is obligated to set aside at least 10% of its total school fee income for scholarships and other financial assistance programmes. One important and often overlooked point is that these schools are established to primarily serve the local community. Therefore, they must admit at least 70% local students. This means students with Hong Kong permanent resident status. In the 2010/11 school year, around 9,500 students were enrolled in PISs. Of which, 87% are local students and 13% are other types of students. On 1 June 2011, Secretary for Education, Mr Michael Suen, told the Legislative Council that places available in PISs will increase from 10, 600 to 11, 600 in the next three years. Places currently taken amount to only 9,500. This discrepancy could be down to the fact that the government calculates class sizes as about 35, whereas most PIS schools will have substantially smaller classes. See

English Schools Foundation Schools (ESF)

The ESF was established by the Hong Kong Government in 1967. At that time, the objective was to provide an affordable English language education to those not proficient in Chinese. Today, many its students are proficient in Chinese, yet choose an English language education. ESF currently operates five secondary schools, nine primary schools and a school for students with special educational needs. ESF’s affiliated company, ESF Educational Services Limited, operates two Private Independent Schools – Discovery College & Renaissance College.


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