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New to Hong Kong? Or new to the Hong Kong schools scene?

Updated: Sep 9, 2023

We’ve compiled (in brief) a summary of the most popular topics to help you understand how the education system works in Hong Kong and how to think about schools you might be considering. And, of course, we tackle the much misunderstood and bewildering topic of debentures.

What is a debenture?

A debenture is the traditional name given to a loan agreement where the borrower is an institutional borrower. For our purposes, the institution is a school. The money raised by the debentures becomes a part of the school’s capital structure. The school may use the funds raised through debentures in any way it chooses. The debenture, but not the interest earned on it, is often reimbursed after the child leaves the school. However, some schools reimburse in part or do not reimburse at all and some debentures depreciate.

ESF Schools or not?

Parents often ask about the difference between an ESF school and an international school.. Let’s take a look at how ESF compares to the alternatives at three stages: preschool, primary and secondary.

ESF schools are a category of schools in themselves. They are not international or private but they do provide a comparable offering.

To apply to an ESF school, you need to apply for a particular school based on your home address. This is unique to the ESF group of schools and private schools do not have any geographical restrictions.

ESF school fees are relatively inexpensive, yet their class size is rather large - at 30 students in primary and most of secondary.

American or British Curriculum?

What is often referred to as the ‘UK curriculum’ is actually the English National Curriculum.

In England, children generally start formal education at the age of four, a year earlier than in the US. Students take exams at key stages in their education. Then the two-year program starting at the age of 14 ends with the GCSE (General Certificate of Secondary Education), and the next two-year program starting at the age of 16 is A-Levels. Overall, it can be said that the system leads students towards increasing specialization.


The GCSE is the main school-leaving certificate. In recent years, the government has introduced a GCSE reform program, including a grading system that uses numbers (1-9) instead of letters (A-G).

GCSEs are available in approximately 50 subjects with exams taken in May/June when students are in Year 11 (Grade 10) and results published in early August.


The International GCSE (IGCSE) is an internationally recognized exam at the same level as the GCSE. It aims to adopt a broader approach to learning with content being less UK-centric and is more commonly offered in international schools outside of the UK and independent schools in the UK.

According to the University of Cambridge International Examinations (CIE) board, one of the main governing bodies of IGCSE for independent schools in the UK, the exam "encourages an inquiry-based approach to learning and develops the skills of creative thinking, analysis, and problem-solving, giving students excellent preparation for the next stage of their education ”.

Schools may offer any combination of subjects with over 70 courses to choose from, including over 30 language courses, providing a variety of options for students with a wide range of abilities, including those whose first language is not English.


The A-Level, introduced in England and Wales in 1951, is highly regarded for university entrance, with universities granting offers based on grades achieved.

A Levels are generally taken over a two year period. Typically, students take three or four A Level courses in their first year of sixth form.

BTec / T-Levels

BTECs (Business and Technology Education Council) are specialist work-related qualifications.

They combine practical learning with subject and theory content.

T Levels - equivalent to 3 A levels - launched in September 2020. These 2-year courses have been developed in collaboration with employers and businesses so that the content meets the needs of industry and prepares students for work, further training or study.

T Levels offer students a mixture of classroom learning and ‘on-the-job’ experience during an industry placement of at least 315 hours (approximately 45 days).

The education system in the US

In the US, less emphasis is placed on examinations and students study general subjects until the end of high school ( Grade 12 or the UK equivalent of Year 13).

Starting at 5 years old in Kindergarten, children are gradually introduced to learning, with a strong emphasis on socialization as well as developing basic language and math skills. It’s generally accepted that from kindergarten through Grade 3. children acquire basic knowledge that is then applied and developed more rigorously in Grade 4.

The US system is typically divided into three levels:

• Basic: Elementary school (K - Grade 5),

• Middle school (Grades 6-8)

• High school (Grades 9–12).

The American curriculum is usually quite extensive, and students are expected to study many subjects—such as English, math, science, foreign languages, history, art, music, and physical education—all the way to Grade 12.

AP Courses

The Advanced Placement (AP) Program allows students to get a head start on college while they’re still completing high school. AP classes are offered in high school and give students a chance to complete rigorous, college-level coursework in a variety of subject areas, totalling 38. Students may elect to take an AP test administered by the College Board after completing the associated class. Passing grades on a test may result in college credit or placement out of introductory-level courses, depending on the policies of the college that the student later attends.

AP tests are scored up to 5. Typically, a student needs to score at least a 3 to earn any college credit, but each college has a different policy about the specific AP scores it will accept for credit in each subject.


Colleges in the United States expect more information about prospective students than the GPA and high school diploma can provide. So, it is fairly typical that students take the SAT (also known as the Scholastic Aptitude Test) or the ACT (the American College Test), both of which are nationally recognized tests taken at the end of high school.

The SAT score range is 400-1600, and 200-800 for each of the two section scores. One section score is Math, while the other is a combined Reading and Writing score called Evidence-Based Reading and Writing (EBRW).

The ACT is scored on a scale of 1–36. The ACT contains four sections: English, Math, Reading, and Science. Each section is scored out of 36 points. The composite ACT score is an average of the 4 section scores.

"Almost all highly-rated US universities require applicants to submit results from one of the US admission tests—SAT or ACT," says Jon Tabbert, head of recruiting at consulting firm Dukes Education and Jon Tabbert Associates. "A good test score is critical to a successful application."

International students can take the ACT and SAT from outside the US to gain access to American universities and colleges.

STEM Education

Schools have begun to offer STEAM-based learning programmes to equip students with the skills and knowledge needed to thrive in the 21st century. STEAM learning is focused on producing tomorrow's designers and engineers and developing innovative mindsets and the ability to problem-solve, ensuring that our students become creators of technology, not just passive consumers.

So, rather than teaching Science, Technology, Engineering, (Arts) and Mathematics as separate and discrete subjects, STEM/STEAM-based programmes take an integrated approach to learning and teaching, which requires an intentional connection between curriculum learning objectives, standards, assessments, and lesson design/implementation.

Individual Learning Needs

Not all children learn in the same way. As much as schools try to cater to learning differences, there comes a limit. When a child cannot be assimilated into a mainstream class because their learning differences require specialist attention/training, a child may be labeled as having ‘special needs’, or even a ‘learning disability’ or’ learning disorder’.

These are all umbrella terms for a wide variety of learning issues including dyslexia, dyspraxia, ADD, ADHD and ASD (Autism Spectrum Disorder).

These children’s brains are simply wired differently—and this difference affects how they receive and process information.

Simply put, children with a learning need see, hear, and understand things differently.

While every child will likely have trouble with schoolwork from time to time, when a certain area of learning is consistently problematic, it might indicate a learning disorder.


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