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Space Oddity: School Places, Rumours & Reality

Updated: Jul 4, 2021

We are hearing that expats are leaving and not coming, BNO families are queuing up to

move to the UK and ordinarily stable Hong Kong families are preferring to send their children overseas for school. So, we have seen mass withdrawals from schools in Hong Kong and therefore lots of places are available.

But, is this really the case or is it a case of rumour rather than reality?

When we hear of “mass withdrawals”, we need to take into consideration a couple of things:

When an international school is not an international school

The official figures produced by the EDB are sometimes hard to decipher as types of schools are blurring into one another. Several years ago, we were all able to talk about “international schools” and it was generally accepted that these meant schools that delivered a non local curriculum, usually in English. Then, we saw a few Private Independent Schools established such as Independent Schools Foundation Academy and Victoria Shanghai Academy. These schools cater to local students.

And, in the last few years, we have seen a number of new purely private schools established, such as Stamford American School, Wycombe Abbey School, Invictus School, Oxbridge School, Bloom Academy and a few others.

So, when we see the enrolment figures for international schools dropping, we must consider this in context and also consider the increasing enrolments in these private “international” schools. The demand for schools delivering a non local curriculum has never been higher and that demand is high among local families that have traditionally enrolled in local schools.

It is important to understand that, even for international schools, expats are not important.

Expats are not Important

Our international schools are NOT populated by expats. Of almost 41,000 children* In international schools (including ESF), most are Chinese children with additional passports, or increasingly Chinese children without additional passports. And, with the growing number of private schools with no preference for international or local children, the diversity is diminishing.

The true international schools with mandated quotas to accept a certain number of children with foreign passports, are not all able to meet this quota - sometimes as high as 85 - 90%. Earlier this year, the EDB agreed to exercise flexibility on this quota and it will be extremely complicated and challenging to enforce it strictly in years to come.

Spaces and Faces

It may be true that we have seen more Western expats, typically on high salaries in the financial and aviation sectors, leave Hong Kong this year as compared to a typical year. Yet, any vacancies created in the top schools are not difficult to fill. The surge in applications from local families is phenomenal and we are certainly seeing not only a relaxation in the quota for international children but also a relaxation in the levels of English language proficiency expected in some (not all) schools.

Spaces and Seats

The number of vacancies reported is based on the number of students that can be accommodated in the classroom i.e. the maximum number allowed, as dictated by the physical space available. In a top international/private school, that number is deliberately not met. Typically a spacious classroom of the type most parents prefer can - according to EDB regulations - accommodate over 30 students. However, a modern approach to education with flexible furniture arrangements and a pedagogy that supports smaller classes is usually capped at 24-26 students in a class, often far fewer.

Another Annus Horriblus

It has been a difficult year for all - for school operators and management, for teachers, for parents and, of course, for the children. No doubt, school closures and travel restrictions have had a negative impact to some extent. At Top Schools, we have seen some families defer an intended move to Hong Kong or divert a move elsewhere, notably Singapore…or simply stay put. We are also predicting another wave of leavers next year - probably more than usual.

What remains is a clear preference by a growing number of families for a school that adopts a Western approach to education and more and more schools establishing and expanding to meet that demand


For a no-obligation, complimentary chat about the possible best fit school for your child in Hong Kong, please get in touch at


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