Switching from local to international school

One of the most common quandaries parents find themselves in is choosing between a local school and an international one. We often advise families to start in the local stream and apply to international school later. But how does this work? What are the risks? And can they really make it into international school?

Common reasons for children – or their parents – wanting to move to international schools include:

  1. Concerns about the standard of English-language teaching and learning

  2. Struggles with the style of teaching, homework and testing

  3. Getting ready for school or university overseas

More often than not, the children are doing well academically and are happy at school. Only occasionally do we find an unhappy child, or one who is “failing” – at least, according to their school.

So, when is the right time to apply to an international school? Years 1 and 7 are obvious entry points. For a child finishing K3 in a local kindergarten, it’s tough to find a spot in Year 2. In that scenario, it’s common for a child to spend one or two years in a local primary school and apply to international school after P3 and hope to switch before the next Territory-wide System Assessment (TSA).

In local schools, the TSA is administered in June at P3, P6 (on odd-numbered years i.e. 2015, 2017) and S3 in local government-subsidised schools and is much dreaded for the additional intensity it involves in preparing for it. Applying to Year 7 in an international school is a good idea. This means the application is submitted soon after the child begins P5. Many parents get confused about when primary ends and secondary starts in both systems. They may prefer to finish primary in local school, which isn’t a good idea since it means they will usually miss the Year 7 application. Many schools have a new intake in Year 7, making it a good entry point.

After Year 7, Years 8 and 9 are also good times to enter an international school. If it’s a school that does the International General Certificate of Secondary Education (IGCSE), entering in Year 9 is advisable, since the IGCSE course starts in Year 10. Students in Year 9 choose their subjects and will be able to use the year to adjust before school gets more serious. Entering a school running IGCSEs is usually not possible at Years 10 and 11. Likewise, entering a school running A-levels or the International Baccalaureate Diploma Programme (IBDP) is usually not possible at Years 12 and 13 since these are both two-year courses. In some schools, however, this doesn’t apply.

Which international schools accept children from local schools or children with Hong Kong passports? The answer is, they all do! International schools do not mind where children have been studying previously as long as they meet the entry requirements. Whilst it’s true that foreign nationals do receive priority at certain schools, children with Hong Kong passports should not be dissuaded from applying to international schools and they are not discriminated against.

By far the most common challenge for local school students applying to international schools is that of meeting the required English-language proficiency. Children who have been used to lessons in Cantonese may struggle to express themselves in English. In writing, they are often great at grammar but less able to analyse and generate different genres of text. They often find creative writing a challenge. We’ve found this to be the case even amongst native-English speaking children, since local schools generally teach Engli