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When is an international school not an international school?

Updated: Oct 31, 2022

So often, so many parents are confused. But, hey, schools are confused too!

When is a school international, or private or independent? And does it really matter?


A private school is a fee paying school. They are fairly autonomous and choose their own curriculum, set their own admissions policy, etc Most private schools adapt the local curriculum and teach in Cantonese. Some do not ie Island Christian Academy, Stamford American School.



You may think the clue is in the name ie French International School and you would be correct, to a point. Almost all schools with the ‘international’ in their name are international. Except when they’re not ie International Christian School.

But so are many others ie Delia School of Canada.

A complete list is here:  Oh, but this list also includes ESF schools, which are not really international. Not confusing at all.

International schools established since 2012 must maintain a high percentage of students holding passports other than, or in addition to, the HKSAR passport. The percentage ranges from 50-90%, depending on the school. Of course, the majority of these children are HKSAR passport holders too.

A new international school generally comes into being in two ways:

  1. Via a Government (EDB) allocation exercise. The Government has a greenfield site (piece of land) or a brownfield (old/vacant school building) it gives over to the school. As part of this arrangement, the percentage of non local students will be stipulated. ie The Harbour School, Malvern College

  2. By application. A private school operates for a few years then applies to become ‘international’. It will demonstrate that it has been serving a majority of non local students over those years. This is a fairly new procedure. Schools that plan to apply soon are Island Christian Academy and Stamford American School.


Seven schools in Hong Kong have the status ‘Private Independent School’. They are:

School sponsors were allocated land and capital grants for the launch of new, non-profit private schools.

A private independent school is a fee paying school. They are fairly autonomous and choose their own curriculum, set their own admissions policy as long as they accept at least 70% of Permanent Residents. These schools are set up to serve the LOCAL community and, so, the majority of their students are local in the sense they are PRs. They may also be foreign nationals.

And, that’s it! Simple, isn’t it?!! Yes and no. Principals, parents and teachers mix these terms up all the time. Does it really matter? Not really.


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