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Bridging the Gap: Differences between Local and International Schools

Many parents coming over from abroad to Hong Kong, are faced with the difficult decision of placing their children in a local or international school. On the other side of the spectrum, there are many parents who live here in Hong Kong, being faced with the challenges of transitioning their child from an international school over to a local school.

There are pros and cons to both. In this blog, we highlight some of the more obvious differences between local schools and international schools so we can help parents make an informed decision.

Many students will require assistance ‘bridging the gap’ to ease the transition from one school to another. In order to identify where these ‘gaps’ lie, our admissions consultants are on hand to help parents and their children address them before the child fully enrols in their new school. ME Education helps make it a smooth and comfortable change for pupils and their families.

Let’s discuss some of the major differences between local and international schools in Hong Kong.

10 Differences:

1. Class size

Due to the disparities in price and the convenience of having a school close to home, generally speaking, there are far more students attending local schools than international schools. This includes individual class sizes as well as year size. For example, in a local school, you may have one class of 40 students but in that year, there will be another 3 classes of similar size, bringing that full year to about 120 students. Being in such a large school offers students a great opportunity to make lots of friends. In an international school, class size will average around 25 students. This makes for a far more intimate atmosphere and students will likely know all their peers and teachers well.

2. Price

It is well known that local school fees will be significantly less than international schools. International schools are far more costly than local schools and although a number of scholarships are available to students, private schools rely on debentures and tuition to run smoothly. In an international school, there is a lower student-teacher ratio which means parents will be paying more per student than parents at a local school. It also means that students are given more individual attention. Teachers at international schools will generally be of foreign descent, with many of them holding advanced qualifications. This translates to higher teacher salaries. With parents paying more for international schooling, they will expect more from the school, meaning international schools should have superior facilities and more expensive curriculums which include more field trips, camps and projects.

3. School Location

Travel time may be a factor for parents to consider when deciding between a local or international school. Because there are far more local schools available, the chances of finding one closer to home is greater. International schools may require a bit of a commute, especially if you are considering culturally specific schools. With the incredibly reliable infrastructure of the Hong Kong public transport system, this is usually not a make or break factor for most parents.

4. Language

Local schools will operate in Chinese. Students will gain fluency in the Chinese language (both Cantonese and Mandarin) in a local school. Being in an environment where Chinese is used, means local students will speak, read and write with a high level of proficiency. International schools will provide students with a high level of English fluency because the students are taught by foreign teachers and they are likely to have English speaking friends. Students in international schools are usually more familiar in popular culture, which makes for easier assimilation when they enter university.

5. Class locations

It is standard practice that students in a local school will be assigned a classroom. This is where they will learn most of their classes. Teachers will move around from classroom to classroom but the students will stay put. This is likely due to the fact that it is far easier for one teacher to move around than for 40 students to relocate every hour or so. In an international school, the practice is that the students will be assigned a class schedule which identifies where their subject classrooms are located. Students will move from room to room throughout their day as per their timetable. It’s good exercise for students to move around between lessons and also teaches them to manage their time.

6. Catering

During lunchtime, it is common for local school students to eat their lunch in the classroom. Parents will usually send lunch to school with their child or some schools have the option of a catering plan that parents can opt-in to. In international schools, there is most often a canteen or cafeteria where students will be able to eat while they socialise. While bringing food from home may mean more work for parents, there is a greater degree of control over what foods are being consumed. Canteens are not exactly known for their healthy assortment of foods, but there is certainly a great variety to choose from and it is a nice atmosphere for the students to unwind and relax with their friends.

7. Discipline

Because there are far more students per class in a local school, discipline is crucial. Teachers need to be able to control the classroom and ensure the lessons are operating at maximum productivity. There are usually strict rules and protocols that students are well versed in. Conversely, due to the smaller number of students in international schools, there is a more relaxed, familial feel to the classes. This is not to say there is no discipline in an international school when the need arises. Depending on the child, some may thrive in this environment while others may see it as an opportunity to ‘push boundaries.’

8. Uniforms

For students of local schools, there is no worry about what to wear each day. A uniform is standard practice and students are expected to look neat and presentable at all times. In most international schools, uniforms are not required. Students are allowed to express themselves through their own sense of style, provided it is appropriate and tidy.

9. Competition

Again, due the large sizes of local school classes, there is a far more competitive nature among the students in a local school. This is generally compounded by the fact that classes of the same year are often split into levels of proficiency. This means math students who achieve high marks on average, will be grouped together with other high performing math students of the same year. Students who achieve lower grades for mathematics will be grouped together as well. This allows the teachers to cater to the individual skills of the students. Some students will thrive on the competition, while others may find it intimidating. International school classes are smaller so there is no need to group the students in that way. This keeps the class unified and does not distinguish between weaker and stronger students.

10. Interaction with other cultures

Local schools require attendees to speak Cantonese or Chinese fluently. This means most, if not all of the students as well as the teachers will be from Hong Kong or the Mainland. In an international school, students and teachers are welcomed from all over the world which means, there is a very high exposure to other cultures. In our post titled ‘Hong Kong International Schools: Culturally Diverse’, we discuss the benefits that being exposed to a variety of cultures has for children.

Our goal is to see the successful admission of our students into the school of their dreams – be it local or international. Whatever parents and their children decide, at ME Education we make it our mission to ‘bridge the gap’ and ease the transition.

Contact us at for more information about our admission services and our Bridging into the Hong Kong education system program.


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