The days when highly selective "prestige schools" were besieged by thousands of parents queuing outside overnight has given way to what the government believes is a more egalitarian admissions system. None the less, Hong Kong is a long way from abandoning a selective system at both primary and secondary school entry.
There was previously no notion of a catchment area for primary school places, which meant massive demand for the few most sought-after schools. Now, a system based on geographical proximity, parental preference, school discretion and computerised random matching is in place. Admissions tests are no longer allowed in government-subvented schools.
With 65 per cent of all places at the school's discretion, however, prestige schools can still be highly selective. While the allocation of the remaining 35 per cent is seen as a lottery, prestige schools conduct an interview and can easily pinpoint the children of educated, middle-class families.
An unofficial system allows extra "points" based on such matters as whether the parents went to the same school and the status of the feeder kindergarten. Some schools allow a limited number of fee-paying students, bypassing the government's placement system altogether.
In 1978, the Secondary School Places Allocation System replaced the very competitive secondary school entrance examination at age 10 and 11 which used to cream off the brightest into a few elite secondary schools and prepare them for the limited number of places at Hong Kong's two universities.
Now a multiple-choice academic aptitude test divides pupils into five ability bands and also assesses their ability to learn in English, Chinese or both. It is controversial with parents who see the English-medium schools as superior.
Prestige schools that admitted the top 5-10 per cent of the ability range now select from the top 40 per cent. The less prestigious schools are still stuck with the lower bands, and have been (sometimes unfairly) labelled "band-five schools". Many of the schools for bands two to five try to raise their status thorough high-pressure teaching and testing to improve exam performance so that they can attract more higher-band pupils.
This year, only 50 per cent of students were allocated their first-choice secondary schools and 70 per cent were allocated within their first three choices. This is largely a reflection of the extremely high regard for education within Hong Kong society. It also reflects the extreme competition to get into Hong Kong's two universities, which has a knock-on effect on secondary and primary selection.
When Hong Kong's population mushroomed in the 1960s and 1970s only the brightest 5 per cent could get in. Places were increased from 45,000 in 1991 to 62,500 this year in order to anchor professionals in Hong Kong and counter middle-class emigration in advance of the handover of Hong Kong to China next year.