Prestige still beats equality

6th December 1996 at 00:00

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.

Log-in as an existing print or digital subscriber

Forgotten your subscriber ID?


To access this content and the full TES archive, subscribe now.

View subscriber offers


Get TES online and delivered to your door – for less than the price of a coffee

Save 33% off the cover price with this great subscription offer. Every copy delivered to your door by first-class post, plus full access to TES online and the TES app for just £1.90 per week.
Subscribers also enjoy a range of fantastic offers and benefits worth over £270:

  • Discounts off TES Institute courses
  • Access over 200,000 articles in the TES online archive
  • Free Tastecard membership worth £79.99
  • Discounts with Zipcar,, Virgin Wines and other partners
Order your low-cost subscription today