News & Updates

What Are the Differences Between International Schools and Bilingual Schools?

When it comes to choosing a private school in Hong Kong, parents will often give international and bilingual schools top consideration. These two types of schools represent the best of what the private sector has to offer. 

What Is an International School?

An international school offers an alternative to the national curriculum. The majority will offer International Baccalaureate (IB), British, or American curriculum. Learning is carried out in the standard language of the particular curriculum. Most of the students tend to be from the English-speaking world. Opting for international schools allows the children to learn in a language they are familiar with and eventually better qualify to move on to high-ranking higher institutions of learning from different parts of the world. 

What Is a Bilingual School?

Bilingual schools are private schools that may offer the national curriculum or foreign curriculum. There are typically two languages of instruction used, with English and Mandarin being the most common combination. Admission to these schools is based primarily on academic merit, with the majority of students being local Chinese children. 

Why Opt for A Private School?

The benefits associated with both types of schools include:

  • Smaller classroom sizes for better individual attention to students
  • Enriched educational experience
  • Safer learning environment
  • Better resources for both curricular and extra-curricular learning
  • Improved communication and bonding between students, faculty, and parents

As you can probably tell by their definitions, international and bilingual schools are not quite the same even though they both fall in the private school category. However, some bilingual schools are international, while not all international schools are bilingual. There are a few key differences that may have an impact on which one you may choose to send your child to. 


International schools bring foreign curriculum into the country. Most curriculum is guided by the nationality of the ex-pat community that would prefer an option that is close to what their children would have access to if they were back in their native country. In absence of this, they will often choose an international curriculum that gives their children a similarly high quality of education and access to the best higher learning institutions in the world. 

Because Hong Kong has a large ex-pat community from the UK, UK-based curriculum such as IGCSE, UK National Curriculum, Cambridge Secondary, and UK/International Baccalaureate (IB) programs are the most commonly offered options. There are also international schools that offer American, French, German, Hong Kong, and other overseas curricula. 

Bilingual schools are private schools that either offer the national curriculum of Hong Kong or foreign curricula like IB and IGCSE. Learning is carried out in two languages, with English and some form of Chinese being the most common combination. Even with a foreign curriculum like IB, students are taught in both languages. 

Language of Instruction

The language of instruction in international schools is mainly guided by the curriculum being taught. UK-based and American curriculums require that learning be carried out in the English language. Many international schools will however also offer language classes in various other languages such as Spanish, German, French and Chinese. Students may still get the opportunity to learn other languages and have the opportunity to practice their skills with classmates from such native countries. 

Bilingual schools offer a more immersive experience into two languages. Rather than just a class, the students get to undertake all or most of their learning in at least two languages. This is not stressful as children tend to more easily adapt and learn new languages. This tends to result in much better fluency and understanding of both languages. 

Cultural Diversity

International schools offer much greater cultural diversity than other schools in Hong Kong. This is because the student body and faculty are typically from the ex-pat community. They are of various nationalities, providing great exposure to other peoples’ cultures, languages and food. International schools do encourage social interactions between students that promotes this kind of learning and exposure. 

Bilingual schools that offer international curricula also deliver a similar level of cultural diversity. However, those that focus on the national curriculum will often have local students making up the majority of their student body and teaching staff. The focus tends to be mainly on the academic aspects of learning English rather than meeting and interacting with students from the English-speaking world. 

Academic Focus

International schools take a broader view when it comes to learning. Academic achievement is aided by the smaller classrooms which allow students to enjoy greater individual attention from teachers. While the academic focus is considered important, attention is also given to holistic character development in children. They are strongly motivated to produce well-rounded students who focus on more than just academic excellence. This means considerable effort and time is also put into providing training and guidance in other non-academic pursuits such as music, drama, and sports. 

Bilingual schools that offer international curricula also invest and offer a wide range of extra-curricular activities. They also tend to have smaller classrooms than what you would get with public schools. This helps to ensure students get more individual attention from teachers. Those that focus on the national curriculum place greater emphasis on academic excellence. Even their admissions process is biased in favour of students that demonstrate high academic rigour. 


Because international schools offer a wide range of extracurricular activities, they do invest well in the facilities to support this. From music rooms to athletic fields, much is done to ensure students can delve deeply into their interests. The higher level of funding secured from abroad and the high fees paid by students’ parents also means they can better support academic learning by providing facilities such as expansive libraries and well-equipped laboratories.

Bilingual schools that offer international curricula will often also offer a similarly high level of facilities to support learning and extracurricular activities. Those that just offer the national curriculum do not typically charge tuition and other fees at such a high rate. They have less funding to work with and will therefore tend to focus on facilities that will support their students perform well during national examinations.