The chief executive election is over but, to a great extent, the debate about the issues that most affect the people of Hong Kong has just begun. That’s why the Post is continuing its debate series, focusing on topics of the greatest concern to the city. This week it’s education. Chief executive-elect Leung Chun-ying vowed to treat education as an investment and to introduce measures to make education more accessible to various segments of society. So, we interviewed three families: a local family with two youngsters, an expatriate family with a child at kindergarten, and a family with a special-needs son. We asked them what was the most pressing issue in our education system that Leung needs to address. Then we asked them and, in one case, their children, questions that related to their personal situations. Here is what they had to say:
Parent: Sylvie Chu Siu-chun Children:Sallie Chau Toi-yan, 15, Our Lady of the Rosary College; and Marco Chau Toi-ki, 12, Tsuen Wan Government Primary School
What is the most pressing issue in our local education system that the next chief executive should tackle?
Parent: I recall how anxious I was before my son entered a good secondary school. The pressure I was under was intolerable.
I checked the mail box frequently, and I was unable to sleep because I was wondering when the results would arrive.
But I had to pretend I was calm because I did not want my children to notice just how worried I was. I was constantly on the verge of an emotional breakdown.
It just shows how intense the competition for school places is and how important it is to pupils’ future.
And the fact that children of foreign parents are here in large numbers does not help. The system is already quite overwhelmed with our own local students, with class sizes being so big.
That is the problem of the system: although the competition drives many parents frantic, the education quality is not that high.
Smaller classes are, without question, better than those we have now, with more than 30 students in a class.
It all comes down to the resources that schools receive. I am grateful that my son’s teachers are quite willing to spend extra time to make sure he keeps up with his classes, but I know many teachers in other schools simply do not have the time to do that.
A teacher of his wrote notes on my son’s homework, saying he hoped my son would make the time to see him after school.
I am grateful for the teacher’s sense of responsibility, which, I must say, is quite rare among teachers nowadays.
So, I think the most pressing issue is to first reduce the size of classes, which will raise the quality of education, so that it would improve the learning experience.
We, as parents, will also have less to worry about when they come back from school, and when we come back from work.
I wish free education could be extended from 15 to 16 years - from primary school up to matriculation. That is because university places are more expensive and are more important for the young.
Maybe I’m being selfish in thinking this way, because both of my children have passed the kindergarten stage and university is what I’m worrying about next.
Would you prefer that your children enter a local secondary school or a local university?
If they have a choice I think they would like to study overseas, where education is more liberal.
But I would be happy if my children could enter local schools or universities because it would be such a financial burden for the family if both were to study abroad.
Many families who cannot afford to send their children overseas for education are sending them to local international schools for a foreign education.
I notice that increasingly more local families are choosing to do that now. I think those schools would help students learn better than the local government schools that most attend.
I have heard from friends and relatives that the local international schools get a lot more resources than other schools do. But these schools are very expensive.
As more than half of my income as a bank employee goes towards paying the mortgage, how can I afford to send my children to the local international schools or even abroad for education?
A friend has just been allocated a flat via the Home Ownership Scheme, and I was so happy for her. It is just like winning the lottery for us to have a nice place to live in.
I wish the new government could really resolve the housing problem because it is the root of many problems - including education.
For us parents going to work without having much to worry about, and for students to learn without being pressured by their parents, housing is one of the first things to fix.
But for my children to enter good local secondary schools or universities there is something the new government needs to do.
I hope one of the main tasks of the new government is to raise the percentage of students who attend university from 18 per cent currently to about 30 per cent. That would be ideal.
It would be better for society if more young people become graduates.
However, I realise that the government has been promoting other educational qualifications, such as associate degrees or higher diplomas. That is also a good way to raise the education standards of our young people.
What is the educational pressure like in Hong Kong? Would you like to study abroad in the future?
Daughter: It is clear that I am not one of the best students in class, and I see the years prior to university as intimidating.
The pressure was not so intense in Form One to Form Three, but it’s very different now. It has changed my attitude to learning and going to school in general. I remember I did not really like holidays because going to school was so much fun.
But now I feel blessed to have even just a day off every week to unwind. The competition among classmates was not so strong before, but now there are tests every week.
In addition, I will be the third batch of students taking the new DSE [Diploma of Secondary Education] examination, and I get the feeling that even teachers are not very confident about the syllabus.
If teachers are not fully confident, how can we be? I get the sense that we are guinea pigs in the new system. I wish the teachers could spend more time to explain it to us.
I would like to study in Hong Kong because I think I would have difficulties getting to know people from other cultures and who are from different backgrounds.
Son: Some teachers in Hong Kong make me think that they teach only for the salary. They simply do not care whether students follow them in classes, as they just mumble to themselves until the bell rings.
And since I get the impression that students are studying just so that they can find jobs afterwards, I am considering skipping university and to start work right after I finish secondary school.
Frankly, I am not great at school. I have heard that the tuition fees are expensive at university, and my family is not rich. Maybe finding a job right after secondary school could let me help my family a little.
I have heard people talk about a place in Europe - is it Norway? I’m not sure - where teachers teach whatever they want and it is not important whether students do their homework.
Class schedules are not fixed, so teachers can start or stop whenever they feel like it. That is great. I think that would help me learn and make me want to learn.
Special needs family
Parent: Chiu Cheung Lai-man Son: Chiu Man-chuen, 21,as tudent with Down’s syndrome who attended HHCKLA Buddhist Po Kwong School
What is the most pressing issue in our local education system that the next chief executive should tackle?
Parent: The next government should really re-examine the goals of education and the purpose of education. The government should form a multifaceted approach to educating the next generation.
I don’t think education is to produce exam-perfect, cookie-cutter, docile and narrow-minded adults. Education should be about helping children explore their strengths and build up their talent, while improving on their weaknesses. It should be about building up their confidence. Education is about building up people - to become good, responsible and capable people - people who care about society and have good hearts.
The current education system strives only to separate children into those considered good students - who perform well under the current curriculum and teaching style - and “bad” ones - children who do not learn the traditional way, have certain disabilities, special needs. The current system is exam-centric and merit-based, with not enough emphasis on building up a child’s character.
There are a lot of categorisations of schools - band 1, 2, 3, special education, so on and so forth - but based on the same scale of what “success” is. This is not education. Some children may not fit into the traditional good student category, but it doesn’t mean they are stupid or useless. Good education should dig out the good qualities - education should cater to different children.
In general, the new government should work on changing its understanding of what education is. The current system is too narrow. The government should really think more broadly and not focus on exam results or certain performances.
The next chief executive needs to restructure education so it doesn’t isolate and marginalise those who may not perform well in traditional classes, and provide space for alternative ways of teaching and learning. The government should focus programmes on developing talent - in the arts, design, music and more.
It’s a different way of looking at education and I think the new chief executive and his office should strive to change to a more open-minded, children-centred approach. If Hong Kong’s education was based on the principle that every child has talent and that education is a tool to help them develop their good qualities, then our system would not be so narrow. The new chief executive should restructure the education system so that it focuses on children’s needs.
A child with confidence can find their goal in life. They may find out what they’re passionate about, and ultimately become good at what they do. It can be achieved during school time, where they should be given a safe and encouraging place to develop.
Do you think your child is receiving the same quality of education as mainstream students?
Of course children in special needs education don’t receive the same quality of education. You cannot compare the two as they are on two totally different scales.
This stems from the government’s attitude. The attitude towards special needs education is totally wrong - it seems like the government doesn’t really see that special needs children also have the right to study. They are entitled to education just as much as anyone else.
The government sees education for them as not being a necessity. Providing education for children with special needs seems to be a sympathetic gesture or a gesture of pity. Just because our children have learning disabilities or different needs, it doesn’t mean the government can automatically write them off as unable to study.
Children with special needs are under the welfare department before the age of six, and again back to the welfare department after 18. This illustrates the government’s flawed attitude. Their well-being and their education should not be considered “welfare” - it is their right. From a human rights perspective, the government’s attitude when approaching special needs education is unacceptable.
This is also why we don’t have enough resources, because education for our children is secondary as the government seems to think that they don’t need it.
We don’t get resources for hiring foreign teachers because children with Down’s syndrome, like my son, “do not need to have good English skills”, according to the government, so it’s not necessary for them to have a good education.
There are also no continuing education resources for our children. Once out of secondary school, it’s the end for them. There isn’t a single university in Hong Kong with classes for children with Down’s syndrome. This I really cannot stand - the prejudice.
When the government does not see education for special needs children as being a necessity - even though they are entitled to it as other children - education for our children will remain almost like a hobby or a side project.
I think the government needs to set up a separate department to deal with people with special needs in our society - their well-being, their need to be able to live independently, their education and so on.
What is the most pressing issue in the local education system for children with special needs?
I think it’s the lack of continuing education and the government’s attitude towards special needs education.
First of all, education should be available to all - it is not a gift bestowed on our children but our right to get the same type of resources as children in general mainstream schools.
Now, once our children finish secondary school, it’s the end of their education. There is no continual training for them.
They are passed on to the welfare department, where the lucky ones can get jobs at centres, doing packaging and such.
The government should really think about educating our children better. If our children are better equipped to be independent, it will be less of a burden for the government in the long run. These children can achieve more than we think they can. They can do much more than just work in factories doing packaging, or as a cleaner at McDonald’s.
Many special needs children have special talents - some have a brilliant memory, others are fantastic in mathematics, or at painting. There should be more resources allocated to allow them to further develop these talents after the initial basic secondary school stage.
The number of people with disabilities getting into universities seems to be less and less. I recently heard a story where a deaf student wanted to get into a tertiary institution. The institution told the family that they had to provide their own sign-language translator and that the translator would need to pay tuition as well. Most universities in Hong Kong do not have resources to help those with disabilities to study.
As for children with Down’s syndrome, many have a talent for music and art. The government should think about letting those up to standard join university classes and also give them diplomas.
These are skills that can be drawn out and used in various ways in society. But the government needs to commit to developing them.
My son’s school was really good at creating a rich curriculum for the children. I remember they even went on a study trip to the mainland by themselves. It was so moving - they all had their own little pieces of luggage, as we saw them off at the train station. They all held their heads high, carrying their own luggage, and they strutted onto the train after their teacher. My son wouldn’t even say bye to me - he was so proud of himself.
This is true education - giving them the opportunity to experience more.
Continuing education after secondary school by taking courses that would benefit them - while working - would be the key.
Parents: Amanda Chapmanand Michael Bautista Child: Kaya Elaine Bautista, five,pupil at Zebedee International School
What is the most pressing issue in our local education system that the next chief executive should tackle?
Parents: We are teachers so we have strong feelings about the local education system. Firstly, the fact that Hong Kong is one of the most developed economies makes it strange for our schools to be crowded.
With the level of economic development and its usable financial resources, Hong Kong should push for a small-class policy.
We are also aware that the textbook industry and the curriculum are dictated by publishers. Teachers often do not have flexibility in terms of what to teach.
In addition, there is often a sense of disconnect between what is being taught in classrooms and what is being tested in the exams.
For example, schools are too obsessed with grammar. But on public exams, students do not directly get tested on grammar. It is a waste of resources for grammar to be drilled continuously at schools.
We think Hong Kong should embrace the 21st century and abandon the old way of teaching. The old way - which asks students to “open the textbook and complete the exercise on page 52” - will just turn students off.
When Chief Executive Donald Tsang Yam-kuen took office, his name was very strong. But he did not make any changes. We hope that our next chief executive will make some difference.
For us, one of the most pressing issues is the lack of English-language school places. We have many friends who, like us, are having problems getting their children into schools. It got to the point where some of my friends, sadly, ended up not caring about the quality of the schools, just as long as there were places available.
This will really drive talent away and hinder Hong Kong’s position as an international hub.
If we look at the cause of the problem, I think we need to ask why our international schools are increasingly Cantonese. Even government officials are sending their children to private schools or schools overseas. What is actually wrong with the local system?
In Britain, if officials do send their children to private schools, they will be soundly and rapidly criticised in the press. There will be letters written to newspapers, asking “how come the local system is not good enough for your children?” In Hong Kong, top officials send their children overseas at the taxpayers’ expense. It is shocking, absolutely.
For us, we just want a fair opportunity for our children to be well educated, without paying astronomical fees. But if all English-language schools become privately run, costs will just go up and ordinary expat families will not be able to afford it.
We also believe that a possible way forward is to switch the medium of instruction of schools to Putonghua. Then it would be more reasonable for us to send our children to public schools, since that language is the future.
Did you face any difficulties in securing a school place for your child? What do you expect her to learn while studying in Hong Kong?
Our family has both British and Filipino origins but our daughter, who is five years old, was born in Hong Kong and has Hong Kong permanent residency. She is now going to a kindergarten in Tai Po. Both of us have been teaching here for quite some time.
The main considerations we had when we looked for a kindergarten place for Kaya was that we would like it to be styled on a Western system.
As expatriates, our jobs are not 100 per cent secure and it is not always easy for us to move from one position in Hong Kong to another. Therefore, there is always a possibility that at some time in the future, Kaya will have to continue her education somewhere else.
In addition, English-language kindergartens tend to be more relaxed. We did have difficulties when we tried to secure a primary school place for her. We started about one year before she is supposed to start - in September this year.
But Kaya was first denied any interviews at the school we desired because it was full. We do know that there are plenty of places in local schools. But she cannot go to one because she cannot speak Cantonese.
We are not being elitist. But our options are really limited as local schools will not take us because Kaya is not a Cantonese speaker.
We think this is unfair as we, as part of the expat community, do contribute to the economy and do pay taxes.
With regard to what to learn, we expect our daughter to learn the local culture. In fact, many of our friends are Chinese. We celebrate local holidays. We also understand that it would be a great opportunity for her to learn Putonghua. Since international schools do not put a lot of energy into Putonghua, we are planning to hire a private language tutor for her when she grows older.
What is the learning pressure like in Hong Kong? How does the education system in Hong Kong compare with your home country?
Kaya does not really have any pressure as the international kindergarten she goes to does not overwhelm her with homework. She is happy at school, and she learns and plays at the same time. She likes drawing, so she particularly likes the artwork sessions.
In her school, teachers invite parents to go into the classroom. There are 15 students in the classroom. The atmosphere is relaxed and there are no rigid rules.
For example, she did not go to school today because it’s her birthday next week. So last night we took her to her first pop concert and we had told the school secretary she would miss class. Our school said there was no problem.
But the other day, we took her to a doctor and the clinic receptionist asked if we wanted a sick note for her. The receptionist said this was common practice even for little children.
We know some of our daughter’s classmates go to an international school in the morning before going to a local school in the afternoon, which gives them homework. This is just too much for a small child. In the Western system, students only start homework as they get older.
In the primary school where our daughter ended up being enrolled, students in Primary Three all have their own laptop computers. Classrooms are equipped with “smart boards” so teachers can stand at the back of the room and write on the board from the back of the class. Learning materials can be downloaded into the students’ laptops.
But many schools in Hong Kong still use blackboards and chalk, and students cannot use their iPhones as dictionaries. We think that if all schools are modernised, students can learn more effectively.
The learning experience should be an enjoyable one.
Since the election of a new chief executive affects everyone, we are asking you to respond to the big issues facing Hong Kong. Please express your views on our Facebook page at facebook.com/southchinamorningpost
Eltilib Saga says she is facing an uphill battle to enter university.
The 18-year-old, who will today sit the compulsory liberal studies examination in the new Hong Kong Diploma for Secondary Education (HKDSE), has been finding it hard to do well.
“It’s a big headache for me. It is just hard to understand the questions,” said the ethnic Sudanese student, who was born in Shenzhen and is studying at the Islamic Kasim Tuet Memorial College in Chai Wan.
The government does not have data on the number of ethnic minority students who have applied to sit for the HKDSE exams this year. But according to data from the Education Bureau, 600 non-Chinese-speaking students will complete Form Six education this year.
Non-Chinese-speaking students are allowed to sit for the easier Chinese-language exam under the General Certificate of Secondary Education system as they labour through the HKDSE.
However, they must sit for the liberal studies exam - which is compulsory for all students - as they compete for university places with 70,000 local students.
While she understands that liberal studies will broaden her knowledge, Saga said there were some challenging topics.
“I know who Mao Zedong, Hu Jintao and Wen Jiabao are, but I’m not very familiar with politics,” she said of a syllabus requirement to study modern China. If I was given a chance, I would not take the exam, although I would still sit in the classes because I know they are beneficial to me.”
Gurung Sonu, an ethnic Nepali who came to Hong Kong about three years ago, attends the same Chai Wan school as Saga, and she is prepared to fail.
She has been grappling with her revision due to limited access to English study materials. “I am not too confident,” she said. “I want to study business management in university. I don’t know what I would do if I fail….