The Asian Voice

Hong Kong schools need to be less competitive and more humane : China Daily

Children reading in a classroom at Xianghe Primary School in the town of Xianghe.
Children reading in a classroom at Xianghe Primary School in the town of Xianghe. PHOTO: AFP

Administrations should focus on building a system that allows teachers to value their students more than the reputation of schools.

By Andrew Mitchell

China Daily/Asia News Network

The failure on the part of the Hong Kong Council of the Church of Christ in China (HKCCCC), the governing body of CCC Kei Chun Primary School, to issue an apology to the parents of Law Cheuk-ki shows an incredible lack of sensitivity.

An inquest into the death of the 10-year-old girl, who fell from the fifth floor of the school building in 2013, found that the school staff had failed to call the emergency services.

The staff instead called the St. John Ambulance Association, an organisation which, according to its website, is "responsible for training the public in the principle and the practice of First Aid, Home Nursing and other allied subjects".

In a statement that coroner Ko Wai-hung later denounced as "a pack of lies", Vice-Principal Shek Ling claimed that she had simply forgotten to call the police.

In more than 20 years working for educational publishers here, I have visited several excellent schools and met some truly inspiring teachers.

However I have also witnessed many incidents which, although in no way as distressing as the tragedy of Law Cheuk-ki, have really made me despair of the local education system.

The most embarrassing of these incidents occurred when I was asked to give a 30-minute presentation to the English panel of a school in Ma On Shan.

Barely five minutes into the presentation, I became aware of the deep, rhythmic snoring of the panel chair, a sound which formed the counterpoint to most of the remainder of the speech.

After the presentation, I apologised to the salesperson who had accompanied me on the school visit.

She told me that the panel chair always fell asleep during presentations. And when I recounted the incident to another of my colleagues, who had been visiting schools to promote a series of teacher training courses, she admitted that the same thing had happened to her - several times.

At this point I am tempted to go off on a rant about teachers needing to act as role models for their students. But the fact is that the problems of Hong Kong schools extend far beyond the behavior of any individual teachers.

The local education system is based on a patchwork of government, subsidised and private schools involving a multitude of sponsoring bodies, many of which are religious organisations like the HKCCCC.

These organisations enabled the government to provide public education at a minimal cost during the colonial era.

However, they were extremely protective of their independence and this is a major factor contributing to the excessively competitive nature of the local school system today.

Take, for example, the Territory-wide System Assessment (TSA).

The Education Bureau (EDB) recently came under fire for the high levels of stress suffered by students as a result of the assessment.

And yet the EDB has always made it abundantly clear that the TSA is a "low-stakes assessment" designed to help schools enhance their learning and teaching plans.

So the pressure inflicted on students does not come from the EDB; it comes from all the schools that force their students to cram for the assessment.

And why do they do this? Because TSA is a de facto test of schools.

The data collected in the assessment provide the EDB with a record of students' overall performance in all local schools. And in a system in which secondary schools are still unofficially banded according to academic performance, the stakes are actually quite high.

To solve the problem of excessive competition in local schools, the EDB needs to lessen competition among schools.

And that means modifying the system so that schools are judged not only on their students' academic results but also on less tangible things such as the overall learning environment.

The alternative is to continue with a system in which status-conscious elite schools push their stressed-out charges to ever greater heights, while at the other end of the scale demoralised teachers struggle to motivate already stigmatised students.

Such a system may produce good results in the Programme for International Student Assessment, a triennial assessment of reading, mathematics and science.

However it tends not to produce happy, confident, well-rounded individuals.

The task for local administrators, then, is to preserve Hong Kong's academic excellence while creating a less stressful, more humane, more realistic and more equitable system of education - a system in which teachers are able to put the lives of their students before the reputation of their schools.

* The author is the director of Oxford Blue, a company providing English language services in Hong Kong. He is a keen observer of local society, having spent over 20 years engaged in publishing and teaching in Hong Kong.