Education reform looms in Hong Kong; future of liberal studies to be decided this year

Chief Executive Carrie Lam there were people in schools who had deliberately misled students with false and one-sided information. PHOTO: AFP

HONG KONG - The future of a controversial liberal studies course for teenagers in schools - which the pro-Beijing camp in the city blames partly for unrest in the city - will be decided as part of a wide-ranging review of the education system, Chief Executive Carrie Lam has said.

She disclosed this in an interview with the pro-Beijing Ta Kung Pao paper published on Monday (May 11).

Mrs Lam said there were people in schools who had deliberately misled students with false and one-sided information and this was not just limited to liberal studies but other subjects as well including Mandarin and English.

"We will let everyone know what we intend to do with the future of liberal studies within the year," she said.

Using a Cantonese phrase, the Hong Kong leader likened the current teaching of the course to an unlocked chicken coop with the birds able to move in and out freely.

Education cannot be unregulated, she said, adding that when a problem arose it needed to be dealt with.

Liberal studies, one of four compulsory subjects taught to senior secondary school students, has been blamed for radicalising the younger generation who were the key force behind last year's unrest.

More than 1,100 people were detained in a single day in November 2019 but some lawmakers sounded the alarm after it emerged that one in three of those arrested were under the age of 18, which meant most were secondary school students.

Former Hong Kong leader Tung Chee Hwa, a vocal critic of liberal studies, in July last year called the curriculum "a failure", adding that it was "one of the reasons behind the youth problems today".

The curriculum was initiated by Mr Tung's administration and became mandatory in 2009 for all upper secondary school pupils seeking a Diploma of Secondary Education.

Other critics said the subject had been used as a tool to spread the extreme views of some opposition voices even though its intent was to equip students with critical thinking abilities.

At the moment, class materials that are based largely on current affairs and updated constantly are not vetted.

On this, Mrs Lam said the Education Bureau, the management and sponsoring bodies of schools must serve as gatekeepers to prevent the young from being "poisoned" by false and unfair influences.

At least one liberal studies teacher has condemned Mrs Lam's comments in the interview.

"She is not just pointing at liberal studies but also the entire education sector. The teaching materials of the subject are under heavy supervision already, but Carrie Lam mentions also the responsibility of the incorporated management committees (of sponsoring bodies) and of schools, which sounds threatening," Mr Atung Chan told The Straits Times.

He said that liberal studies textbooks currently were sent to the Education Bureau for vetting. Complaints would also be made about teachers who post school-based teaching materials on social media, in turn prompting the Education Bureau to investigate the teachers in question or have the schools submit reports about the incidents.

"This move could be harmful to the autonomy of the school and educators, causing unnecessary pressure and disturbance to us," said Mr Chan, who claimed that many teachers, like him, were angry.

Lawmaker Ip Kin Yuen, who represents the education sector, demanded an apology from Mrs Lam, saying that she had offended the tens of thousands of teachers in the city.

He said the unrest stemmed from a tone deaf government and police brutality, which had nothing to do with teachers.

Meanwhile, the city's largest pro-Beijing party, the Democratic Alliance for the Betterment and Progress of Hong Kong said it will urge Beijing during meetings of the National People's Congress (NPC) and the Chinese People's Political Consultative Conference (CPPCC) this month to help boost national education in Hong Kong.

In the newspaper interview, Mrs Lam also touched on the city's economy, saying government measures to support growth and aid for people's livelihoods have not been passed by the Legislative Council (Legco) because of filibustering by the opposition.

More than 20 Bills have yet to be passed, including the extension of maternity leave from 10 to 14 weeks.

"No one opposes the move for the government to pay the extra four weeks of leave, but we simply cannot pass the Bill," said Mrs Lam.

She warned that if the opposition should secure more than half of the Legco seats in the forthcoming election in September, the new council would reject all Bills on the table and government funding applications.

The chief executive also slammed the city's district councils - dominated by the pan-democracy camp since last November's elections - as non-constructive.

"Every district council meeting has been used to abuse and insult government officials, especially the police. If the district councillors do this, the officials can only leave the meeting and I support that," she said.

Turning to the coronavirus pandemic, the chief executive said her administration was in talks with mainland and Macau authorities to see if some of travel restrictions could be lifted.

She added that she hoped an agreement was possible by the end of this month to allow frequent travellers to move more freely between the two territories and Guangdong province, without the need for mandatory quarantine.

News about the education reform plan was announced a day after protests made a comeback in the city, with the police saying 230 people were arrested on Sunday after some demonstrators set small fires in Mong Kok at night. Many had also gathered elsewhere in malls across the city to chant slogans and sing the protest anthem.

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