Hong Kong may have a great many educational opportunities, but for children with special needs, it is another story.
When Dayna Lim was looking for a school for her autistic son, Boden, she realised just how few options were available for an English-speaking family like hers.
'It's very, very limited in Hong Kong,' Lim said. 'Autistic children have difficulty with language, and the mainstream schools expect students to be bilingual, and the special needs schools expect him to speak Cantonese.'
Lim's only option was the Jockey Club Sarah Roe School, the English Schools Foundation's special needs school, which is located next to King George V School in Ho Man Tin. Fortunately for her and Boden, the ESF has spent the past three years revamping the school's curriculum and bolstering its support for special needs students and their families.
'Whatever the ability of a child, we will have an educational opportunity to meet their needs,' said principal Alan Howells.
That is true, despite the recent 4 per cent fee rise announced by the ESF in response to the government's decision to keep its annual subvention frozen at HK$284 million. Parents of children at Sarah Roe pay no more than those sending children to King George V, 'even though the cost to the ESF is treble,' said Howells. 'It's extremely good value.'
When Howells took over three years ago, the school adopted a curriculum for secondary students based on the Asdan Award Programme, a British learning system that focuses on developing independent life skills. This kind of tangible, activity-based style of learning works particularly well for special needs children, Howell said.
The school was also creating its own in-house curriculum for primary students, he said. 'It's very much about independent skills and learning for life.'
Some students need more guidance than others. On a rainy morning at Sarah Roe, teacher Sally Beveridge greeted her class of six students, who are between 11 and 13 years old, and started working on the day's first lesson: the food pyramid.
'Can you tell me what comes on the bottom of the pyramid?' Beveridge asked.
'Carbonara!' shouted one boy.
'Carbohydrates,' another girl said, correctly. She got to pick a piece of dried fruit as a reward.
'They are of all different ranges and abilities,' Beveridge said. Some students are autistic, while others have global developmental delay, which can lead to learning disabilities and behavioural problems. To compensate, Beveridge adapts her class to the needs of each student, with the help of several teaching assistants.
'All the kids have to have very clear instructions from the very start,' she said. Each day's routine is posted at the front of the class, which helps the day go smoothly. If the order is ever switched, students notice. 'It gets quite chaotic.'
But with a patient, deliberate approach to teaching, there are real rewards for both students and teacher. 'I had one student who had no confidence. He barely spoke and would only look at the floor,' Beveridge said. 'Now, he's the most talkative kid in the class. When you teach the kids something and they tell you later what they've learned, it's the best thing in the world.
'We've got almost one-on-one care for each kid, but they also learn from each other. It's like a team.'
Field trips are a big part of the learning experience. Down the hall from Beveridge's class, some students are getting ready to go horseriding. 'It's important for them to have experience in the community, and it's important for the community to see them,' vice-principal Kit Chan said.
Students with less severe problems can work towards integration into mainstream ESF schools. That is the case for Boden, who goes to other ESF schools for some non-academic classes. 'His biggest challenge is how to interact with others and this is helping him develop social skills,' Lim said. 'He comes home and talks about his friends at the mainstream schools.'
ESF therapists said Boden was making enough progress to switch entirely to a mainstream school next term.
The new ESF Therapy Centre is making those kinds of assessments even more accessible for students. Until last year, therapy was outsourced and parents had to cover costs themselves. Now the ESF has its own team of educational psychologists and speech and language therapists.
'We go to the schools, talk to the staff and spend time observing the students,' educational psychologist Nicki Holmes said. 'It's a more tailored resource than that previously available. Kids generally really love it. They get to have some one-on-one attention.'
Holmes says one of the biggest problems in Hong Kong is that, while there are many choices for therapy, they are often extremely expensive 'and not joined up', which makes it difficult for children with particularly complex needs. The ESF Therapy Centre is meant to address that problem.
For parents outside the ESF system, however, after-school care and therapy is hard to come by. 'Parents need a lot of support for their kids and the school is often the only place for them to get it,' said Elaine Leung, a teacher at the Red Cross Margaret Trench School, a school for children with multiple disabilities. 'There needs to be more support in the community, too. I have kids who are afraid to go down the street to buy something because they're worried about somebody bullying them.'
The Margaret Trench School, where instruction is in Cantonese, provides in-house occupational, physical and speech therapy, as well as social workers and educational psychologists. Unlike the Sarah Roe School, it is fully subsidised by the government and charges no tuition fees. Parents apply to the school through the Education Bureau after receiving a referral from doctors and therapists.
But, whatever the school and whatever the language of instruction, all Hong Kong special needs students face the same problem: what to do after graduation. 'There are very few provisions for youngsters post-19,' Howells said. 'Now is the right time for the government to support special needs from a broader perspective.'