Schools say no to class control
Fraught with controversy from the day it was proposed, national education is still facing many hurdles in Hong Kong. With one-third of primary schools refusing to implement it in September, it is not uncommon to hear calls for a boycott.
The Education Bureau said primary schools had until 2015 and secondary schools until 2016 to introduce weekly sessions on national education. The decision followed a public outcry last year over the consultation draft of the curriculum guidelines, criticised by many for their negligible mention of democracy and human rights. A revised version, released in May, was generally seen as a marked improvement.
But worries were fuelled again by the release of the reference booklet The China Model that contained glaring omissions of major events such as the June 4 crackdown on Tiananmen Square. It even portrayed a centralised political regime, like the one on the mainland, as a 'selfless' government that contributed to stability, and suggested that multi-party politics of the West might cause conflict and 'victimise' the people.
The fact that the booklet's publisher, the Hong Kong National Education Services Centre, was funded by the bureau, heightened concern about political censorship.
The Professional Teachers' Union is organising a protest march on Sunday and gathering signatures on a petition to push for a suspension of the plan until after a fresh round of consultation has been held.
A big question mark now hangs over how many schools will toe the bureau's line in September by adding national education to their syllabus. With teachers' workload already a matter of concern to many, some principals question the need for a separate subject that could easily be covered in Chinese history, liberal studies or civic education classes.
'As Chinese, of course, it is totally reasonable for us to know about the country, but a lot can already be taught under the subject of Chinese history,' said Lam Kin-wah, principal of Fukien Secondary School. On National Day, October 1, his school highlights historical developments in modern China. Pupils in all forms also learn about the country's achievements in liberal studies.
Other teachers find singling out national education as superfluous.
'We find much of what is specified in the moral and national education curriculum is already being covered in our own school-based moral and civic education curriculum, religious studies curriculum and personal, social, and humanities education curriculum,' said Brother Steve Hogan, principal of La Salle College.
'The difficulty might be in finding the time in an already overcrowded curriculum. While there are many good things that many would wish a school to be responsible for, there is only a limited amount of time. Adding an extra subject, without reduction in some other fields may be quite a strain for some primary schools.'
The Catholic Diocese and Christian groups, including the Sheng Kung Hui - Hong Kong's Anglican Church - and the Evangelical Lutheran Church of Hong Kong, said they would not offer the subject in September, citing the need for more time to study how they should proceed.
Critics of the latest plan argue that singling out national studies undermines the concept of global citizenship. Even in its moral and civic education curriculum guidelines issued in 2008, the bureau identifies five domains of learning: personal, family, social, national and global, and calls for promotion of national knowledge and personal sense of national identity through life events.
The same ideas are contained in the latest moral education guidelines. Both guidelines also overlap in that they share the common objectives of helping students learn and discern universal values such as peace, benevolence, justice, freedom, democracy, human rights, responsibility and respect for others, and on top of that, cultivating students' critical thinking and ability to think from multiple perspectives.
'Whatever you call it, it is just a title,' said Sin Kim-wai, principal of Po Leung Kuk Tin Ka Ping Millennium Primary School. Primary schools have thus far focused more on the personal and family domains, teaching children concepts such as equality and environmental protection, according to Sin, who is also chairman of the Subsidised Primary Schools Council. He would not speculate on what individual schools would do in September, but he sees no reason why the national domain should be singled out. His school will continue with its civic education curriculum with elements on China.
'We may invite different speakers to deliver talks on various topics,' he said. 'In the long term, we hope to have talks and discussions on sensitive topics including June 4. We will see how things go in the coming two years first.
'To us, the most important thing is that our teachers make sure that they provide students with different perspectives, let them think and make independent judgments, and do not impose their stance on students. Teachers' professional development is very important.'
Hogan acknowledges the possibility of bias in teaching: 'Some schools that do not have clear values upon which to frame a moral and national education may find some teachers politicise the curriculum content or make it subjective,' he said. 'We do have a clear mission and a values basis on which to maintain objectivity in delivery as the schools ethos embeds its values. Schools with a special character that embed values and core principles ought to have no difficulty in how to approach the delivery of this curriculum.'
The Professional Teachers Union has also called on teachers to uphold their professionalism by not following biased materials. Incensed by the fact that the bureau enlisted mainland, rather than Hong Kong, experts to design the reference materials, it is developing alternative teaching materials in conjunction with concerned parents and teachers.
An academic involved in developing the materials, Dr Leung Yan-wing, associate director of the Hong Kong Institute of Education's Centre for Governance and Citizenship, maintains that national education should be delivered as part of civic education.
He dismisses as 'illogical' the plan to single it out as a separate subject. 'It runs contrary to the international concept of multiple citizenship,' he said.
'Students should learn in the context of universal values such as democracy, human rights, and justice. They should go beyond their nation and have concern for all humanity.'
Leung also points to another problem - the new policy's neglect of students from ethnic minorities, who he says should embrace a sense of global and local citizenship instead.
Although public exams would not be held for the subject, the bureau's call for assessment of students' progress in national education also triggers concern.
Its guidelines suggest teachers develop a wide variety of post-lesson assignments, including short essays and reflective journals, on three dimensions of learning - cognitive, affective and behavioural.
One learning objective is fostering a sense of affection for the country. Under the cognitive dimension, the bureau guidelines cite as an example students' understanding of the spirit of perseverance behind China's development in aerospace science and technology. But what if students are more infuriated by China's human rights violations than impressed by its scientific advancement?
Chinese history teacher Lee Wai-kai calls the assessments superficial exercises with potential brainwashing effects.
He prefers that Chinese history be made a compulsory school subject to enhance students' understanding of their cultural heritage dating back to the Zhou dynasty (1046-256BC).
'It is ridiculous to ask them to write about their feelings,' Lee said. 'Not everyone will be moved by the sight of the raising of the Chinese flag. In China, the party is above the state, and its judiciary is not independent. That is not the case in Hong Kong.'
Amid growing public pressure and the range of concerns, certainly it is now time for the government to re-think the content of national education, if not shelve it altogether.