Narrow patriots or global citizens?
Teachers and families may be on their summer holidays, but seldom, if ever, have they felt so worried and frustrated about their children's education.
The extent of concern over the government's national education plan was made visible in Causeway Bay late last month, when up to 90,000 people turned out in protest - the sheer numbers justifying threats of strike action by the Professional Teachers' Union.
Assurances from the government, including Education Secretary Eddie Ng Hak-kim, have failed to put parents' and teachers' minds at ease.
As the government remains intent on introducing the national education subject in primary schools by 2015 (at the latest) and in secondary schools by 2016, schools risk taking a course that not only defies parents' and teachers' ideas regarding political education but also defies international trends in education which seek to nurture a global rather than national identity.
It's an approach that has already been adopted in Hong Kong by the top government and international schools, including those run by the English Schools Foundation, which use the International Baccalaureate curriculum accepted by universities worldwide. About 40 per cent of ESF students are ethnically Chinese.
With separate programmes for each of three age groups - a Primary Years Programme for pupils aged three to 12; Middle Years Programme for students aged 11 to 16; and the Diploma Programme for students aged 16 to 19 - the IB has been adopted by more than 3,000 schools in over 140 countries, reaching nearly one million students.
Last year saw the launch of the 4,000th IB programme, at an international school in Wuxi , Jiangsu province. In Hong Kong, IB programmes are being used by 45 international and direct-subsidy-scheme schools.
Understandably, because of its transnational nature, its much-touted learner profile makes no mention of national knowledge or pride. Instead, it aims to produce students who are principled, caring, balanced, reflective, risk-takers, open-minded and inquirers. Values such as patriotism and loyalty are noticeably absent.
Erik Dierks, chief advancement officer of the Hong Kong International School, said: 'In today's interconnected world, and for a school that has been part of Hong Kong for over 46 years, we feel that moulding well-educated global citizens is of paramount importance.
'From our youngest learners to our upcoming graduates, our students are engaged in the immediate world around them, and far beyond the borders of Hong Kong. They actively live out their role as global citizens through curriculum, service-learning, and educational travel opportunities,' says Dierks, who describes the HKIS education as one of a 'superlative international education' based on an American-inspired curriculum.
Whatever curriculum a school follows, patriotism is often not a priority. Professor Kerry Kennedy, chair professor of curriculum studies at the Hong Kong Institute of Education (HKIEd), describes national education as 'some narrower conception of citizenship education'.
Indeed, civic concepts and even the term global citizenship appear in the government's national education guidelines. Yet the cultivation of passion for the country is also emphasised. The cultivation of a national identity cannot be separated from the development of affection for the country, its appendix states.
The bureau's guidelines also recommend exchange programmes with schools on the mainland so that students can learn more about the development of their country 'through engaging all their senses'.
Teachers say they face an onerous task in striving to be impartial when teaching national education, and Kennedy said it would be best if civic education teachers taught national education. 'This would provide teachers with a broad disciplinary knowledge and the capacity to teach in an open way. Without such training, teachers have to rely on textbooks and this becomes a problem (as we have seen recently with the much discussed 'China Model' materials). Teachers must have the knowledge and skills to identify problematic texts and open up their classrooms to debate and discussion.'
In the US and Canada, for example, schools impart national knowledge to students through subjects like history or social studies. Teaching is done in a way to foster students' critical thinking and respect for important concepts such as democracy, justice and freedom, rather than affection for the country.
'In America, students learn about the history of their civil war but they are not expected to approve what their country's governments have done,' says Jacqueline Chan Kin-sang, head of HKIEd's department of curriculum and instruction.
Educators are also worried about the impact on students' learning in an already packed school curriculum. 'Any spare time is better spent on language subjects,' adds Dr Chan. 'Having national education as a subject is a luxury.'
She endorses parents' and teachers' view that there is no need for a separate subject, and certainly not a patriotism course. 'The creation of a subject should be based on whether it is needed by the society, students or for the sake of knowledge. A big question mark hangs over whether national education meets any of these needs.'
The national curriculum for England, where the children of Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying and Chief Secretary Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor went to school, emphasises the role of 'active citizens', educating students about the meaning of democracy and the basic institutions that support it, and the role of voluntary, community and pressure groups.
That echoes the approach of the IB Primary Years Programme, which aims to help students 'gain knowledge that is relevant and of global significance', and 'develop attitudes that will lead to international- mindedness'.
The Kellett School - the British International School in Hong Kong, where most teachers are British - recently held a student Olympics in celebration of Britain hosting the global event. And in June, the school held a series of events marking Queen Elizabeth's diamond jubilee.
'We celebrate anything that happens in the UK; our school assemblies run along the same system as in Britain,' says its spokesman. That is pretty much the extent of the school's efforts to develop students' sense of national identity.
A common characteristic of all these different schools is their emphasis on values and moral concepts that should be applied universally above the interests of one's own nation.
ESF's director of education Pam Ryan said: 'Our curriculum is shaped around those values in the IB learner profile and the values we propagate through ESF; we have our own sets-of-values mission about the sort of young people we believe are important. We want to develop young people who want to create better worlds.'
The Li Po Chun United World College, an international school, has its own Chinese studies syllabus that helps students develop a broad 'renaissance-man' type of education. Besides Chinese art, geography and philosophy, it explores contemporary issues such as political structure, market reforms and population policies.
Sin Kim-wai, chairman of the Subsidised Primary Schools Council, said: 'Hong Kong is the only city in the world under the 'one country, two systems' model. It is best to leave schools alone. The most important thing is that we have the space to explore what to teach.'
One parent, Isabel Lee, is sending her 11-year-old daughter to a direct-subsidy-scheme secondary school with the choice of an IB curriculum in September. One of the main reasons behind her choice was the biased tone of the teaching materials used for the subject of Chinese at the primary school her daughter previously attended.
'Her Chinese subject became more difficult when she reached Primary Four. And the textbooks used tended to instil a patriotic mindset in a subtle way. I don't want that for my daughter.'
Approximate annual government funding, in Hong Kong dollars, for two Beijing-loyalist publishers of national education textbooks