Teach the public about education

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 13 August, 1998, 12:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 13 August, 1998, 12:00am

Schools are where the action is in summer, when the results of public examinations and school-place allocations are announced. This year, the level of action is exceptionally high.

First there was the controversy about allegedly discriminatory practices in favour of allocating boys to better schools than girls under the Secondary School Places Allocation system. The dispute has taken on particular significance because of a new rule barring most secondary schools from teaching in English.

Then came the results of the Certificate of Education Examination, which showed the overall performance of Form Five graduates has remained unsatisfactory. The passing rate in mathematics has improved slightly, but this was only because starting from this year the exam paper marks out a 'tailored' part for less able students.

The performance of candidates in the Advanced Level Examination is equally worrying. The number of candidates achieving minimum university entrance requirements still falls short of the number of first-degree places available. In order to fill vacancies in unpopular departments, some universities have admitted students who failed English or Chinese. When even universities have to admit sub-standard students, the quality of students admitted to sub-degree-level courses is, needless to say, even lower.

As local students learned of their fate, there came the announcement that 150 mainland students would be allowed to undertake undergraduate studies here from next year. The scheme is aimed at enhancing mutual understanding between mainland and local students, and broaden their horizons.

Privately, academics hope the hardworking mainland students will encourage their laid-back local counterparts to improve their acts. Although all mainland secondary students learn in Chinese, the Hong Kong-bound ones are not expected to have much problem coping with learning in English here because they have to pass a test first. If nothing else, they are likely to outshine local students because they are much more strongly motivated to master English and are prepared to work much harder.

With the new school term beginning in three weeks, native English teachers recruited from overseas are due to arrive. They face the arduous task of shoring up the falling English skills of secondary students. Their classroom performance and their ability to adapt to local teaching conditions are likely to be subject to close media scrutiny over the coming months.

Also the subject of much attention is an exercise to reform the Education Department to make it a more service-oriented organisation and to restore its standing among schools. Earlier, there was another exercise to reform the educational advisory bodies to streamline the consultative machinery.

Recently news broke that the Government is considering granting cheap sites to operators to set up quality independent private schools. Plans are also on hand to encourage more schools to operate under the Direct Subsidy Scheme, under which they can run like private schools while receiving public funds.

Underlying all these developments on the education scene is the unifying theme of quality enhancement. Taken together, they should mean a much more lively education sector producing more quality graduates.

Yet, while the big picture is apparent to the observant, there is a danger that individual measures may be blocked by vested interests or uninformed opinion.

For example, unionists have erroneously considered the mainland students as an employment threat for local graduates, even though the students will have to return home on completing their studies. In fact, there are reasons why the students should be allowed to stay under certain circumstances. For years, Hong Kong has been relying on foreigners to fill many professional positions. Why should mainland Chinese be barred from having such a privilege? So far, there has been little public opposition to the scheme on the grounds that fewer places will be available for local students. However, come next year when admissions are denied to some local students who have achieved minimum entry requirements, it is possible there will be an outcry against 'favouritism' to mainland students.

The proposal to grant cheap sites to independent private schools has attracted criticism from the Professional Teachers Union. Let us hope that the Government will not be deterred by the opposition. International schools have long been granted such sites. It is time local families are given access to quality private schools, which have so far failed to emerge because prohibitively high land costs mean any plan to set one up is a non-starter.

After years of expanding enrolment at all levels of the education system, no-one in Hong Kong is happy with the quality of the system's output.

Employers complain they cannot find enough graduates who can write and think. Universities say students are poorly prepared for tertiary studies, while schools blame the Government for failing to give them adequate resources because most funding goes to the universities.

Hong Kong parents care greatly about their children's education. Yet what they see now is the Government trying to stop their children from studying in English-medium secondary schools even though a good command of English is the key to a good career here and overseas. While all see a need to develop their children's creative and self-learning abilities, the mode of learning in most schools and the examination-driven curriculum are stultifying.

Under the circumstances, the level of anxiety is so high that any measure seen as hurting their children's chance to receive a good education will be greeted with suspicion by parents, while the schools and universities jealously guard their shares of the cake.

Perhaps what is needed is a public education campaign to clearly articulate the purposes of the quality-enhancing initiatives and to unite all sectors of the community to the common task of producing a well-educated population.