Allocation tied to the question of language
AMONG ALL THE education reforms, none is more contentious than how to allocate places in secondary schools and determine the language of instruction. The model adopted, to be recommended in the coming months, will have a far-reaching impact on the future of Hong Kong primary and secondary schools.
The reform began in 2000, when the government accepted the advice of the Education Commission to scrap the Academic Aptitude Test (AAT) as the means for grading students and allocating places. Under the old system, children drilled for months, if not years, to win places in top schools.
This was condemned by the commission as being an uncreative approach to learning in primary schools, and for being unfair, particularly for late developers. There was also a gender problem because boys and girls develop at different paces; the then Education Department processed their scores separately, falling foul of the Equal Opportunities Commission.
Since 2000, students have been divided into ability bands according to their school results, adjusted to take into variations in school quality. Meanwhile, the number of bands was reduced from five to three, increasing the range of student abilities in schools and cutting the stigma of the lowest band.
A working group, headed by Michael Tien Puk-sun, now has the task of recommending the new model. The first issue - of allocation - involves the decision of whether to select or not, and if we are to select, how. It has parallels with the major school reform in England and Wales in the 1960s, when the two-tier grammar and secondary modern schools were replaced by a new breed of comprehensives.
Language - or the medium of instruction - is closely linked to allocation, and is what complicates the selection debate in Hong Kong. It is generally accepted that if children are to be taught in English they must have the skills to use it across all subjects, implying some form of selection.
There are many possible models. What follows is a selection from those discussed locally or well-established overseas.
Variations on the status quo
This would involve maintaining the current banding system with students in the top band given priority for taking up places in their top school choices, the 'band one schools'. The current medium of instruction policy would continue. Schools able to teach in English would continue to do so, either from Form One or Form Four.
Pros: This would suit schools and teachers who believe it is not possible to teach students of wide ability ranges in one school or class, particularly when class sizes are large by international standards. English medium of instruction (EMI) schools already believe that the three-band system used since 2000 is inadequate and that there should be further selection at the top end.
Cons: Banding is seen by many educationalists as archaic, divisive, inflexible and unfair in determining opportunities at such a young age, particularly if they are late-developers. There are no easy ways of determining the bandings. Selection, whether by exam or school performance, entails pressure and favours early developers, particularly girls. Scaling results according to schools can also be unfair because it may not reflect their changing quality, up or down the scale. It has been suggested that the scaling of results be removed altogether, but concerns remain of the differences in quality between schools.
Teaching quality in some EMI schools has been proved to suffer because of weak English language skills of both teachers and students. Studies have shown that learning is more lively and interactive when communication is in the native language. But EMI schools would argue that this is a necessary price for the benefits of using English, and skills can improve over time.
The Education Commission had hoped to encourage many primary and secondary schools to pair up as 'through-schools', allowing for seamless progress from one level of schooling to the next. This is common in Shanghai and is in effect used by the English Schools Foundation (ESF) and has been the model of choice for a number of Direct Subsidy Scheme (DSS) and Private Independent Schools. The secondary sectors would be comprehensive in their intake, but could still have specialist strengths.
Pros: This avoids putting primary students under unnecessary pressure, allowing schools to focus on the quality of education.
Cons: It requires all schools to be of a similar quality, otherwise it can be deemed unfair for children who are allocated to better or worse primary schools. Moreover, if the schools are very good, it denies the opportunity for others to join those schools for secondary schooling. This scenario already happens with sister schools such as St Paul's Convent, where the secondary school allocates the majority of its places to the sister primary's students.
Only about a dozen pairs of schools are or have indicated they will participate in the through-train model which offers only a partial solution to the allocation dilemma.
Direct Subsidy Scheme option
Fee-paying DSS schools should be the prime providers of English medium instruction, selecting students they believe have the abilities to thrive in the language through their greater freedoms over admission and curriculum. Other schools would become CMI, though they may teach some subjects in English. This would drive more leading aided EMI schools to switch to the DSS scheme.
Pros: This would result in strong DSS schools that would provide an alternative to international schools, readily accessible to the fee-paying middle classes.
Cons: Although schools offer fee remission for the less well-off, the schools would still predominantly serve those who can afford their fees. It is uncertain how strong a demand for fee-paying DSS education there really is.
The comprehensive model
Comprehensive intake, with in-school setting for medium of instruction and ability - students strong in science or English would be in the top stream for these subjects, for instance.
This would be revolutionary for Hong Kong but comprehensive schooling is used in many state systems across the world, in particular that of the UK, Australia and US. Closer to home, English Schools Foundation schools divide students into different groups from Year 9, with top groups taking GCSE subjects one, sometimes two years earlier than others. For allocation under this model, students are offered places on the basis of choice, geographical location and, where schools are oversubscribed, by random allocation.
Pros: This is a fair system that allows flexibility so children can be taught at the appropriate level for different subjects. Also, there are opportunities for students to move up or down sets as their performance changes. This would also be equitable for schools, breaking down the rigid divide between English and Chinese medium schools to reflect the real abilities of both students and teachers to learn and teach in English.
Cons: This would be particularly unpopular with EMI schools that would see their status radically change by admitting some students who should be taught in Chinese and who would oppose teaching students of wider ability ranges. To be successful, it requires strong management and organizational skills, and flexibility. Some schools may not be ready for this, particularly as the gap between schools appears to be widening as they embrace reforms at different speeds. More time may be needed to achieve this ideal.
Specialist schooling - a variation of the comprehensive model
There are many variations on the comprehensive model, including some that could reflect language conditions in Hong Kong as well as international trends towards some student selection according to the specialties of a school. EMI schools could select students who have the abilities to learn in English, as determined by school reports, interviews and external tests such as Trinity or Cambridge examinations. The setting within EMI schools would allow them to deal with variations in ability in other subjects. There are already a handful of other specialist schools that have particular strengths in areas such as technology or sports, and more are due to open. These schools could select students with strengths and interests in these areas.
The EMI issue could be dealt with flexibly, with schools using English, Cantonese or Putonghua as the medium of instruction appropriate for particular subjects and ability groups.
Pros: This is an equitable solution that balances the desirability for some selection. Hong Kong would still have strong EMI schools whilst removing the lesser status associated with Chinese medium instruction. It would encourage the growth of other specialist schools, providing greater choice and nurturing a wider range of skills.
Cons: This is a radical solution that requires strong school leadership skills and sufficient resources and support from government. Again, it would need time.
There is no easy solution to the allocation dilemma. But there is an ideal - one that some Education Commission members had in mind in the late 1990s as they planned for the future. As schools gradually improve under education reforms, in particular from the upgrading of school management and the quality of teaching, it will become less important in which school a child studies. This is the reality in countries with the soundest education systems, such as Finland.
The comprehensive model, modified with a mix of EMI and other specialist schools, as well as the options of through-schools, DSS, ESF and other private schools, could form the basis of an equitable and flexible secondary school structure for the future.
'As schools gradually improve under education reforms ... it will become less important in which school a child studies'