Rural 'family' under threat
In the second of a two-part series on Lantau, Katherine Forestier looks at the challenges facing a village primary as the population declines and more non-Chinese speakers move to the island
MUI WO'S PRIMARY SCHOOL seems blessed, with beautiful mountains rising behind, a river lined with banana trees in front, and a relaxed, happy atmosphere within its grounds.
A garden, built by children, teachers and parents and bordered by a mosaic-clad wall created by the pupils, is in full bloom. And dozens of bicycles lined up in the courtyard indicate that the school, built in 1965, is still very much in demand, playing a vital role in the village community.
But that community is changing. Over the past two decades thousands of local residents have moved out of Mui Wo, heading in particular to the new town of Tung Chung across the mountains. And those remaining are having fewer children.
Each year, it is touch and go whether the school can attract the minimum of 23 children in Primary One to remain open. And the idyllic school environment could be swept away if plans to merge the primaries in Mui Wo and Pui O with the large concrete campus of the New Territories Heung Yee Kuk Southern District Secondary School in Mui Wo went ahead, creating a primary-cum-secondary through school.
For now, at least, Mui Wo School, like Pui O Public School a few miles away, student numbers are buoyed by the increasing number of non-Chinese families moving in. Out of the 160 children in the Mui Wo primary, about a quarter are non-Chinese.
Principal Michelle Yuen Wai-kwan runs her school on the basis that it has a commitment to everyone in the community, including the non-Chinese families eager for their children to integrate and learn the local language, many of whom could not afford expensive international school fees.
'In the classroom the medium of instruction is Chinese but teachers try their best to translate and bring out the main points for the non-Chinese students, and to give them extra assistance during lunch, breaks, and after school,' said Ms Yuen, who has taught at the school for 10 years and led it for seven.
Children are arranged in their year groups for all subjects except Chinese, when the non-native speakers will be taught at appropriate levels. For instance, a Primary Four student with basic Chinese may join the Primary One class. There is also a foundation class for those new to the language.
Ms Yuen began this scheme in September after finding both teachers and students struggled when native Chinese speakers learnt alongside beginners. It will be reviewed later this year. If successful, she would share her approach with other schools trying to integrate non-Chinese students.
But early signs are good. She is delighted that two children have already progressed so well that they have been promoted up a level after just one semester.
As for English, children who are fluent are given additional worksheets more appropriate to their level. Homework, for English or Chinese, is adapted to their needs.
Ms Yuen pointed out, however, that it was much easier for the Mui Wo School, with its average class sizes of 25, to meet the needs of the non-Chinese speakers, compared with large urban schools where teachers could have more than 35 children in a primary class.
Ms Yuen said that the benefits of integrating children of different cultures in the one school far outweighed the disadvantages. 'Our students like playing together and need to communicate. The non-Chinese children learn to speak and listen to Cantonese very easily,' she said.
Local students benefited by getting used to mixing with children from different backgrounds and being exposed to their cultures and languages. 'From a very early age they are not scared to approach foreigners,' she said. They also had to learn to be patient and tolerant as they strived to communicate. 'It upgrades the quality of being a human being,' said Ms Yuen. 'That is very important in education.
'I remember one of the non-Chinese parents asking me 'don't you think the non-Chinese students will bring trouble?' I answered 'it's not trouble. It's a challenge but every child has the right to learn, whatever their nationality.''
The school, she said, was at the centre of the community, with Chinese and non-Chinese families coming together to participate in school events such as tea parties and its fund-raising concert, the latter to be held this evening in a Mui Wo restaurant. It also collaborated with the New Territories Heung Yee Kuk Southern District Secondary School, with the older students offering peer support tutorials to the younger.
Gretchen Day, who has a son in Primary One and twin four-year-olds due to start next September, chose the school because she wanted her children to be immersed in the local language and culture. She is delighted with the outcome so far.
'It's the way schools should be, where parents know each other, kids play out of school and people talk to each other,' she said. 'When we first moved here the children only played with western children. Now they play with everyone.'
The school, she added, went out of its way to include the non-Chinese families, encouraging her to join the parent teacher association committee and keeping in close touch about school activities.
Kathy Woodland, who has a daughter in Primary Two and a son joining Primary One in September, visits to drop off her child's lunch and is helping organise tonight's concert, which is raising funds for the school's computer equipment.
'If we are going to stay in Hong Kong we want our children to speak Cantonese reasonably well, and read it and write it,' she said. She had no concerns about the quality of education and said the maths in particular was of a higher standard than in Britain.
She likes the openness of the school, where she can walk in at any time to talk to teachers or help out. 'We like the way this school is set up. It is so relaxed and friendly.'
Ms Yuen said talks about merging the schools were at an early stage and did not want to comment further until the issue had been discussed by the school's management committee.
But ideas for safeguarding primary and secondary schooling in Mui Wo by combining schools in the one campus pose a dilemma for families like the Woodlands and Days, who would like their children to move on to the secondary school if it could remain open and meet their education needs.
There could be advantages, Ms Woodland said, if the secondary school survived by becoming a through school.
But that could mean giving up the family atmosphere of the small, more rural, village primary.