Helping minority students catch up

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 08 March, 2008, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 08 March, 2008, 12:00am

For nearly 10,000 students in local schools, much of everyday life in Hong Kong remains a confusing mix of garbled sounds and symbols.

But these students don't suffer from any learning disability. Their problem stems from being born into the wrong racial group and social class.

While those from affluent families can afford to buy their ticket to a better future through attending an international school, non-Chinese-speaking students from the lower end of the income bracket face an uphill battle trying to progress through an education system designed largely for students who speak a language they struggle to understand.

Speaking in a Legislative Council education panel meeting last week, deputy secretary for education Bernadette Linn Hon-ho released figures highlighting the urgent need to improve the quality of education these students receive.

Although there were around 6,000 non-Chinese-speaking students in primary schools last year, there were just 3,000 in the first four years of secondary school. Just 70 of the more than 200 students who sat the Certificate of Education Examinations scored high enough to qualify for a Form Six place, and of the 20 who took A-levels, seven met the minimum requirement for university entry but only five secured one.

The figures support anecdotal evidence from teachers and activists who say although spoken Cantonese poses less of an obstacle, most minority students are barely able to read more than a 100 characters by the time they finish primary school.

In the hunt for secondary school places, they are doubly disadvantaged by an allocations system favouring the academically gifted. Ironically, their poor scores in Chinese make it almost impossible to secure a place at one of the 112 highly sought-after English-medium schools.

Human rights organisations and community groups have fought for more equal opportunities in education, in particular an alternative Chinese curriculum designed for non-native speakers. This has been a frustrating experience, dealing with seemingly immobile education officials.

However, their crusade may have turned a corner.

In January, the Education Bureau published its long-awaited consultation paper on the development of a curriculum guide to help teachers tailor Chinese language learning to the needs of their ethnic minority students.

Late last month, the bureau also announced details on the relaxation of universities' entrance requirements to allow minority students to apply through the centralised Joint University Programmes Admissions System this year, using the British General Certificate of Secondary Education and A-level Chinese-language qualifications aimed at second-language learners.

Low pass rates in the HKCEE Chinese language exam have been a major hurdle to the students' access to tertiary education.

More schools have been assigned 'designated school' status, meaning they specialise in catering to non-Chinese-speaking students and receive extra funding and support from the bureau.

The University of Hong Kong has been contracted to run Chinese-language tutorial centres in five secondary schools. Hong Kong Polytechnic University is preparing training courses for Chinese-language teachers to teach them how to teach Chinese as a foreign language.

And at last Friday's education panel meeting, principal assistant secretary for education and head of the Curriculum Development Institute, Catherine Chan Ka-ki, bowed to pressure from lawmakers and agreed to subsidise publishers to produce Chinese-language textbooks for minority students.

If these were produced in phases, textbooks for some lower forms could be ready in time for the start of class in September, Dr Chan said.

Legislators had said commercial publishers were unlikely to produce these on their own as the small market would never turn a profit.

But while activists have welcomed what they see as some of the first concrete action on an issue that has been a source of contention, all is not entirely rosy.

The curriculum guide consultation has been strongly criticised for being too vague, lacking in specific teaching advice and for pushing the responsibility for producing teaching materials onto the schools.

'It is still not enough,' said Ha Hay-cheong, principal of Islamic Dharwood Pau Memorial Primary School in Wong Tai Sin.

'The ideal guide needs to set out specific learning goals ... That way we can tell how they are progressing.'

Mr Ha's school became a designated school last September, after admitting non-Chinese-speaking students for two years. The recognition has meant more money - HK$300,000 over two years - to hire more teachers and to develop curriculum materials, plus expert assistance from the curriculum institute.

'The extra funding is very welcome, of course. Before we became a designated school we had to do it all ourselves without any extra money,' he said.

The money had been used to hire teaching assistants and four part-time homework tutors to spend an hour at the school each day.

'The students have no home support for Chinese. There is no one there to help them if they don't understand their homework, so the tutors are very important.'

However, the change had not solved all the school's problems.

'Aside from the Education Bureau's support, we also need to find other assistance by ourselves,' Mr Ha said.

Researchers from the Hong Kong Institute of Education have teamed up with the school to help bolster the language curriculum in the school's upper forms.

Discussing the issue in last week's Legco meeting, lawmakers expressed concern that the government was trying to paint too positive a picture of the situation, focusing only on successes.

One of the key sticking points in the past has been the complete lack of supporting data - the bureau only began recording statistics on students' academic performance and which schools they were attending related to their ethnic background in 2006 at the behest of legislators.

That was when all members of the Legislative Council education panel supported the campaign for an alternative curriculum - despite the bureau's insistence the central curriculum framework is flexible enough for schools to adapt to all students' needs regardless of whether Chinese was their mother tongue.

The current consultation document is the result of a compromise between the two sides last January: there would be no alternative curriculum, but the bureau was willing to provide guidelines on how to adapt the central one to meet students' needs.

'You could call it a second curriculum if you like,' Ms Linn told legislators at the time.

Tse Shek-kam, associate dean of education at the University of Hong Kong and director of the Centre for Advancement of Chinese Language Education and Research, said the debate was in danger of being sidetracked over what constituted a curriculum.

Professor Tse has been conducting research on the learning patterns of non-Chinese-speaking students in local schools and devising effective teaching strategies for them for the past two years in a project the bureau commissioned.

An alternative curriculum would be next to worthless if teachers did not know how to implement it.

'The standard Chinese curriculum is not really a curriculum per se, it is a curriculum framework,' he said. 'It contains no set texts and does not provide textbooks or other teaching materials.'

Professor Tse said it was not practical to expect a one-size-fits-all approach to teaching Chinese to apply to all schools, as they all faced different situations.

However, he said it was obvious that teaching non-Chinese speakers required a completely different approach from teachers.

Professor Tse said analysis of students' results in the Chinese-language portion of the systems assessment - sat in Primary Three and Primary Six - showed there was on average a three to four-year developmental gap between minority students and their Chinese peers.

Failing to address those needs had ramifications for society.

'It creates not just educational problems, but social problems as well,' he said. 'When people from one segment of society cannot get a good education then they become trapped in the lowest level of jobs.'

Children from better-off minority families were not necessarily at an advantage. Professor Tse cited the experience of one child for whom being sent to a Chinese-language preschool had reaped no educational benefits.

Unfortunately, he said, this student's case was the norm, rather than an isolated incident. 'Things are changing, though,' he said.

There was no escaping the fact students would need to learn about 2,500 characters to attain full literacy, but he was developing an approach to enable students to do so without using the dull rote-learning methods favoured by traditional educators.

Tam Wai-chun, principal of Man Kiu Association Primary School in Ngau Tau Kok, which has been accepting minority students since 2002, said she felt her school had experienced reasonable success in teaching non-Chinese-speaking children.

'There is no question that these students can learn Chinese,' she said. 'The ones who come in the lower forms pick it up very well and some of our Primary Six students speak very localised Cantonese.'

However, their reading and writing ability was half that of their Chinese peers - the current aim was for students to reach the equivalent of Primary Three or Primary Four by the time they left the school.

Ms Tam said the school had needed to develop its own Chinese-language curriculum, relying only on the help of other schools with similar experience.

'It was a lot of extra work for our teachers,' she said. 'They had to produce their own teaching materials for every single class. We had to think about what sort of language would be most useful for these students in their daily life and how to teach that to them.'

But the attainment gap was obvious from the very first day of school.

'Local Chinese students have been learning the language from birth so they already have a six-year head start by the time they reach Primary One,' she said.

'Most minority students do not have any Chinese help at home. Even in the more established families, the parents may speak some Cantonese but they do not know how to read or write. Homework is a big problem for these students.'

Ms Tam said she had been receiving an increased level of support from the Education Bureau since the beginning of this academic year, and felt there was a more enthusiastic approach to solving the problems.

'We hope that some day we will be able to bring students up to the level of their local Chinese peers by the time they finish Primary Six,' she said. 'Our teachers are gaining experience every year and learning how these students learn. It could take another four to five years at least, but I am confident we can achieve it.'

The full text of the consultation paper on the supplementary guide to the Chinese language curriculum for non-Chinese-speaking students is available in either Chinese or English at: http://www.edb.gov.hk/index.aspx?nodeID=91&langno=1

The executive summary can also be downloaded in Urdu, Nepali, Tagalog, Hindi, Thai or Vietnamese.

Public comments on the consultation need to be submitted to the Education Bureau before Saturday, March 22.