HK 'failing its vulnerable needs pupils'

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 29 March, 2008, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 29 March, 2008, 12:00am

Non-Chinese-speakers neglected: NGO

Hong Kong is failing to care for its 'most vulnerable' residents, the head of a special needs pressure group claimed this week.

'The forgotten one is the non-Chinese-speaking child with special educational needs. The forgotten child is segregated, discriminated against and ostracised from our school systems and our society,' Virginia Wilson, chairwoman of Growing Together, said.

'If Hong Kong is Asia's World City, then why are there so many forgotten children?' she asked.

Growing Together represents more than 200 concerned parents and five non-governmental organisations providing limited services, mainly for English-speaking students with special needs.

Educators, lawmakers and government representatives are due to discuss the special needs issue next Thursday at a Legislative Council sub-committee meeting.

Government figures show there are 13,000 students with special education needs studying in mainstream classrooms and another 7,800 attending 61 special schools as at last September. However, there is no data to show how many of these students are English- or Chinese-speaking.

Of the 61 special schools only one - the English Schools Foundation's Jockey Club Sarah Roe School - caters for non-Chinese-speaking students. The English Schools Foundation also provides 126 places for students with special education needs able to learn in ordinary classrooms, with a waiting list of two to three years and at a cost ranging from just over HK$5,000 to about HK$8,500.

Civic Party lawmaker Fernando Cheung Chiu-hung said the situation faced by non-Chinese-speaking children from low-income families would be even worse.

'Most of them are Pakistani and Nepalese and don't speak Chinese or English at home,' Dr Cheung said. 'Although their English is better, they have no choice but to purchase the English-speaking special education services, like others.

'These children are forced to attend mainstream special schools where Cantonese is used as the medium of instruction.'

Ms Wilson, who is also the chairwoman of the Jockey Club Sarah Roe School Council, said Hong Kong was too results-oriented.

'Undeniably, the Hong Kong school system excels at preparing students for standardised testing, however, it fails its most vulnerable citizens.'

She said many parents were pushed to the edge by the shortage of school places and services, and either left Hong Kong or became activists, fighting for the rights of their children.

Kerry Valentine, former principal of the international section of Korean International School and ex-head of ESF Educational Services' English language section, moved her family to Perth, Australia, last year because of the lack of special needs facilities for non-Chinese-speaking children. She said the needs of her seven-year-old autistic son were not being addressed at a reasonable cost. 'I was told that if Matthew couldn't get into a school at the age of five, then 'you're just going have to leave',' she said.

John Greene, father of a 10-year-old autistic son born in Hong Kong, said 'government leadership is not apparent' as care, education and intervention in the public sector was 'negligible'.

He said the need for more 'special needs facilities, services and qualified staff in normal schools' as well as special schools was desperate.

'Do we have to wait until a senior government official or celebrity of huge political influence suddenly has a special needs child of their own before any reasonable initiative is taken by government?'

Liberal Party lawmaker Selina Chow Liang Shuk-yee said the need to address the inadequacy of school places and services was obvious because Hong Kong needed to 'attract and retain' talented people to maintain its competitive edge.

'The official languages in Hong Kong are Chinese and English. It's unreasonable for us to not provide enough special education services in English,' Mrs Chow said.

She said while the shortage of international schools for normal children was apparent enough, 'it will be even more inadequate for children with special education needs'.

'The government needs to ensure the services are there, be it subvented or privately provided.'

An Education Bureau spokeswoman said non-Chinese-speaking students were encouraged to enrol in local schools.

'In Hong Kong eligible children, irrespective of ethnic origin and physical or intellectual ability, have the right to enjoy basic education in public-sector schools,' she said.