Giving students a voice for a lifetime of learning

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 30 October, 2008, 12:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 30 October, 2008, 12:00am

Hong Kong's education reforms enter their crucial phase with the launch of the new senior secondary structure next year, a decade on since the soul-searching began on what our community wanted from its school system.

As reforms progress towards their goal, it is worth remembering what they are all about.

At heart are the interests of students - creating an environment in which young people thrive as learners, ready to be proactive, independent thinkers contributing to a society that increasingly values knowledge and thinking skills over the passive submission suited to the old factory age.

Underpinning that ideal is something quite radical, but not widely articulated in Hong Kong. If students are to become lifelong learners, and active local and global citizens, they need to be viewed differently and given a new role in shaping their education. By being active, valued and motivated in youth, so they will be as adults. This is what student voice is about.

Student voice isn't just some form of democratic participation in education, although it will support the development of healthy democratic society.

It works at many levels, from pupils giving feedback on their lessons, to participating in decision-making through student councils and other channels.

The latter may involve anything from the redesign of school uniform to the selection of a principal.

And it can be controversial and require careful balancing - rights balanced with responsibilities. As such, it needs to be fully understood, and implemented with systematic care.

True educators past and present, in Hong Kong and elsewhere, have never had trouble in engaging in two-way dialogue with young people.

But school hierarchies, and the pressures that come with trying to control hundreds of children and teenagers, many of whom would rather be someplace else, mean that education is too often something done to students, rather than with them. It echoes the factory age. Hierarchies also extend to the staff room, where teachers complain there is no teacher voice, let alone a student one.

One outcome of reforms is that student voice is stirring in Hong Kong, just as it is in Britain where the results are impressive, including in academic performance and a new sense of belonging being experienced by students in school life.

In Hong Kong, a number of schools are making important headway, for example through systems to channel feedback on teaching, and through elected student councils.

This week, student voice goes further, with a group of students, teachers, a principal, curriculum adviser and academic from Portsmouth, England, visiting Hong Kong schools to share experiences.

This initiative is supported by the Education Bureau and funded by the British Council's global Connecting Classrooms initiative that arranges such school links to promote active global citizenship, along with trust and understanding among young people. They are now working together, ready to share ideas at an open forum this Saturday.

The Portsmouth group represents a community at the cutting edge of student voice in Britain. Working with the education authority and Sussex University, this has extended to civic life through the Council of Portsmouth Students.

They are not just here to share their experiences. They will experience at first hand a different culture but also common links with Hong Kong students over anything from education to global issues such as the financial crisis and climate change.

Student voice goes beyond school effectiveness. It engages students to learn and participate positively - in spirit with reforms in Hong Kong, Britain and elsewhere. Once students can speak up, there will be much to listen to.

Katherine Forestier is director of education services at the British Council Hong Kong