Victory for education

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 05 September, 2009, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 05 September, 2009, 12:00am

Hong Kong has huge reason to feel proud this week. After a decade of debate, planning and action, its education reforms reached their climax with the launch of the new, radically different, senior secondary curriculum and structure.

The blueprint for reform has been developed with the best intentions - to improve the education experience for young people and better prepare them for a knowledge-based economy.

Over the past nine years, many measures have been implemented to improve the quality of education and widen access to higher levels of learning. These range from professional development requirements for principals and teachers to new curriculum guidelines and new quality assurance processes.

To widen access, nine years of free schooling has already been extended to 12, and new pathways have been encouraged - notably a new sub-degree sector offering more than 30,000 places to Form Seven leavers. Overall participation in post-secondary education for 17-20-year-olds has increased from 33 per cent, in the 2000-01 academic year, to 67 per cent in 2008-09 - probably the most significant development to date in the upgrading of education this decade.

The biggest change of all was going to be the key structural change - replacing the two senior secondary exams, the Hong Kong Certificate of Education Examination and Hong Kong A-levels, with a single Hong Kong Diploma of Secondary Education (HKDSE). While students will leave school one year earlier, after Form Six rather than Seven, it means the heartbreaking musical chairs that has traditionally gone on after Form Five will end after the HKCEE is sat for the last time next year. Students entering Form Four will be the first to complete senior secondary schooling minus the chase for places that this year left close to 25,000 qualified students without A-level places.

The new senior curriculum is enlightened in its design. It is similar to the International Baccalaureate Diploma, in that students will study about six subjects. Maths, Chinese and a foreign language (English) will be compulsory.

The innovation is Liberal Studies, an inquiry-based, cross-curricular subject that aims to prepare students to understand and think critically about the issues shaping their lives - past, present and future. Two elective subjects, either academic or, for those better suited to vocational education, Applied Learning, complete the portfolio, along with the other learning experiences - including community service, arts and sports.

Its big challenge is to meet the needs of students of all the full ability range. And, as with any education reform, the real test will come in the implementation.

The big question is whether Hong Kong's school sponsoring bodies, principals, teachers, parents and students are ready to embrace the massive shift from the traditional exam- and test-driven mode of schooling that Hong Kong has been so comfortable with.

Implementation of the new curriculum will be watched closely by those most interested in the learning achievements of tomorrow's Hong Kong students, including universities in Hong Kong and overseas, and employers. The Hong Kong Examinations and Assessment Authority (HKEAA) and Education Bureau have worked closely with universities to ensure minimum entry requirements for degree courses support the reforms.

There is also keen interest overseas, given that Hong Kong is a major source of international students for countries such as Britain, Australia and the United States. The new senior secondary structure tallies more closely with US and Scottish models, where degrees also take four years to complete. For Australia, universities have already agreed that they will accept students for three-year ordinary degrees on the same basis as Hong Kong institutions.

Parents are anxious that the new qualification can be recognised for direct entry to British universities, where honours degrees normally take three years to complete. The HKEAA is collaborating with UK bodies to ensure this can happen.

No one can quibble with the aims of the reforms. But it would be easy to undermine them if confidence is lacking and parents drive children to seek additional 'insurance' qualifications to secure a university place overseas.

Now is the time for everyone to support the reforms to reduce the pressures that have undermined Hong Kong's education in the past. If the new curriculum achieves its ambitions, Hong Kong students will be better prepared for university with new strengths in independent study skills and critical thinking to match their academic achievement. As such, this week should be marked by celebration for what lies ahead, not trepidation.

Katherine Forestier is director of education and science services with the British Council in Hong Kong