The lesson that all parents need to learn

PUBLISHED : Monday, 26 April, 2010, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 26 April, 2010, 12:00am

Children need to know there is life outside the classroom. Playing, exploring, making friends and developing new hobbies should be as important as schoolwork. But in our scholastic-obsessed culture, school study takes up a disproportionate share of a young person's life. We all know the long arms of schoolwork extend well beyond the school - reaching out into many aspects of a youngster's daily life. A new University of Hong Kong survey helps quantify the costs. Fifty-eight per cent of parents of primary and secondary schoolchildren pay for private tutorial classes; and 90 per cent dig deep into their pockets to cover extracurricular activities. The charges amount to averages of HK$9,842 and HK$8,952 a year respectively. Many families pay much more.

For lower-income families, such costs represent a heavy financial burden. For many children, they impose a heavy psychological toll. A byproduct has been a shadow, parasitic tutorial industry that exploits the insecurity of parents and students. The quality of private tutors and tutorial schools varies greatly. But unlike normal schools, they are lightly regulated. They advertise so-called tutorial kings and queens who cultivate an aura of stardom. These hipsters boast about their millionaire status, and perpetuate a corrupt youth culture that prides high exam scores over genuine knowledge. Unfortunately, many youngsters look up to them as role models, or at least admire their earning power. What should clearly be unacceptable has become an accepted or even necessary part of schooling in Hong Kong. Some teachers in mainstream schools even tell parents to send their children to private tutorials to avoid lagging behind classmates. If schools are doing their job, such outside tutoring should not be necessary in the first place. It is not unusual for a young child to spend half a day at school, take extracurricular courses or private tutorials until late afternoon, only to go home having to do homework and prepare for next day's classes. There is no joie de vivre in such daily routines jam-packed with school-related activities. No wonder so many of our youngsters are sickly, sedentary and not confident. To be sure, some extracurricular activities such as sport and music lessons can be refreshing to the body and mind. But even piano lessons can be highly competitive, as when students have to practise daily to pass tests and move up to higher grades.

It appears intense competition inside the classroom is driving many parents to pay for tutorials outside school. Most are afraid that their children will fall behind if they don't take extra classes; some want to give them an edge over others. So, although education is either free or heavily subsidised in most Hong Kong schools, the true cost of a child's education is much higher than official figures stated in government expenditure. Just as high rents are an indirect tax in our supposedly low-tax system, the rising costs of schooling outside the classroom show that our education system is, in fact, anything but free.

Schoolwork is important. But a child's whole life should not revolve around it, letting it affect even family relationships. It is not worth the sacrifice of a happy childhood. Parents need to know they can take control of their children's education rather than let the system take control of them. Make friends with like-minded parents. Seek out teachers who are responsible and receptive - and schools that are innovative and open-minded. Above all, let your children know that play is as important as study.