While pointing to some school governance problems that certainly need addressing, the recent Audit Commission report on Direct Subsidy Scheme (DSS) schools has triggered public condemnation of these schools in the absence of proper examination of the quality of education they provide. This risks throwing the baby out with the bathwater.
DSS schools stand somewhere between the traditional public sector and the private sector, and were part of education reform to create a more diverse schools landscape. They are subject to less government regulation and free to set their curriculum, fees and entrance requirements. Many middle-class parents unhappy with local schools find DSS an affordable substitute. They regard it as part of their taxpayer's right under the free education policy to attract some government subsidy for their children attending schools outside the government and aided sector.
One of the anomalies in Hong Kong is that many parents tend to believe that those schools outside the government and aided sector (the 'mainstream') - namely DSS schools, English Schools Foundation schools and international schools - offer better education, as reflected by the higher fees (and sometimes debentures) charged and the long waiting lists at international schools.
This leads to accusations of inequity in access to good education and the labelling of non-mainstream schools as being exclusively for the affluent classes. The response to such outcries is not to reduce parental choice and school diversity, but to promote quality education within the mainstream system.
To start with, we must not denigrate our local schools. If we look at the results of the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development's (OECD) triennial Programme for International Student Assessment, Hong Kong students have consistently done well over the years - within the top four places - in reading, mathematics and science.
Few countries or cities are happy with their educational system, so much so that Australia tries to learn from New York, Britain seeks to draw lessons from Hong Kong and Asia, and the United States wants to find out why East Asian students have done better. Meanwhile, we in Hong Kong look overseas, for example to Finland and Australia, for inspiration. There is just not enough self-reflection and consolidation of local experience and good practices.
At a recent OECD-sponsored e-ideas marketplace, one question asked was: 'What is the most important action we need to take in education today?' Among the 325 original ideas put forward, participants voted the following as the top five priorities: teaching to think, not to regurgitate; committing to education as a public good and a public responsibility; focusing more on creating a long-term love of learning and the ability to think critically than teaching to standardised tests; ensuring all children have the opportunity to discover their natural abilities and develop them; ensuring that children from disadvantaged backgrounds and migrant families have the same access to quality education as others.
These sentiments resonate in international studies. A 2007 study by consultancy company McKinsey into why some schools systems did better than others identified three critical factors: getting the right people to become teachers, developing them into effective instructors, and ensuring the best possible instruction for every child, including early intervention to help slow learners. Recent research by the Australian think tank Grattan Institute found that investing in raising teacher effectiveness had a much greater impact on student learning than simply reducing class sizes. All this points to the role a teacher plays in a student's learning experience. Education debates should go beyond issues of government regulation, mandatory class size and curriculum or examination compliance, and instead concentrate on the capacity of our education system to develop and value teachers, and to release them from myriad rules and administrative chores.
They need to be able to fully devote themselves to learning and teaching activities that stimulate critical thinking instead of rote learning, encouraging students to study to be enlightened rather than to just cope with tests and examinations.
In the digital learning era, teachers have to help students discern easily accessible Web information and turn it into constructive and reflective knowledge. This is a more daunting challenge for those aspiring to be agents of creativity with impact.
Anthony Cheung Bing-leung is an executive councillor and president of the Hong Kong Institute of Education