ESF - English Schools Foundation

Stress test

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 07 September, 2011, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 07 September, 2011, 12:00am

It's the start of a new school year and as the excited, the scared and the indifferent all climb back on the school bus, I wonder if this is the year our city will fix our education.

Education is the top priority for many Hong Kong parents. Yet, absolutely everyone is stressed out about their children's education. The latest reports of both teachers and students having high levels of stress are not surprising. What is surprising is how deeply rooted the problem is.

The Hong Kong education system has two worlds - local and international. Rarely do the two ever mix, which means our schools lack diversity and our children suffer because of this. In addition, both worlds are competitive and difficult to get into; children have a better chance of getting into, say, our legislature than into a primary school of their choice.

Once a student gets a coveted space, he or she then confronts an array of problems. For local students, these include class size, stressed-out teachers, mode of instruction, and a new and confusing curriculum. In the international school world, parents and students face rising school fees.

Schools run by the English Schools Foundation, too, have seen their fees rise to levels comparable to some international schools. These schools serve primarily to benefit our city's non-Chinese-speaking families, and many local parents feel that the government should not continue to subsidise them.

However, with some international school fees now well over HK$200,000 per year, how many expat families can continue living in Hong Kong without ESF schools? I'm worried that, in the near future, Hong Kong may lose its edge in attracting key global talent because of education.

But perhaps my biggest concern for Hong Kong is that this is the first week of school and already students look exhausted. Why? Because, instead of spending their summer enjoying a good book or having a long respite, they have been in the classroom at academic summer camps or tutorial schools studying ahead and cramming for exams. For many of our children, last week was not the first week of school - but only the 53rd week of school.

A recent survey by the Hong Kong Federation of Youth Groups found that tens of thousands of secondary school students are under severe stress. This summer, many students were in the classroom from 9am until 7pm. One of the reasons for this is an over-reliance on the tutorial industry to 're-teach' what has been learned in school.

When thousands of students are using the entire term break to revise for exams, we have a problem. It means education has become a dangerous arms race. This is not going to advance learning; it will only serve to burn children out.

It's going to take a miracle to solve all our education problems this year. But it's long overdue. As Chief Executive Donald Tsang Yam-kuen has said: 'Education is the largest expenditure item on our books. Education is our top priority because our future depends on it.' We have put our money where our mouth is. Now, let's fix the problems.

Kelly Yang is the founder of The Kelly Yang Project, an after-school programme for children in Hong Kong. She is a graduate of the University of California, Berkeley, and Harvard Law School.