School reforms did not go far enough
There is surely something amiss in an education system when more than half of parents would gladly send their children overseas to study. A survey by a popular credit card company would seem to show this, with 52 per cent of 653 respondents in Hong Kong saying they would opt for such a choice if they had the chance, a considerably higher proportion than in the mainland (13 per cent) and Taiwan (34 per cent). So small a sample does not give an accurate reflection of community sentiment, nor were those polled asked for reasons, so it would be wrong to jump to conclusions. What is clear, though, is that schooling in Hong Kong is complex and can be elitist and frustrating.
The long queues last week for discretionary places in primary schools perceived as having the best reputations say much about the state of education. Some parents have moved districts, forced their children to take special classes in everything from music to horse riding and had them coached on how to handle an admissions interview in the hope that they will impress and be accepted. Parents know that once a child is in an elite school, there is every likelihood of them entering a good high school, university and job. Those that fail to get in will have to make do with second and third best. Families that can afford it send their children to English Schools Foundation and international schools, which have long waiting lists.
Perhaps the best indicator of the state of Hong Kong education is its worth to senior civil servants. Those who joined the government before 1996 are able to have their children educated in Britain with the majority of expenses paid for by taxpayers. It is a hangover from colonial days, but one that lets government officials decide which schooling system they believe is better. Many of those who are eligible opt for schools in Britain.
Overseas schooling is seen as providing diversity and an all-round education not available locally. It obviously comes at a price, with the financial one only a part; children are separated from their families and culture for long stretches of the year. It can be attained by only a minority, but as the Mastercard survey showed, there are many who see it as preferable to local teaching.
Reforms of secondary schooling to deliver a more rounded education are well advanced. The survey would not seem to put much faith in the changes, though. And these do nothing to tackle the elitism, which begins at kindergarten and can put great pressure on young children and financial stress on parents.
Education must move with the times and needs regular review. A single survey cannot pinpoint all its failings. Even so, it appears the authorities need to take another cold, hard look at schooling.