Value of learning
It is no coincidence that the candidates for the coming chief executive election have embraced an education agenda and have attended forums organised by education groups. Education matters, for it determines not only our city's competitiveness, but also the quality of our citizenry.
Nowadays, international comparisons and league tables have become common, and countries and cities are too ready to look to others for inspiration and policies. Hong Kong is no exception.
Without playing down the need for learning from others, it is also time for Hong Kong to look inwards - to make sense of and consolidate our own experiences more systematically so that we know our strengths and weaknesses, and the areas where we have succeeded and where we have failed.
After a decade of extensive - and at times contentious - education reforms, we should take stock and concentrate on the more critical areas of transformation in the years ahead.
Internationally speaking, Hong Kong is a high performer in both secondary and tertiary education. We have one of the world's best- performing school systems, according to studies conducted by McKinsey & Company in 2007 and 2010. Our students also rank high in Pisa (the Programme for International Student Assessment), a worldwide evaluation - commissioned by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development - of 15-year-old pupils' scholastic performance.
Our universities are among some of the best in the world, with several among the top 100. There is no doubt that Hong Kong has a strong capacity as a major education hub in the region. Yet, some studies still find that Hong Kong students lack creativity. Our educational system is at times too rigidly operated.
Hong Kong has entered the new '3-3-4' academic structure - three years each in junior and senior secondary education, and four in tertiary education.
A new diploma in secondary education has been launched, with fresh concepts of scholastic aptitude for school leavers. An education voucher system for pre-primary education was introduced in 2007. Sub-degree education is now part of postsecondary education, and private universities are being encouraged.
The overall educational landscape is quickly changing and all major systemic initiatives and features should now be fully joined up.
The debate about15 years of free education for all should be seen less in terms of funding and the considerations of interested groups, and more in terms of an inclusive and creative education.
We must rethink the overconcentration of resources in the higher end of the education structure and invest more generously in the early years of our children. Ensuring publicly supported quality kindergarten education for all children is the key to education equality.
Given limited resources, it would make better sense to focus on those pupils with special learning needs, who warrant more intensive teacher attention and a higher teacher-to-student ratio, instead of applying a rigid small-class policy to all schools.
Closing schools because they are unable to recruit the standard student numbers due to demographic changes may well be a short-sighted solution that ignores the vast amount of social investment going into the training of teachers and the capacity-building of such schools. Our higher-education strategy should strive for quality across both public and private universities, and across sub-degree and degree programmes.
Many parents are rightly asking: 'Are we getting some of the best into the teaching profession to help nurture our children in the face of a more demanding future?'
If, one day, our middle-class parents feel proud to have their children educated locally, rather than sending them to more expensive international schools or schools and universities abroad, then we will have gotten our education system right.
The McKinsey studies found that 'teachers matter' in securing better educational outcomes: getting the best teachers, getting the best out of teachers and stepping in when students begin to fall behind. The crux lies in improving teacher training and attracting top graduates to join the profession. Places like Finland, South Korea and Singapore have excelled in recruiting elite graduates to teach.
Whether Hong Kong is willing to follow suit, and has the right strategy to make this happen, will shape the future of our next generation.
Anthony Cheung Bing-leung is an executive councillor and president of the Hong Kong Institute of Education