Critical steps

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 13 March, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 13 March, 2012, 12:00am


One thing that all three chief executive candidates do agree on is the provision of 15 years of free education. They also support the implementation of small-class teaching in schools, though to different extents.

Ever since reunification, the government has invested substantially in education. According to the 2012-13 estimates, education expenditure will still take up the largest share of public expenditure among different policy areas, in both recurrent (21.3per cent) and total terms (18.9per cent), representing about 4.1per cent of gross domestic product.

Any future government genuinely believing in the virtue of 15 years of free education, with special attention to the early years, should of course be willing to spend more. However, across-the-board funding may not be enough to deliver the right results.

This year marks the full implementation of the new '3+3+4' academic structure (three years in junior secondary school, three in senior secondary and four in university).

Although we cannot yet tell how the new curriculum will make our students different, it is an appropriate time to take stock of the achievements and shortfalls of a decade of education reform, the primary goal of which is to make our schoolchildren brighter and happier.

According to various international benchmarking reports, Hong Kong continues to perform well alongside East Asian neighbours like South Korea and Singapore. Western countries are looking at Asian school systems, including Hong Kong's, to discover the magic for success. They credit East Asian societies for their unrelenting focus on learning and teaching.

Yet, amid such international praise, we find Hong Kong parents increasingly critical of our school system. Teachers complain about heavy workloads and having too many new initiatives imposed from outside. When questioned about schools teaching too much, so that students have less free time, principals claim they are in a dilemma because they also have to deal with parental and market pressures.

We have to find out why there is still so much discontent despite all the reform efforts of the past decade and all the money spent, in some areas rather generously.

Hong Kong is well past the extensivedevelopment stage in providing an opportunity for all to be educated.

The challenge now and in future is quality education and catering for diverse and special needs. Hence, additional spending should be targeted strategically.

Creativity in education is a catchphrase nowadays. We must not allow standardisation in the curriculum and exams to dictate the way we teach and children learn.

School life is more than about teaching; it is also about social interaction and students developing their diverse talent. Different children are gifted differently, and all talent - not just scholastic strengths - should be duly recognised and groomed further in schools.

We should not neglect slow learners with special needs, or those coming from ethnic minorities and underprivileged families inhibited by social barriers. Priority funding should go to these areas if we truly believe that every person counts as part of our human capital, not just the high achievers in examinations.

Small-class teaching should be implemented as a matter of pedagogical innovation, to cater for learning needs and according to the subject, as resources allow, rather than out of political or educational dogma.

Ultimately, the test for our education reform is whether students can learn more and explore more, teachers can devote more time with students, and parents are proud of educating their children locally, instead of constantly doubting the effectiveness of local mainstream schools, trying to transfer their children to non-mainstream and international schools, or sending them abroad to expensive private schools.

According to two consecutive studies by McKinsey & Company, the quality of teachers is what makes the difference, as 'the quality of an education system cannot exceed the quality of its teachers'.

Grooming the best teachers is easier said than done. It also requires a government strategy. Investing in a leading university of education is as important as supporting a university of science and technology, or good business schools.

The lack of a university title for the Hong Kong Institute of Education, as the principal provider of school teachers at degree and postgraduate level, has so far been a great setback to our efforts towards this goal.

Anthony Cheung Bing-leung is an executive councillor and president of the Hong Kong Institute of Education