Stigmatising students is not the way to help them learn

Philip Yeung says better teaching is needed, not ranking of exam results

PUBLISHED : Friday, 27 June, 2014, 12:50pm
UPDATED : Saturday, 28 June, 2014, 3:00am

The medical profession's Hippocratic oath has a simple injunction: "Do no harm." At the absolute minimum, the teaching profession ought to have a similar credo. But harm is a way of life across our state schools.

Last month, I ventured onto ground zero of a looming education calamity: a "Band 3 school". What I saw as a volunteer English teacher in a Form Five after-school class left me cursing the creators of this wretched system.

It immediately became clear that little learning takes place inside the classroom. Students were slumped on their desks, or are otherwise restless like caged animals.

For five years they have had grammar drills coming out of their ears, and in the last two, it is all about practising past exam papers. I asked each student to write me five short sentences about themselves, and most were no longer than three words, as in, "I am Peter". But, unbelievably, no sentence was error-free, as students haven't even learned to capitalise their own name.

Each year, this school sends about 120 students to the Diploma of Secondary Education examinations. On average, only one makes it to a publicly funded university.

Despite this dismal showing, principals are hell-bent on drilling their students endlessly on past papers.

Something else defies comprehension. Why divide students into three bands (formerly five) based on their exam results when no additional resources are handed out to schools that cater to students of a low banding?

At its most charitable, a "Band 3 school" - that is, one that caters to academically poor students - may be thought of as a warehouse, keeping restless youngsters cooped up until they are out of their turbulent adolescence.

But at least in a warehouse, things don't usually rot. Not so in our public schools. As involuntary inmates of these institutions, they pick up no love of learning. The skull-numbing drills these schools favour have destroyed any curiosity they may have about the world beyond their digital games.

Others are driven into drugs or into the arms of gang recruiters. High stress is also often reported among students.

The simple solution is to abandon the useless but costly pursuit of ranking students according to their public exam results and let students enjoy learning what matters in life.

Who is to blame for this mess? I lay it squarely at the feet of senior bureaucrats who have deserted the system they have concocted.

Hong Kong spends a good part of its government budget on education, as does Singapore, yet the latter's public education is more highly rated than Hong Kong's.

The explanation is not hard to find. The Lion City forbids Singaporeans from attending international schools, never mind if they are children of civil servants. From the top down, it is 100 per cent committed to public education. We must be alone in the world in paying our civil servants to abandon our own public schools in favour of better alternatives.

This privilege from the colonial era is enshrined in the Basic Law, guaranteeing civil servants the same perks enjoyed pre-handover. If any provision of the Basic Law cries out for amendment, this one does.

Overall, Hong Kong enjoys a splendid public service. We have a disciplined police force and a public transport system that is the envy of other cities. We even have an Inland Revenue Department famous for its fair treatment of taxpayers.

But our education bureaucracy desperately needs repair. Local schools may be a long way from the hearts of our bureaucrats. But they must either pay heed now, or we will pay dearly later.

Philip Yeung is a former speechwriter to the president of HKUST and co-founder of the Hong Kong Society for the Promotion of English.