• Tue
  • Dec 23, 2014
  • Updated: 11:57am
CommentInsight & Opinion

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. Philipkcyeung2@yahoo.com


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Totally agree that the education bureau and relevant officials have seriously damaged the system and the curiosity of students. Language should be learnt from speaking and listening, but not grammar or writing. The education system can't provide English environment for the student that makes the failure of teaching.
Exam based system is one of the failures that kills the curiosity of students.
To ensure the education system, the senior officials of Education Bureau should remain their children in Hong Kong and accept local education. I believe they will do better their jobs to improve the education in Hong Kong.
I have never known any student from a Band 3 school but I can imagine what a band 3 school is like from the Cantonese movies. I am trying to guide a top primary 5 pupil in a band 2 school in learning English. Her average of 93 marks is mainly from dictation and fill-in-the-blanks. At 10 years old she was unable to comprehend a book written for 6 year olds although she could recognize every word. Band 3?
The HK education system is a tragedy. Two months ago in a luncheon Chief Eddie Ng was boasting how successful the HK system is when HK students did well in international ranking. Obvously he forgets that his job is too educate.
it is ironic that in Hong Kong the lousy education policy developed by those who don't believe in it continues while those badly needed like new town and new incinerator are stuck with limited people objection. I am sorry that the teachers union keep silent on that as long as they are assured of job security. we put lots of money but how come some students who cannot write a simple sentence are allowed to move to a senior class when the basic standard is not met. it is a waste of taxpayer money and a kid life. time to fight for a change.
Education policy makers send their kids to international schools at public expense. Even the best local schools teaching in English are not good enough for them. Mother tongue education is for students who "cannot benefit from" an English education, like their own kids! This can only happen in Hong Kong.
What is sad is that on paper, the HK curriculum for English, and other subjects, has been changed drastically, and for the better, over the past 20 years. What has not changed is how people in the system relate to the curriculum, particularly in schools serving our poorest students.


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