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  • Dec 20, 2014
  • Updated: 8:37pm
CommentInsight & Opinion

Teach English for the real world to Hong Kong's struggling students

Philip Yeung says HK's one-size-fits-all curriculum is failing our youth

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 27 August, 2014, 2:43pm
UPDATED : Thursday, 28 August, 2014, 3:31am

Former chief secretary Sir David Akers-Jones intends to embark on an ambitious project: to save tens of thousands of teenagers attending the so-called "Band 3" schools from sliding into a zombie-like existence.

He was provoked into action by the plight of his driver's daughter. Sir David discovered to his dismay that after 12 years of schooling, the teenager couldn't say or write a three-word sentence in English to introduce herself.

She couldn't get a job as a shop assistant that called for simple sales talk in English. When she tried to get work as a teachers' helper at kindergartens, she was shooed away. And she was unable to attend the Institute of Vocational Education due to her lack of the requisite Diploma of Secondary Education grade-2 English. All the doors, academic and otherwise, were slammed in her face.

The story of this young girl is the Hong Kong public education writ large.

A decade of a daily diet of filling-in-the-blanks English ensures that school-leavers exit the system dumb, to face a bewilderingly uncertain future.

But, as bad as this is, worse is yet to come. According to Alex Woo, a reform-minded school supervisor for 23 years until his recent retirement, as many as 50 per cent of students at these "Band 3" schools - that is, schools that cater to academically poor students - may have psychological issues stemming from broken homes, academic failure, alienation, boredom or school stress. Some display suicidal tendencies. This is a chilling report card on public education.

Sir David, however, is not one to sit back. He took up the cause of his driver's daughter and, out of his own pocket, hired a private English tutor, paying HK$500 per weekly lesson over a six-month period, at the end of which she made the grade and got herself into an Institute of Vocational Education programme.

At a modest cost of just over HK$10,000, Sir David rescued a young girl from a life of listlessness. Energised by this success, he is now appealing to corporate leaders with a big heart and deep pockets to join him in a campaign to help academically poor students, either through sponsorships or internships.

At the heart of this systemic failure is a dysfunctional curriculum. There is a yawning gap between what is learned in class and how life is lived outside it. Yet there is evidence that, given a clear social or occupational purpose, students can learn fast.

Woo, who was in the textile business, compares the public school system to the conveyor belt in his old factory - the pedagogical belt zips by, regardless of student attention or retention.

Willy-nilly, the students are swept along. As a result, we find Form Six students operating at Form Two-level English. In cattle-class schools, the division into forms is an administrative convenience, and in no way indicative of student progress.

With this litany of woes, the mindless curriculum needs to die a quick death. It makes little sense to teach university-bound students in top schools and those who struggle academically exactly the same programmes, at the exact same rate.

Shouldn't we be giving students at "Band 3" schools workplace English, since that is what will be most useful to them once they leave school? Why not give them functional English for a functional future?

In the meantime, society must chip in to bail out a whole generation of students who are falling through the cracks.

Philip Yeung is a former speechwriter to the president of HKUST and co-founder of the Hong Kong Society for the Promotion of English. PKY480@gmail.com


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I have the greatest respect and admiration for our minority students who excel in Chinese by making the extra effort. The South Asian news anchor at TVB Jade is a role model for her ethnic community, and an inspiration for us all. She is a true Hongkonger.
That's certainly a feel-good story regarding the driver's daughter. Fine. However, the author misses the point completely. Sub-standard English is a big problem, but Band 3 students isn't the real cause for concern. English proficiency at supposedly prestigious schools such as DBS, La Salle, etc, is just as shocking. The reason is simple: They speak Cantonese 99% of the time outside the classroom.
The real culprit is that: employers baulk at paying more for those who speak and write good English. If any bosses really want their clerks to write business letters in good English, pay them $15,000 or more instead of a mere $7,000 or less.
Interesting to compare HK with Singapore in this regard - both former British colonies with similar education styles but yet Singapore's students end up graduating from school speaking both English and Mandarin proficiently. It's possible for HK students to achieve the same if not more than their Singapore counterparts - it's just that they don't have the same drive or motivation to learn and revert back to using Cantonese because it's the easy option. Unfortunately in the global workplace, it's a completely useless language to know compared with English or Mandarin.
Agreed. But the problem is not just that we don't speak English outside the classroom, which can't be helped. Cantonese is native to the locals and you can't force everyone to speak in a foreign tongue which nobody has complete mastery of. It's what goes on in the classroom that we can and must do something about. An English medium education cannot be successful without requiring high, near-native, standards of both teachers and students. But imposing such standards was not easy even in colonial Hong Kong, let alone nowadays. It makes no sense for us to continue to go on pretending local English is alright when in fact the locals are reluctant to speak it, or cannot express themselves properly when they do. The answer in the long run is of course to switch back to Chinese. But can we make better use of our colonial heritage to become truly bilingual?
So who is to blame? Years of policy changes got us nowhere.
When Eddie Ng was bloating about HK students' performance in international competition, we know our system is heading the wrong way. What about the rest, Mr. Ng?
The objective of the educators is to educate, not compete.
To improve English most Band 1 & DSS schools develop students' reading habits. Band 2&3 still mire in dictation & fill in the blanks.
The only way to improve the band 3 schools is to cut the school syllabus by 50%. Only then may these students be interested in school. They give up too early.
Ah, to improve the education system overall? Why not stipulate all EB officials to have their children to attend through the entire HK local school system as a condition of employment?
You cannot be a convincing salesman selling a product while you use another one.
e.g. like CY back in 1992 claiming he wouldn't send his children for overseas education because it's an absolute mistake. Yet he was so proud of her daughter's admission to Cambridge. Well, I guess technically he was not wrong. In 1992 UK was not considered foreign, wasn't it?
Learning English in context is much more important than learning English completing all sorts of exercise books. Authentic learning and immersive language learning opportunities are increasingly scarce in Hong Kong.
Anyone who wants to help kids to learn must be commended from the bottom of my heart. I also must in this band three student story who was greatly being helped to become better so she could possibly be even better to be qualified for further education to caution all in keeping the right perspective. I would ask how many Sir David Akers Jones are out there? It seems to me we all should be asking the government to do away with the school banding.
The willful way in grouping kids together that through some performance testing branding them as the lowest grade in school system is the cruelest act to the psychological wellbeing to a kid or anyone. Perhaps the girl’s poor performance partly is a self-fulfilling prophecy by the branding system.
It is utterly the opposite to the idea that no child should be left behind in the effort of treating all children with equal chance to learn. Here we must not damage their self-esteem and self-respect for a good number of years in school.
I see the society’s effort should be put to reform the school system to do away with banding. But the resistance from parents and alumni of elite schools would make such reform impossible. Either we shall wait till Hong Kong live through its handover period to set schooling on more level field to all or Hong Kong to introduce schools for the talented among the rest. Here we are not manufacturing bad learners but addressing in educating to the best ability to all individuals.
Singaporeans speak better English and for ethnic Chinese Putonghua as well than Hong Kong people. Both languages were pushed by Lee Kuan Yaw when he was still a first Prime Minister of Singapore. While credit should be given to Lee for the Singaporean business including setting up kindergartens which are doing well in China, Singapore has had no choice for a common language which is English for its multiple ethnicity society.
Hong Kong has a problem which Singapore doesn’t. Singaporean, the majority are ethnic Chinese who migrated from China voluntarily mostly for economic reason not as refugees forced out of China circumstantially. Ethnic Chinese Singaporeans don’t have a Chinese political baggage to stop them from being friendly with government of China.
Depends on the workplace. If one worked in a local restaurant or ran a small business inside the cubicles in Mongkok buildings, you still would not need English or Mandarin.



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