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