• Mon
  • Dec 22, 2014
  • Updated: 10:54am
PUBLISHED : Monday, 09 September, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 09 September, 2013, 2:47am

Stamp out the elitism in Hong Kong education

Alice Wu says Hong Kong's education system has become a modern-day monster, warped by an obsession with talent and privilege


Alice Wu fell down the rabbit hole of politics aged 12, when she ran her first election campaign. She has been writing about local politics and current affairs for the Post since 2008. Alice's daily needs include her journals, books, a multi-coloured pen and several lattes.

We who live in this city certainly didn't need the World Economic Forum to tell us we are competitive. Sure, being placed a few spots lower in the rankings than our supposedly biggest rival, Singapore, may get our adrenaline going, but if someone were to do a ranking of preschoolers, my bet is that we would be in the top five.

My mum didn't have to put together an educational portfolio for me when I was young. I had enough homework, but not enough to cut into my TV and play time. I took piano and swimming lessons, and also ballet. None of these made it to my portfolio, because I didn't have one; in those days, four-year-olds weren't expected to have a curriculum vitae.

But the world has changed. I've been told by family and friends who are raising children that playing the piano no longer counts as a skill, extracurricular activity or interest. According to them, it is now treated as some sort of basic motor skill.

After so much talk about tiger mums and cubs, this surely is a new breed of Übermensch.

Our education system has morphed into one best described as elitism on crack. It determines a child's future by the age of four, since the rules of the game dictate that, in order to get into a good university, one is required to have come from an elite secondary school, which requires that one has attended an elite primary school; and the prerequisite for an elite primary education is attendance at an elite kindergarten, which in turn requires graduation from a preschool for the extraordinary.

We have a system that requires children to jump through hoops of fire, demonstrate extraordinary talent and compete in a cutthroat recruitment process. Only a modern-day Frankenstein could have created this monster.

It's not just the late bloomers who are at a disadvantage in such a system. Children of single-parent families, and those of the underprivileged and the less resourceful will also be left behind. Whatever happened to nurturing the young in a safe, healthy environment that supports whole-person development?

We have somehow shifted our goal of providing students with a well-rounded education to one of creating a round-hole-only education system that keeps the square (and other odd-shaped) pegs out. If we believe education offers people a way out of poverty, then we must rethink whether our education system is playing the right role.

With the poverty line due to be defined in the coming months, children's access to education and opportunities must also be taken into consideration. And if we continue to adhere to this philosophy of forcing children of all shapes and sizes to be round pegs, then we can only expect to slip further down in the rankings for innovation.

When we are ready to trade our students' sleep deprivation for their right to dream; when we are willing to educate all, not just those whose families can afford interest classes, tutors and exam prep courses, then, and only then, can we ensure we are equipping our future generations with the power to compete for years to come.

Alice Wu is a political consultant and a former associate director of the Asia Pacific Media Network at UCLA


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This article is now closed to comments

I see no end to this elitism. There are 3 demons in our education system.
1. The education policy makers. Mainly AOs who did well in school themselves and failed to appreciate the limitations of the majority. Policies lack psychology principals. It seems HK's academic reputation is their only goal.
2. The elite schools. Reputation is everything. A principal asked my brother why he didn't let his son to attempt 10 subjects in the HKCEE. Another principal asked my buddy the same question (His daughter later got 8 As out of 8). Another principal summoned the parents to push their daughter on mathematics (obviously mid-80s wasn't good enough for an A in HKCEE) and complained she slept in class ignoring the fact that this Form 5 girl was busy writing essays on religion, abortion, and movies for fun.
3. The public. Most parents equate schooling to education and missing out on parenting. It's hard to blame them when they don't have the means to get their children out of the system. They have to play catch up.
When I lived in Pleasanton, CA, I asked principal Whitney why a rocker who toured with Stevie Wonder would turn teacher. "Our system takes care of the top & bottom 10%, I wanna do something for the middle 80". "Mr. Whitney, where I come from, they take care of the top 5% and pretend not to see the rest."
The most ironic part of the elitism is the number of children of our Education Bureau senior officals attending local schools is ZERO.
If pslhk is indeed Pierce Lam, the occasional writer to Letters to the Editor, your illiteracy is no comparison to his writing skills. Your masochism and self-flagellating gutter talk here betray a hopeless case of personality disorder.
I urge you to check yourself into a sanitarium at the first opportunity.
Anytime anyone wants to talk about education in Hong Kong, particularly like AW’s on elitist school system, readers are defensive and dislike any suggestion or even criticism about the system. I imagine most who shows such reaction are graduates of an elite school or university. Unfortunately, Hong Kong’s students are being shortchanged by the system of which talented students in any field are not recognized and educated in special school. While elite schools become the poor substitutes, they are elite because of taking in only high scores in exams and their limited school allocations. Such artificial honors are reinforced by the banding of schools – an anti-education act towards the citizens which was adopted since the colonial time.
..The elite school in Hong Kong is neither school for the privileged nor talented. Some who attend in an elite school may be a math genius but mixed with the average. Same possibility can be said of those who unfortunately find themselves in lesser bands.
... My comments of the above are with additional knowledge about the existence of so many special schools in New York City (population 8.6 million) for the talented in many different fields side by side with schools for the average. Elite schools there are for the moneyed.
...Hong Kong is not in the business in educating their citizens –PERIOD.
the issue is not only with the "elitist" education system but the entire hongkong structure is "elitist", from taking a job at private company to working in the government. a vicious cycle of elitism, brand name college and private school. compared this to US, where according to one assessment, 60% of CEOs from major corporations, from Intel to Texas Instruments, Caterpillar to Exxon Mobile are from non elite schools. in hongkong, unless you graduate from elite school, you won't have a place in top govt or public corp....
Actually Elitism in education is in every country (rich and poor). US, UK, CDN, Aus are no different. You will see a direct correlation between parents income and their child's future income. You will also see that Children of wealthier families do better.
As Alice mentions above she took swimming lessons, piano and ballet. She shows that her family had the $$ to give her more opportunities than other children. This means they would have also put more resources towards ensuring she had better grades. Her parents would have also had the education to ensure she learns more quickly than other children in her class.
This all enabled her to get a prestigious job at UCLA and then have the audacious disregard for the poor by saying you did not need to be privileged when I was a child.
Alice has no clue how privileged she was. She also does not realized that this has always been what is going on.
Well Said Alice! It is the colonial culture to have elitism in education such that the 'poor' stays poor, and the 'rich' gets richer! Elitism education is also an industry so that the so called 'tutors' and businessman can make a lot of money. And as johnyuan said "For a colonial society, elite schools and education also facilitated as a means of ease in administered the colony. It allowed the masses to conjure up rewards which graduation from elite schools would bring so obey." It's so TRUE!
Elitism, particularly in education is hardwired in Hong Kong culture. Chinese culture historically education could be delivered without prejudice to any learner. Hong Kong had adopted the British culture where elitism in education is a norm. For a colonial society, elite schools and education also facilitated as a means of ease in administered the colony. It allowed the masses to conjure up rewards which graduation from elite schools would bring so obey. Yes, Hong Kong has intensify that social order with parents ‘hawkishly’ eyeing the best pre-schools for their would be elitist children to walk all their way to the end.
It is foolish for the rest of the society not to take notice of the current crop of elites and not question the value of elitism to the complex world we must live in. I don’t even want to argue if fairness is applied to all. I only want to ask if my well-being should be entrusted in their 'elitist' hands?
Education and property are two areas Hong Kong people most protective of. Yet education and property are the least well managed areas and liken cancers in Hong Kong. As a result, what a mess Hong Kong is in? Just do a count, how many here ignored with no response to the posts to AW’s call to eliminate elitism in education in Hong Kong. It must be the self-confident of Hong Kong people that they will prevail and rise above the mess. Or walk with their feet to some other place one day. How selfish?
Ms Wu, I believe I am elite compared with Democracy cultists and totally unabashed about it. Perhaps this is no different from the American students I mentioned, who think they are all above average.
There is a very thin line between being delusional and factual. Delusions are all about feeling good,and without facts and logic one can accomplish nothing.
It may or may not be wrong for tiger moms making their children take piano lessons. Here is the calculus.
Whether a child is a prodigy is really not the issue. The window to master an instrument and to sight read music well is very narrow. Playing the piano doesn't develop sight reading for many. The chance for a prodigy making it to a conservatory like Julliard or Curtiss may be realistic. But to become a concert artist like Lang Lang, Li Yuende and Wang Yuja almost always rides on a wing and a prayer.
For the same reason, we should start children in algebra and geometry at Form 2, although some of them will never learn these subjects while clutching tightly their Ivy League sheepskin much later.
The right question to ask is whether piano lessons instill lifelong joys in Beethoven and Brahms, which could substitute for destructive disputatious passions commonly found in superstitious folks and Democracy cultists.
The answer is likely yes if piano is taught in the general music context. Most certainly, we don't need another pianist butchering Liszt Transcendental Etude just by playing it faster and louder.
Here are some apparent cultural paradoxes for you. When polled, American students believe they are above AVERAGE in academics. However, Chinese students are quite diffident about their standing. American parents think too much discipline will take away children's self-esteem. Tiger moms will not hesitate to dress down their children and shame them into performing up to par with their neighbors.
Anecdotally, many of my Chinese friends have become world class professionals. Now go figure!
The issue isn't so much about elitism in education but more of education inflation in being able to obtain work and/or move up the career/job ladder.
Elitism in education is present in just about every country in the world. The concept of being able to attend school was very elitist in origin to begin with. How can a child from a family of peasants have time to learn (even to just learn to read and write) when he/she has to go to toil in the field?
Education inflation also isn't exclusive to HK. Four to five decades ago, one could get a job at a bank with nothing more than the equivalent of a secondary school education. That is just one example. There are many jobs that used to require little or no formal education that now require even some form of tertiary education; and some job positions and promotions that used to require a university bachelor's degree now require a master's degree.
pierce lam... you advocate the elimination of teaching english to our children? its pretty apparent you have neither children nor a successful career of any sort. english is mandatory for success in hong kong. its a fact that you can't wish away with your racism. one again, i am sorry your boyfriend left you for a better endowed white man, but please don't let our children suffer the same fate as you - irrelevant, bitter and useless. thanks.
another irrelevant fool... whymak, i told you once, and i will tell you again - shut the f-ck up you racist irrelevant f-ck.
Well said

To bluefirestorm,
the above will give you a perspective the relationship between school and job in US. Remember, AW is not talking about that. May be she will in another article in the future.
pls tell me what you have accomplished in your life? you are clearly pretty old - 55 or so? pls enlighten us on your achievements as a human being.
Well said, Alice!
Point missed. The issue is not about job and education in AW's article. The issue is education system that provides no level playing field for all.
Then what is the point of going through the education system other than for better job/career prospects?
Why do you think these tiger mums target for their kids to get to the best university? Why not stop at the best primary school or best secondary school?
I doubt if these tiger mums would be happy if their kids grow up to pursue a university degree that is deemed useless to getting a decent paying job (let's say a degree in music). Nor would they have the goal of a good university so that their child will one day find the cure for cancer.
It is the education inflation for the "best jobs" that fuel such planning by these tiger mums.
For those with less resources, the education inflation either stops them or makes it for more difficult to break out of their trap. If one doesn't have the time and money to pursue a university education, he/she may be stuck temporarily/permanently to a low paying job.
Pre-laid track from playschool to Ivy League isn’t SAR’s recent invention
I read a decade ago in FT MoneyPenny’s experience
of being asked to put in words for a friend’s child
who was applying neither to Barings nor Oxford
but to an elite PS
I agree
We must “stamp out elitism in Hong Kong education”
To discern the two pillars of HK’s education elitism:
【明報 09SEP】社區組織協會獲商界及政府資助,…
(1) Segregation:
Why the regress in HK’s education orientation?
Children of mainland China have long outgrown the naivety of the 80’s
when they tried to learn “English” from all sorts of travelers in airports
(2) Colonialism:
Why would HK children need English-speaking skills for self-confidence?
Alice, I sense a certain level of bitterness in being ranked lower than your SUPPOSEDLY biggest rival, Singapore.
Please get your adrenaline flowing, especially in the brain, for the proof is in the pudding.
Yes, I'm sure an uber confident, proud and hubristic society like HK does not need the WEF to tell you you are competitive.
That's why each time some other survey ranks HK highly, and higher than Singapore, you folks at the SCMP never fail to make a meal out of it.
Did you or someone else recently write an article to say that it's true that HK is now more liveable than 5 years ago - and well more liveable than the Lion City - just because some folks at the EIU told you so?


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