Why more Hong Kong parents are shunning local schools

Regina Ip says officials must take a hard look at the local secondary school curriculum, which, by seeking to cater to the masses, is dashing middle-class hopesfor quality education

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 16 February, 2014, 3:55am
UPDATED : Sunday, 16 February, 2014, 3:55am

International schools, the single most glaring omission from the otherwise comprehensive chapter on education in the chief executive's policy address, continue to spark concern in Hong Kong's middle-class and expatriate communities.

Two cases in particular are arousing anxiety. The Montessori primary school in Tin Hau, a popular primary school offering an international curriculum with a strong dual-language (English and Putonghua) focus, is facing eviction from its campus when its lease runs out in July. Neither the landlord nor the government has been able to give an assurance about lease renewal.

Separately, the government is seeking to convert the abandoned Ap Lei Chau St Peter's Catholic Primary School into an international primary school. The plan was well-intentioned, to make good use of the vacant premises of an axed school. But the shortage of space to accommodate school buses and the resultant traffic hazards and congestion in the crowded neighbourhood is giving rise to local protest, which threatens to stall the project.

The secretary for education has confirmed that there will be a shortage of over 4,200 primary international school places by 2016. The government is planning to convert unused school premises to international schools and expedite other in-situ expansion projects to provide much-needed places.

Although overall statistics show that international school places are not fully taken up, closer analysis shows there is a severe shortage of places in international schools which offer strong English language and Putonghua education, and in the primary and special education sectors.

Of particular concern is that strong demand for international school places from local parents might be crowding out children of expatriate employees. Government statistics show the proportion of local students in primary international schools rose from 11.6 per cent in 2001-02 to 25.6 per cent in 2011-12; the proportion of local students in secondary international schools rose from 10.7 per cent to 22.8 per cent in the same period.

In information submitted to the legislature, the Education Bureau admitted that international schools are attractive to local parents because of the more interactive and flexible teaching methods, and the higher standard of English instruction.

The demand from locals for international school places, coupled with the continuous drive by parents of students attending prestigious local establishments to turn their schools into direct subsidy schools with freedom to design their curriculum, brings to the fore local parents' dissatisfaction with the local system.

Although it is probably premature to pass final judgment on the merits or otherwise of the new senior secondary education system implemented in 2009, the following statistics paint a troubling picture of "market" reaction to the new curriculum.

According to statistics published recently by the Hong Kong Examinations and Assessment Authority, about 66,000 students will be taking this year's Diploma of Secondary Education examinations, roughly 7,000 fewer than the number who enrolled in the new Form Four two years ago. These 7,000 students may have gone overseas, switched to international schools or vocational training institutions, or dropped out altogether.

While this situation may not be substantially different from the pre-2009 situation, when a fair number of senior secondary school students likewise went overseas or switched to vocational training, it is noteworthy that, post-enrolment, a high proportion of students ditched the "harder" or "less practical" subjects in which they are unlikely to attain high grades or which may not help their admission to university.

Some 30 per cent to 45 per cent of students ditched subjects like English literature, music, integrated science, design and applied technology, ethics and religious studies, technology and living, Chinese history, and extended mathematics.

With the majority focusing on the four core subjects and two electives, which would help them attain high scores for college admission, 10 per cent or fewer take traditional subjects such as history, literature and extended mathematics that are central to a true, liberal education in basic humanities and sciences.

As for the "applied learning" subjects introduced presumably to accommodate those with weaker academic ability, many have such low enrolment that their merits are plainly questionable. For example, only 26 students took exams in marketing in global trade; 24 in electronic product design in action; 18 in infotainment production and 13 in environmental engineering.

The problem with a botched education curriculum is that the damage is often irreversible, without the students making great efforts later on to catch up on lost learning opportunities.

In an effort to reshape the senior secondary school curriculum to accommodate the masses, the authorities are letting down the middle class who seek a quality education to provide a brighter future for their children. Can the government or egalitarian-minded legislators blame the middle class for scrambling for international school and direct subsidy places?

Regina Ip Lau Suk-yee is a legislator and chair of the New People's Party