Should five-year-olds in Hong Kong really be getting homework?

Melissa Stevens says education is important but, with alarming numbers of students considering self-harm, we should be wary of putting too much pressure on young children

PUBLISHED : Friday, 01 July, 2016, 12:19pm
UPDATED : Friday, 01 July, 2016, 8:07pm

The year my daughter turned five, I expected the milestones we would mark would be learning to ride a bicycle, being able to swim with confidence and settling into “big” school as she started Year 1. What I did not expect was having to decide what my policy would be on how much homework she should do. The excellent staff at her school identified early on in the school year that her foundations in reading and mathematics were not as solid as those of her peers.

Having moved from overseas, it was rather surprising to find my chatty and curious child could, at the age of five, already be considered to be lagging behind academically. It was made very clear by her school that there was no suggestion or expectation that she should undertake any kind of tutoring to catch up. But we were left weighing up whether or not we should hothouse her to ensure she stayed on a level playing field with her year group.

Our reaction to that has been one of reluctance, with the very real possibility that intensive tutoring at such a young age would actually be a hindrance, not a help, when it came to my daughter’s enjoyment of learning.

More than 30 students have taken their own lives since the school year started in September

This family discussion came against the backdrop of growing disquiet about the mental health of students in Hong Kong. More than 30 students have taken their own lives since the school year started in September, while the age group of 10 to 19 recorded a 21 per cent rise last year from 2014.

Just this week, statistics from the Samaritan Befrienders, a group focusing on suicide prevention, showed that the number of people seeking help from their service had soared in recent months, in the wake of reports of student suicides.

Hong Kong groups issue pamphlet to help friends and family spot suicide risks

It would be simplistic to suggest that the pressure to perform academically is the only reason for suicide among young people, but there is no doubt that academic excellence is encouraged from a very young age. This attitude was nowhere more evident than in the comment from “Tuen Mun Irene”, who told a TVB programme last week that parents should start planning for their child’s education “from the moment of ejaculation” by aiming for a January baby. By doing so, she argued, you ensured your child was among the oldest of their school year group and had a developmental advantage.

While I want my child to have every opportunity, I also want her to have a real enjoyment of school

While I want my child to have every possible opportunity, I also want her to have a real enjoyment of school and learning and not associate it with relentless drilling and rote learning.

With report after report showing that alarming numbers of Hong Kong students have considered self-harm and exhibit symptoms of depression, I know as a parent I will have to be vigilant about this.

Given there is considerable research which suggests that delaying the start of school until the age of seven provides mental health benefits for a child, it does give pause for thought whether the structure of the city’s education is a case of “too much, too soon” for children entering Year 1 at the age of four.

Children at this age should not be expected to do homework. And I know each generation laments that their childhood was simpler, but it concerns me how complex young children’s lives now are. To be adding the weight of expectation of academic performance into that mix before they hit double-digit ages really just seems far too much.

As Year 1 has drawn to a close, after much reflection, we have opted to keep the extracurricular coaching to a minimum but I am well aware that, for my daughter to stay competitive in Hong Kong, these days may be numbered.

Melissa Stevens is the Post’s features editor (Hong Kong)