Mainstream Hong Kong schools failing special-needs pupils
Having just returned from holiday abroad with his parents, 12-year-old Ah Ching is really looking forward to returning to school.
He enjoys a close relationship with his teachers in a small class environment, plays pranks on fellow classmates at times and, what's more, there is limited homework at the Aoi Pui School, converted from a vacated primary school in Hung Hom, which caters for moderate-to-high-functioning autistic children.
The relaxed school life gives him ample time to enjoy his favourite activity of reading English books.
Ah Ching switched to the school two years ago, after a gruelling time at a mainstream school. An excessive amount of homework and lack of understanding and support from teachers seriously sapped his motivation to learn.
"We battled with the homework every night," says his mother Josephine Cheung. "Unable to catch up with it all, he yelled out loud one night. He asked me, 'What is the reason for my existence?'"
More than a decade after the government implemented the integrated education policy, opening up mainstream schools to students with special educational needs through special funding, many parents of these children remain deeply frustrated with the lack of real choices in the mainstream sector.
Cheung turned to Aoi Pui, at the cost of an annual tuition fee of HK$240,000, to give her son a rewarding, happy school life. She had got offers from international schools but turned them down after learning that they could not provide tailor-made support for her son, who has an average IQ.
"His problem is he does not know how to communicate with others and is weak in following instructions," she says.
Each of the 40 students aged five to 18 at Aoi Pui is given an individualised education plan that identifies learning objectives in language, social skills, general knowledge and maths, among others. The plan is updated every four months, with regular meetings with parents to discuss the children's progress. The school offers full fee remission to families who have passed a means test.
At the mainstream school Ah Ching had attended, his behaviour was met with disapproval.
"During an assembly, he suddenly got up to put some used tissue paper in a rubbish bin, but the teachers took him to task and questioned why he did that," recalls his mother.
"Some teachers penalise students who can't sit still and this hurts their self-esteem. In other schools, the teaching assistants are not necessarily trained and know little about their students' condition."
Despite increased resources from the government, special educational needs students are apparently lagging behind. At present, there are more than 31,000 such students enrolled in mainstream primary and secondary schools, which receive funds, curriculum support and in-service teaching training from the Education Bureau.
The eight types of special educational needs covered are specific learning difficulties, attention deficit and hyperactivity disorder, autistic spectrum disorder, speech and language impairment, hearing/visual impairment, physical disability and intellectual disability.
Under a three-tier funding model, the bureau provides a learning support grant and backs measures such as small group learning and pull-out programmes. But only those with the most severe learning difficulties are entitled to a tailor-made plan devised by their school.
Between the 2008-09 and 2013-14 school years expenditure in school support rose 26 per cent to HK$1.08 billion, while the same period saw a massive 92 per cent rise in the number of students assessed with special educational needs.
Legislator Fernando Cheung Chiu-hung, who is also chairman of the subcommittee on integrated education under the Legislative Council, plans to initiate legislative proposals in autumn requiring schools to devise individualised education plans for all special educational needs students and putting in place provisions adopted by countries such as the US and Britain.
His subcommittee's report released late last year found that only about 10 per cent of the teachers in mainstream schools are trained in handling these students.
He dismissed the bureau's claim that a whole-school approach is being adopted for integrated education as a "joke".
"There is no designated individual responsible for addressing the needs of the special students now. The so-called designated co-ordinator, known as Senco, is just an additional title for a senior teacher or vice-principal," says Cheung, whose daughter is severely mentally disabled.
Most special educational needs children under the age of eight are not assessed or given support as there is only one educational psychologist for every seven or eight schools, he says.
He is sceptical about the government's commitment to integrated education, saying: "It looks at Hong Kong as an economic city and education as a tool for selecting people who can contribute to the economy. People's ability to make money is given top priority."
"Our exam system is intended for the selection of elites, while special educational needs students are being marginalised, treated as outcasts in schools. An uneven number of them are concentrated in band-three schools, those populated with students with inferior academic performance. Elite schools are not prepared to accept them."
It is mostly schools with a large number of special educational needs students that have someone responsible for addressing the needs of the special group, says Kenneth Sin Kuen-fung, director of the Hong Kong Institute of Education's Centre for Special Education Needs and Inclusive Education.
He stresses the importance of having in each school a designated person responsible for the learning and progress of these students.
He adds it is crucial for children with apparent learning problems to undergo assessment and receive intervention at an early stage.