Troubled England has much to learn from HK's curriculum reforms

PUBLISHED : Monday, 15 April, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 15 April, 2013, 9:31am

There seems to be two ways of reforming the education system. The first is to listen to the views of those who have an interest in what goes on in schools: parents, students, employers and, of course, education professionals.

The second is for governments to draw ideological battle lines and force changes based on one highly politicised view of what education should be, while condemning all that came before it and those who disagree.

Hong Kong has won praise from education gurus worldwide, and organisations such as the OECD, for having adopted the first approach.

This requires answering basic questions about the aims of education, which must be relevant to the times, and how schools should respond once those goals are agreed upon.

After that, the steady process of planning and implementation can begin. This has been happening in Hong Kong since the Education Commission completed its review of the system 13 years ago.

Change is not easy. Professional and personal differences will inevitably arise, and there will be twists and turns in the reform journey as obstacles become apparent. But by listening to different views, they can be resolved.

As Hong Kong progresses through a second decade of carefully phased, system-wide reforms, we look on incredulously at the war now raging in England.

In the past few weeks, England's teachers' unions have given votes of no confidence to the secretary of state for education, Michael Gove, and workers' strikes loom on the horizon. In a letter to a newspaper, 100 top academics warned that Gove might be making a big mistake in his proposed national curriculum.

Gove's response, published in the populist Daily Mail, was to dismiss the academics as part of "The Blob" of Marxist "enemies of promise" and as "guilty men and women who have deprived a generation of the knowledge they need". Gove also cited actions to marginalise the academe: teacher training is being delinked from universities, and schools have been given independent-academy status "so they are free from the influence of The Blob's allies in local government".

The crime of the 100 was to suggest that the new curriculum would result in rote learning and unmotivated students. The best education systems, they wrote, emphasised cognitive development, critical thinking and creativity.

The reforms in both places are radical, except they are heading in opposite directions.

In Hong Kong, the aim has been to reduce rote learning and inspire children to think creatively and independently, and to learn how to learn - for example through reading and out-of-classroom activities.

Indeed, the city finds itself on the other side of this ideological divide. It has many allies among the 100 academics, who have links to our universities, taught many of our best educators and have advised us on education reforms over the years.

One such adviser is Professor John Elliott, of the University of East Anglia, who sees Hong Kong - not England - as a leading example of curriculum reform.

While views vary about the level of trust and respect among Hong Kong's policymakers, academics and teachers, two things are clear: these groups work more closely together than in England and this is a healthier approach to education reform.

England could have much to learn from the Hong Kong's reform experience, not just in what it is doing, but how.

Katherine Forestier is director of the consultancy Education Link.