Insight: Boys losing the language game
The results of the Diploma of Secondary Education, released in July, looked like good news for young people. About 35 per cent attained the magic Level 3 or above in both Chinese and English-language tests, and at least Level 2 in maths and liberal studies - the minimum needed to qualify for a place.
But what we need to watch out for is the disparity between male and female achievement in the exam. Last year, the difference was alarmingly marked, with 45 per cent of girls receiving 3, 3, 2, 2 in those core subjects, compared to 30 per cent of boys, according to the Examinations and Assessment Authority's report published earlier this year.
Seventy-eight per cent of girls achieved Level 2 in five subjects - needed for entry to sub-degree programmes - compared with 69 per cent of boys.
The gender gap in the first sitting of the HKDSE was much wider than in the A-levels sat by Form Seven students last year, in which 60 per cent of the female candidates met the requirements for university places, just 3 per cent more than the boys.
Of course, more boys had been screened out at the Certificate of Secondary Education Examination level, with girls accounting for 53 per cent of the A-level candidates. In total, around 18,300 A-level students qualified for degree courses - much fewer than under the new system.
The exam report gives clues on where the issues lie for boys.
Compulsory maths was not a problem: 80 per cent of male candidates met Level 2, just ahead of females at 79 per cent. More males (15 per cent) than females (9 per cent) achieved Level 5 and above in the subject.
The two groups' scores were close in liberal studies, chemistry and physics, although more boys achieved Level 5 and above in the latter two subjects.
But the breaker for the boys was the two compulsory languages: 43 per cent of boys gained Level 3 in English Language, compared to 57 per cent of girls.
The gap was even wider for Chinese: 41 per cent for boys and 59 per cent for girls.
The New Academic Structure is fairer than the old system in giving places to all students to complete senior secondary education.
But as it is accepted globally that girls tend to do better than boys in languages and subjects that require strong communication skills, the Level 3 language requirement for university entry appears to be tougher on the boys in Hong Kong's system.
I worry about the boys who could be bright young scientists but slip up on their Chinese or English and are forced into paths that don't match their abilities.
The reasons for the gender gap in exam performance are complex and may in part be traced back to admissions to secondary school. Girls' lead in languages in upper primary means that many more have been finding their way to English-medium and so-called Band One schools since the Equal Opportunities Commission challenge and High Court ruling in 2001 barred separate allocation exercises for the two sexes.
While women's success should be celebrated, it will not be good for society if men are denied opportunities for places in both undergraduate and sub-degree courses on account of their language ability.
Depending on the course they are studying, a minimum Level 3 in Chinese or English may be fairer.
It may also be time to explore the consequences of the 2001 ruling, and what needs to be done to make sure the local system is not harder on boys than alternative systems in international schools or overseas schools, where gender gaps in crucial exams may be much less marked.
Katherine Forestier is the director of the consultancy Education Link