Pressure points

Are schools becoming the vibrant learning centres they're meant to be? Linda Yeung takes a look at what a decade of changes has yielded

PUBLISHED : Monday, 23 September, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 23 September, 2013, 10:05am

Throughout Jojo's last two years at an elite primary girls' school, her mother would devote the entire month before any major exam to helping her study every evening, even devising quizzes for her to do. This was done to ensure Jojo could advance to the secondary section of the school, says her mother, who would only give her name as Yiu.

Jojo is now in Form Two. But making the cut in Hong Kong's intensively competitive education system has come at a price. Although she loved badminton and was a committed player, Jojo was not allowed to continue in the school club after one year. In her primary school, only pupils who excelled academically, or outstanding athletes, were chosen to join school clubs.

I realised that there was no happy learning when I was in Secondary Four
Phoebe Choi, student

This tough reality runs contrary to the spirit behind wide-ranging education reforms that have been rolled out over the past decade to encourage happy and independent learning.

The plans were outlined in Learning for Life, Learning through Life, an Education Commission paper released in 2000. The panel, led by then Financial Secretary Antony Leung Kam-chung, envisioned a series of changes for young people's all-round development to meet the needs of the 21st century.

Under this blueprint, students would be "capable of lifelong learning, critical and exploratory thinking, innovating and adapting to change", have the confidence to work independently as well as with a team. A key priority was to enable young people to enjoy learning, developing their creativity and sense of commitment.

Reforms introduced in stages since that report included replacing tests in primary and secondary years previously used to screen for admission to higher studies, diversifying the curriculum and introducing more activity-based learning. Academic qualifications required of teachers were also raised amid initiatives to beef up teaching methods and improve assessment of students. Schools were grouped into three bands instead of five.

The final stages of restructuring are now in place with the first batch of teenagers to sit for the new Hong Kong Diploma of Secondary Education entering university last year. Yet students today do not seem much better off. Many are consumed by anxiety and weighed down by school work. On weekdays, they rush to tutorial centres after school, and weekends are spent practising musical instruments and other skills to boost their "competitiveness". It is questionable whether this constitutes "whole person development" - the prime goal of the education reform.

Government efforts to lift the quality of education has not impressed parents, with a growing number of families opting to enrol their children in private institutions instead, aggravating long waiting lists at schools in the international sector and the English Schools Foundation.

Ip Kin-yuen, the legislator for the education constituency, describes the effects of the restructuring as disappointing. "Life has not been made easier for students. The morale of the teaching profession needs to be raised. It is time to revisit the reform measures," he say.

Ip faults former permanent secretary for education Fanny Law Fan Chiu-fun for driving through changes in the early 2000s without addressing teacher concerns.

"Concepts came first in the reforms; there was neither research on demographics, for example, nor detailed plans for their implementation," Ip says. "It ended up being a bureaucrat-led project."

Law, now an executive councillor, has declined to comment on the effectiveness of reforms, saying she has lost touch with developments.

In the early years of reform, teachers were kept busy trying to study for higher qualifications in between their day jobs. Many were also stressed from having to file reports and deal with measures such as external reviews intended to make schools more accountable. A rise in teacher suicides in 2005 sounded alarm bells.

"Pressure was at a peak back then, as school-based assessment was introduced for a number of subjects," says Wong Kar-leung, a 22-year teaching veteran. "Curriculums also kept changing. We had to spend so much time preparing for lessons."

Although anxieties have eased, the move to school-based assessments for junior and secondary subjects has continued to add to the teachers' workloads.

A survey by the Hong Kong Institute of Education in 2010 showed that 80 per cent of teachers were exhausted from work; 25 per cent said they gained little satisfaction from their work, and of those, half considered quitting.

Teachers have blamed the Education Bureau for underestimating the number of teaching hours required to cover senior secondary syllabus, with many schools running extra lessons at weekends or after school in the run-up to the HKDSE exam. "The senior secondary syllabus is too broad and difficult for many students," says Wong.

Still, the effort to take learning beyond classroom settings gives a fillip to educators like Cheung Sze-wing. The visual arts teacher enjoys taking her primary pupils on outings to museums, galleries or traditional shops even if it sometimes cuts into her weekends. "It was a new subject when I joined the school," she says. "Unlike before when students learned only about making art and craft, I teach my students art appreciation as well. We try to combine learning and life."

For many students, study pressures did not ease after the academic aptitude test, used to screen Primary Six students for secondary school admissions, was abolished in 2000.

The Territory-wide System Assessment was introduced in its place in 2004 to gauge students' progress from Primary Three to Primary Six. But incessant drilling continued as schools sought to lift youngsters' tests scores. With student numbers in steady decline, schools see high-achieving results as a way to attract more enrolments; one principal noting that extra lessons were held to help students prepare for the tests.

The pressure to excel is compounded by parents anxious to get their children into top-performing schools. Under the secondary allocation system, each government primary school is allowed to send a set number of Primary Six pupils to a Band 1 school - schools with students with the best results in Pre-Secondary One Hong Kong Attainment Tests, which cover Chinese, English and mathematics.

"The endless homework, drilling and extra-curricular activities in public schools mean there will be no personal time left for my child," says one mother who plans to send her five-year-old to a private school for a more relaxed learning environment.

Secondary school students' frustration with heavy school work is evident from comments on their Facebook pages.

"Going to school is painful, it is all work, tests and examinations," writes Phoebe Choi, a Form Five student. She is particularly daunted by independent enquiry study (IES) - a school-based project that forms part of her Liberal Studies programme in the senior secondary curriculum.

The Diploma of Secondary Education, launched last year to replace the Hong Kong Certificate of Education and A-Level exams, has hardly eased the pressure on students vying for the same, limited number of first-year places offered at local universities.

Phoebe, for example, has dropped all extra-curricular activities except ballet to concentrate on her schoolwork; there's no foregoing tutorial classes, of course.

"I can imagine a much tougher workload ahead," she says, as she completes an accounting assignment late in the evening. "Older schoolmates told us it was non-stop work for them trying to finish the IES in their final year. I realised that there was no happy learning when I was in Secondary Four."

To be sure, Hong Kong students outperform those from many other parts of the world. In the 2009 Programme for International Student Assessment, Hong Kong ranked alongside Australia, Finland, Japan and New Zealand with between 8 per cent and 10 per cent of 15-year-olds who are all-rounders - defined as achieving the highest levels of proficiency in reading, mathematics and science.

But serious doubts remain as to how much of a holistic education students are getting. Ip urges the government to increase resources for education. "Schools need to accommodate student differences. Their capacities need to be enhanced," Ip says.

Cheng Kai-ming, chair professor of education at the University of Hong Kong, who helped draft the reforms, has a mixed assessment of what the reforms have achieved."We have been successful in overcoming traditional concepts to implement curricular changes. But we have not done well in assessment.In assessment, you must consider learners' views as well," he says .

But the school allocation system has become a mess. "The disparity among schools needs to change; why is that the worst schools which are also publicly funded can continue to exist? Why should the public get such kind of education? The government is responsible."