If the first day of school heralds new beginnings, it was a bleak start yesterday at Baptist Lui Ming Choi Primary School, where alumni staged a protest and parents talked of sending their children overseas to avoid national education classes.
The Sha Tin school is one of six across the city that will launch the subject, which has stirred controversy over its perceived potential for brainwashing young minds with patriotism.
Parents said they might send their children for overseas studies or ask them to skip the lessons, while pupils expressed worries about being brainwashed.
Flight attendant Peggy Chan Yuen-yee said she had been unaware the school was a launchpad for national education. The school said it posted a notice on its website last week about it.
"I'm thinking of sending my son to Britain to study, depending on how the issue develops," said Chan, whose son is in Primary Five. "I don't want my son to grow up … learning about the Communist Party, learning to … strive for the country."
The government has laid out a three-year "introductory period" for national education, after which it will become compulsory in primary schools from 2015 and secondary schools from 2016.
About 30 alumni from the school protested outside yesterday. They said they had collected more than 800 signatures.
They said teachers told them they were all asked to sign a confidentiality agreement on Thursday barring them from releasing teaching materials to outsiders.
Neurologist Joshua Fok Wai-ming said he had asked his Primary Three daughter if she would like to skip the classes. "I asked her if she would mind doing self-study at the library during the lessons," Fok said. "She refused. I understand there is peer pressure. I will let her choose."
A committee member of the school's parent teacher association, who declined to give his name, tried to reassure parents. "The school will mainly be teaching factual things on national education, and discussion issues will be in the moral education part." He said the school would hold a parents' meeting soon.
On the other side of the city, in Ap Lei Chau, more than half the 19 teachers, including the headmistress, at Aplichau Kaifong Primary School wore black to express their objection.
"Since there is still uncertainty about the curriculum, the government should retract the subject instead of starting a trial," headmistress Fung Pik-yee said.
Fung said her school would support a boycott of classes if the government stood firm on the launch, but maintained students' interests were its top priority.
One parent, meanwhile, said she was fine with national education. "The problem isn't that serious," said Carmen Li, whose daughter is in Primary One. "I'm a new immigrant; we used to be taught this way, too."
At Fresh Fish Traders' School in Tai Kok Tsui, the deputy head said it was ready for the introduction. "If we have prepared well and know what is suitable for the pupils, why should we delay the launch?" said Sze Chi-king.
The school will begin teaching the subject next month at the earliest, with bi-weekly 70 minute lessons. "Sensitive issues such as the June 4 crackdown in 1989 and the death of dissident Li Wangyang will not be skipped if classes need to relate to such topics," he said.