Parents and students must stop seeing a university place as the only route to success if reforms to the city's education system are to succeed, a key architect of the new Diploma of Secondary Education said as he prepares to leave Hong Kong.
In an interview with the South China Morning Post, George Pook said the diploma - one of the cornerstones of a wholesale reform of the curriculum aimed at breaking the spoon-feeding learning culture that has long characterised education in the city - is expected to refine people's views of examinations and education. But change cannot happen overnight, said Pook, the outgoing director of public examinations at the Examination and Assessment Authority.
The diploma and the wider reforms, including a move to offer all pupils six years of secondary classes, would work only with the co-operation of all stakeholders in the education system, including the government, parents, students and schools.
"People need realistic expectations of what students can achieve. There are some parents who have very high ambitions [without] keeping in touch with students' genuine capabilities," said the Briton, who joined the authority in 2009. This year's secondary school graduates were the first to sit the diploma, but while 20,000 of the 72,000 candidates met the minimum standard for subsidised university places, just 14,800 were given a full university offer.
Pook said the new exams were never designed to allow everyone to enter university, but rather to give students with a range of abilities a basis to plan their future.
He said extending the number of university places may not be the way forward, pointing to the example of the UK, where bold reforms had created more university places but many students had graduated with "more debt than career prospects".
The reforms have brought an end to the Hong Kong Certificate of Education, which used to be taken by all students at the end of their fifth year of secondary school, and the A-levels, the traditional gateway to university for which a minority of pupils would stay on at school for two years.
The A-levels took place for the last time this year alongside the diploma exams in a unique transition period. University courses have also been extended, with diploma graduates studying for three years instead of four.
"It will take some time before people will fully appreciate them [the benefits] … at least several years," Pook said. "Hong Kong students have a strong tradition of being guided and led by teachers. However, the diploma was designed to encourage students to think for themselves."
With the first batch of diploma candidates due to begin university in a month, officials have started to review the exam. For example, a requirement for school-based assessments - brought about to alleviate exam pressure for students, but now seen as increasing their workload - would be made more lenient.
Also, the length of some examinations could be modified.
Liberal studies, a compulsory subject introduced as part of the diploma, has been criticised as too broad and vague. Some students said after taking the exam that they did not have time to finish all questions.
But Pook stressed that there would be no big changes for next year, as consultation would be required.