APART FROM THE sound of your footsteps echoing along the freshly painted corridors, the premises are as hushed as a disused school gymnasium. But from these Spartan beginnings a team of education reformers is hoping to transform the landscape of schooling in Hong Kong. So far, just 50 six to ten-year-olds will start school at the ISF Academy in Queen's Road East, Wan Chai, this September. It is opening in tough times, with the 50 students enrolled being half the number anticipated. Principal Dr Felicia Tsang Sau-fun admits the economic recession has had an impact, but insists she is not concerned. 'We'd like a few more students but more than 100 would be a problem,' she says. And although its initial student quota is small, the school, housed in a renovated local primary school that once served as a training centre for the Hong Kong Institute of Education, has big ambitions. If it lives up to its ideals, it will become one of Hong Kong's most progressive, and exclusive, primary-cum-secondary schools catering for 1,800 students. The ISF is the dream of a group of academics and entrepreneurs keen to blow the cobwebs off the existing education system by creating a school that incorporates innovative teaching practice and philosophy. They want to practice what they've been preaching to the community about reform. 'The people behind the school are really looking for alternative solutions to the local Hong Kong school system,' Tsang says. Board members of the Independent Schools Foundation, which operates the school, include Professor Charles Kao Kuen , former vice-chancellor of the Chinese University, and Professor Cheng Kai-ming, pro vice-chancellor of the University of Hong Kong, chair professor of its Faculty of Education and a leading figure in the Education Commission's current reform drive. Tsang says the group maintains a quasi-reforming agenda for the new school. 'Our aim is to make a model that works, one that could be reproduced by others. We don't claim to have the one solution to every problem, but we think we're moving in the right direction,' she says. Tsang adds that she plans to draw on best practices from North America and Northern Europe, including the International Baccalaureate, which will eventually be taught at senior secondary level. The local elite has long turned to the international schools sector for more exclusive education. While ISF Academy will be striving to match the standards of the best international schools, its aim is to be more distinctly Chinese. Putonghua is to be the medium of instruction at primary level. While English will take over at secondary, the aim is to have far more Chinese content than its international rivals. 'We want our students to reach a high level of fluency and literacy at a young age in both languages,' says Tsang. With $95,000 a year fees plus either a $100,000 debenture or a $10,000 annual capital levy, this 'model' is directed at the upper-end of the education market. The school is among the first high-profile through-train private independent schools (PIS) to open, a product of the government's policy to diversify the range of schools in Hong Kong. Under the PIS rules, the school's student body can comprise 30 per cent non-local children. Tsang stresses that it will not be an international school. All the children starting this September are Chinese. The ISF was given a plot of land and a grant, worth $150 million, towards capital construction. The school's final home, a $250 million campus due to be completed in 2006, will be near the Cyberport. Until then, classes will take place in Wan Chai. The extra $100 million for the permanent premises is being raised from the private sector. Most ideas to be used at the academy have been tried elsewhere, Tsang says. Lessons will be 'hands-on' and computers will be introduced at an early age. However, no school in Hong Kong has tried to be as adventurous with timetabling, student clustering, curriculum design and classroom layout, she claims. Student clustering involves grouping students according to academic ability, rather than age, for some subjects and periods of the day. The top Primary One students might study maths with Primary Twos, and vice versa for less adept Primary Twos. 'We're trying to get away from block Primary One to Six groupings,' says Tsang. 'We want to place students in appropriate groups so their weaknesses can be addressed.' The advantage is that students gain confidence by progressing at a pace that suits them best, she says. 'We want to move away from the pass fail culture, and eventually have students taking tests and getting 100 per cent correct.' In the afternoons, students will do group work on projects covering art, science, humanities, music, movement, dance and Wushu. Each small study group will contain someone who is creative, someone who is good at organisation, another who is good at making things, and a leader-figure. 'The aim is to try to develop the individual potential of each child and give students the chance to collaborate on projects from an early age,' says Tsang. Another 'alternative' is the five theme-based terms: Connections and Changes, Time, Celebration, Invention and Exploration. 'The rationale is to give students greater flexibility moving from one group placement to another and greater diversity in their project work.' Assessment will be continuous, based on project work and individual consultations every fortnight. Classrooms have sliding walls allowing teachers and students to create one large room for 100 students or five smaller classrooms for 20 or less. The magnetic wall panels double as whiteboards. Tsang's confidence is based on her faith in her staff. 'We've hired quality teachers who are bilingual in Chinese and English except for the two native English teachers.' Not all have teacher-training qualifications, but all are graduates, several with a master's degree, in their subject area, plus classroom experience. 'On the job training is probably more important than a piece of paper saying you have studied to be a teacher,' she says. 'Most of all, we want teachers with a passion for teaching.' The ISF is an experiment, which, like all experiments could go wrong. 'We can only ask people to trust us that our concept is research-based and has been proven to work very well, only not ever yet in Hong Kong,' says Tsang.