Achieving a broad-based perspective on life and its possibilities isn't always the outcome of all those years of school CELIA NG SZE-NGA, now a Form Six student at Concordia Lutheran School in North Point, faced a dilemma common with students her age when she was in Form Three, whether to study arts or sciences. She ended up in the arts stream because her marks in physics were not quite good enough, even though she excelled in chemistry and enjoyed that subject. 'I finally took arts, and spent half the year in Form Four wondering what it would be like studying chemistry. It was very frustrating,' she said. Next month, most students in local schools face this watershed; which path to follow in their Hong Kong Certificate of Secondary Education Examination (HKCEE) courses in Forms Four and Five. HKCEE candidates are required to take at least six subjects, with Chinese, English language and mathematics being compulsory. Most take between seven and nine. The norm in most local schools is for those in the arts stream to choose from Chinese history, history, geography, economics, Chinese or English literature, and accounts. Those in the sciences, meanwhile, get the options of chemistry, physics, biology, advanced maths and human biology. Moreover, unlike most western countries, few schools offer creative arts subjects such as music and drama as options. Education reforms launched in 2000 were supposed to lead to a more balanced education, equipping young people with strong, adaptable skills and not closing doors so early on future choices. Cheng Kai-ming, chair professor of education at the University of Hong Kong and, as a member of the Education Commission, a key proponent of balance, said it was 'irresponsible' to continue the practice of dividing students into arts and sciences at such a young age. 'We can't afford not to change. We can't keep students in narrow streams of sciences or humanities,' he said. Such ancient divisions no longer reflected the realities of society and specialisation should happen at university, not mid-way through secondary schooling. Cheng Shiu-yuen, associate dean of University of Science and Technology, also favours students having more rounded education, even for entry into a science university. 'There is no need for such early specialisation. Our maths department looks only at A-level or AS-level maths results. It does not matter what other subjects they study,' he said. 'It is good to have a mixed background. HKUST provides a general education in social sciences and humanities. But most science students haven't studied these since Form Three.' Ng Sui-kou, chairman of the Committee on Curriculum Development for Secondary Four to Seven, said early subject specialisation hindered students' development. 'Many students still have no idea about where their interests and talents lie in Form Three. It is unfair and unwise to force them to specialise at such an early stage,' said Mr Ng, also principal of SSY Ho Lap College. But his school continues the practice, because of the demands for specialisation at higher levels of education, he said. 'Science students tend to have little awareness of how technology may impact society, while arts students have technology phobia because of their lack of training in the sciences,' he said. 'Students should have knowledge in both science and humanities in order to be wise decision-makers.' The current structure of secondary schooling is tabled for reform in the next decade. When A-levels and HKCEEs are replaced by one set of exams a greater mix may be achieved. But Stephen Hui Chin-yim, of the Hong Kong Subsidised Secondary Schools Council and principal of the Church of Christ in China Ming Kei College, said this practice of early subject specialisation was unlikely to change. 'There are more than 300 aided secondary schools in Hong Kong, nearly all of which have been following that practice for more than 10 years,' he said. 'If we are to allow more flexibility and variety in subjects, there would need to be a radical change in our management of resources. 'Some less popular traditional subjects, like history, would have to be cancelled, while some subjects may need extra teaching staff once they are open to all students. We would also have to research on new text-books and teaching materials. All of this means extra money and time, which secondary schools are short of.' Good Hope School, in Clearwater Bay, maintains the traditional streams but allows science students to pick some arts subjects, and vice versa. All students also continue to learn music, though not for examination. 'What we are doing is already quite different from most schools,' said Dominic Lee, assistant principal. 'More schools could do this if they changed their way of thinking.' Ho Hon-kuen, vice-principal of Elegantia College, an aided school, said it was the university admission system that drove the early specialisation. 'Many university faculties require students to have studied two arts or science A-level subjects, such as the medical and engineering faculties in most of the local universities,' he said. His school plans to make Chinese history compulsory for both arts and science students. 'We think all should study this, not only because it trains them in critical and analytical thinking, but because it is essential for them to learn about their own country.' HKU's Professor Cheng said that although today's universities favoured students with multiple skills across subject boundaries, admission systems worked against this. 'Universities want multi-talented students but I am not sure their teachers can tolerate a thinner dose of science knowledge.'