WHILE HIS CLASSMATES were in school, 12-year-old Fong Shiu-lap used to play truant, wandering the streets with his friends. 'I simply didn't want to go,' he said. Upset because his parents had divorced, and forced to move with his mother from relative to relative, he said he had no sense of belonging. Now at the Hong Kong Sea School (HKSS) in Stanley, the 15-year-old Form Three student no longer skips lessons, a change that resulted from him being moved from his original mainstream school to HKSS to repeat Form One. Shiu-lap said that apart from providing him with a settled home life and friends, the school gave him a new desire to learn. Shiu-lap is one of the 221 HKSS students boarding at the school, where he is a house team leader and has fallen into step with the school's service-style traditions. He wears a uniform, takes part in drills and ceremonial parades and participates in other activities, including lion dancing, sailing and playing the drums in the marching band. His lion dance team won the Hong Kong Open Lion Dance Competition in April and is set to represent Hong Kong at an international contest in Malaysia next month. The all-boys HKSS aims to produce students who are 'reasonably educated, physically fit, mentally alert and of good character with aptitude for further study or employment in industries including maritime, accommodation, catering and discipline services', principal Douglas Tsui Yui-kwong explained. To do this, he said, it provided a varied curriculum. Apart from the basics; Chinese, English, Putonghua, mathematics and information technology, other subjects included maritime studies, hospitality, art and general education, with additional activities ranging from land and sea sports to lion dancing, gardening and photography. 'Experiential learning' involved students working in the community, enjoying placements with companies and sometimes going on foreign trips. Established in 1946, HKSS initially provided education for underprivileged children and orphans and helped supply labour for Hong Kong's maritime industry between the 1950s and 1980s. It turned into a practical school in 1993 - vocational training schools up to Form Three for low academic achievers - but with these being phased out, it became a mainstream secondary in 2001. Mr Tsui, 57, a former chief superintendent of the Hong Kong Police Force, became principal after retiring from the force. 'I took early retirement in 1997 and did management consultation projects for different organisations. HKSS was my last project and I was invited to be principal,' he said. Mr Tsui, who has a bachelor's degree in government and public administration from Chinese University of Hong Kong and an MPhil in criminology from Cambridge University, was a founder and the deputy commandant of the Police Cadet School and later served as deputy commandant of the Police Training School. He graduated from the Grantham College of Education before joining the Royal Hong Kong Police Force. He said the uniform students wore played a different role to those of other schools. It was more in line with those worn by the disciplined services. 'Our uniform was designed with reference to the code of uniform used by various discipline services including police and fire services,' he said. Staff were required to wear it too. 'The uniforms represent different levels of authority. To quote an old adage from the disciplined services; people salute the uniform, not the individual. The respect for the uniform is a respect for legitimate authority. It is a practical method of instilling respect for authority and discipline in our students.' Mr Tsui said mainstreaming as a secondary did not mean the school was going to change its character. 'We are running a secondary school but with special characteristics by retaining the skill-based curriculum. Examination success is not everything. We provide education for students who find the current examination system not best suited to them. We provide another path for them to achieve success,' he said. Form Five students can take the Hong Kong Certificate of Education Examination, but with conditions. 'If we see a student is eager and has a reasonable chance of success we will let him take it,' said Mr Tsui, who defines 'success' as getting a pass in the subject in the examination. But he said HKSS's main aim was to enable students to develop their potential and career skills. Activities were designed to help them instil a sense of belonging in the school, take pride in themselves, learn corporate and self-discipline and develop an aptitude for vocational and service careers. Last year, the school produced its first group of 21 Form Five graduates, with Ma Chun-yuen as a prime beneficiary of HKSS's secondary mainstreaming. The 19-year-old now works as a deck trainee, earning $6,500 a month. 'If I had not studied at HKSS it would have been very difficult for me to get a job. What sort of job can a Form Five graduate get nowadays?' said Mr Ma, who joined after completing his Form Three studies at a mainstream school. He said he could not swim when he arrived at HKSS, but after taking part in sailing and dragon boat racing, the sea was no longer a stranger. Teamwork and persistence were among other strengths he learned. 'When paddling a dragon boat, for example, everyone needs to act consistently, especially in competitions. You have to continue even though you're tired, if not the team could lose because of you,' he said. Having to live with his schoolmates, Mr Ma also acquired communication skills which he described as useful in his job. He now has a clear goal. 'I want to be accepted for training as a ferry captain in three years,' he said. Mr Tsui said the outcome of mainstreaming was encouraging with all graduates so far finding work. 'That is particularly impressive given the high level of youth unemployment in Hong Kong last year - approximately 38 per cent.' Graduates had found jobs in the maritime, hairdressing, catering and hotel industries. Mr Tsui said HKSS's philosophy was similar to that of Kurt Hahn's Gordonstoun School in Scotland, where Prince Charles was educated. 'The basis of Hahn's philosophy is that educational experience should be diversified and challenging, and came to be encapsulated in what he called the four antidotes to the decline of modern youth; fitness training, expeditions, projects and service. These four principles form the basis of much of what we do. 'Our students face physical and mental challenges to develop independence, initiative, physical fitness, self-reliance, and resourcefulness. They don't all succeed but that in itself is a valuable learning experience.' Mr Tsui said 199 of the 221 boarding places were funded by the government, with the rest funded by the school board, and the student intake was expected to increase. 'As a mainstream secondary school, the student intake options have widened and HKSS is one of the schools in Hong Kong able to accept students on a territory-wide basis. We now accept students who apply directly for places or are allocated via the Education and Manpower Bureau's central allocation process.' HKSS is currently restricted by an interim agreement with the EMB to 300 students. 'We are discussing with the government the future direction of the school, particularly the need to make available sufficient boarding places. We currently have 225 students of whom 221 are boarders and the expectation is that that will increase to 260 in 2004-05 of whom more than 250 will seek boarding places. 'Finding funding to provide for the shortfall is going to be a real challenge,' he said. Mr Tsui also said the school needed to recruit a wide range of academically qualified staff to teach students joining from more academic mainstream schools and had adopted a novel procedure to pick from shortlisted candidates. Having proved themselves worthy in all other areas, prospective teachers had to complete a range of tasks, including paddling a dragon boat - a literal case of sink or swim perhaps.