THE RICH GET richer and the poor get poorer. That is the effect on students of the government's ongoing educational reform, according to academics and social workers. The reform, introduced in 2000, advocates development of multiple-intelligence, with increasing recognition being given to informal learning activities, including arts, music, sports, community service and overseas trips. Students are expected to learn less from textbooks and more through project-based experiences in different subjects. The proposed senior secondary curriculum reform, which starts in 2008, suggests 15 to 30 per cent of students' total lesson time should be devoted to other learning experiences, which will be included in a learning profile detailing their academic and non-academic achievements. University admission is expected to be more broad-based, taking into consideration students' non-academic achievements. However, Bernard Luk Hung-kay, vice-president (academic) of the Hong Kong Institute of Education, said the reform could bring about a vicious cycle of poverty as the government lacked a holistic policy for tackling child poverty. In Sweden and the US, the governments supply study and recreational vouchers for poor children, which entitle them to take music lessons, buy stationary and take part in recreational activities. Swedish and British government also pay monthly child allowances. 'I don't see the government planning a social policy aimed at narrowing the gap between the rich and poor. Its attitude is reflected in its social welfare, medical and education policies,' Professor Luk said. 'In the past, where the public exam was the sole outlet for students, all people in Hong Kong society spoke in the same language, and they had similar learning experience and opportunities. This is a kind of social coherence. 'However, when arts, music, sports achievements and other learning experiences are tied in with school and university admission, the poor are in an unfavourable position because they can't afford this kind of exposure. They are becoming socially isolated in the sense that they may not be able to analyse current issues and take part in public decision making.' He added the Direct Subsidy Scheme, under which schools may charge tuitions fees on top of government subsidies, also contributed to the momentum behind the widening gap between rich and poor students. Scholarships and fee-remissions are available for those who cannot afford to pay, but proven talents in sports, arts and music are required. 'If schooling goes down the path of streaming of people by socio-economic origins, there will be a widening gap between the haves and the have-nots, and we will be faced with the spectre of the collapse of social coherence,' said Professor Luk. According to a study by Hong Kong Council of Social Service last month, one in four children here live in poverty, and most will likely remain poor as they grow up. There are 1.12 million people living below the poverty line, according to data by the Census and Statistics Department. Poverty is most serious in Kwun Tong, Yuen Long and Shamshuipo, where the largest number of poor children lives. Chan Wun-chung, an 11-year-old living in Shamshuipo with his unemployed parents and elder sister, said he felt ashamed and unhappy at school. The family lives on the monthly Comprehensive Social Security Assistant (CSSA) and housing allowances of $6,000. 'Every time teachers ask us to join outings or interests clubs, I remain silent in my seat and keep my head down,' said Wun-chung, a Primary Five student. 'There have been times when teachers have rebuked my mother for not letting me join any extra-curricular activities. Sometimes I am very unhappy when I ask myself why my friends have everything and I don't. And I hate it when I am left alone and my friends are off playing.' His mother, 34, who preferred not to give her full name, said she felt guilty that the family was poor. 'I feel really bad about it. Each time my children ask me for anything, any activity, I can only say no. Anything which costs more than $30 is a luxury for us,' said Mrs Chan. 'I don't know where I can get help for my children. I am too ashamed to ask for help from the school because I fear that they will look down on me. The PTA [Parent Teacher-Association] does not mention it, and the teachers have never asked.' Wun-chung and his sister stay at home in their spare time, except when they join free tutorial lessons or picnics offered by the Society for Community Organisation (Soco). 'Weekdays are better because I can play football, badminton and table tennis at school for free,' Wun-chung said. 'I wish I could go camping, or learn painting because my teacher says I am good at it. But I can't practise at home because the materials are too expensive.' Sze Lai-shan, a community organiser for Soco, said schools' unsympathetic attitudes towards the poor were further marginalising poor students. 'Poor students are rejected and challenged by schools as children of slack people, thanks to the government's remarks that CSSA recipients are slackers,' said Ms Sze. Homework was more expensive after the introduction of project-based learning, which often involves travel, photography and model making. 'Schools and the public don't understand that many families are living on thresholds. Many children in the Shamshuipo district go to pick up cans and card paper to earn a few dollars to help their families pay for rent and food. Instead of offering sympathy and help, schools scold parents and students for their low participation in extra-curricular activities,' she said. She criticised government for not giving higher priority addressing poverty in the district. 'The government's attitude is evident in the way it sponsors community projects. It endorses carnivals and celebrations but not proposals to help the unemployed find jobs. The responsibility of helping the poor has fallen on non-government organisations,' Ms Sze said. Cheung Man-wai, vice-principal of Shatin Tsung Tsin Secondary School, said poor senior secondary students were more likely to give up on learning opportunities because they did not want to burden their parents. More than one-sixth of his students were living on CSSA or having financial difficulties at home. 'Sadly, the more caring those talented poor students are, the more likely they will choose to hide their talents to avoid putting pressure on their parents,' he said. Mr Cheung said students and parents seldom asked for help when schools did not take the initiative to reach out to them. 'Poor students do not want to be identified for the fear that they maybe labelled,' said Mr Cheung. 'In our school, students apply for financial assistance through e-mail. Many have come forward because they feel safe to ask for help.' He said government should increase subsidies for students to sustain their development of non-academic talents. Many of the government-funded learning projects, such as those sponsored by the Quality Education Fund, were not sustainable because the fund only covered coaching fees and equipment costs for the first two years. 'Government needs to realise that learning is an ongoing, slow process. Continuous financial support will be more fruitful,' he said. Fanny Law Fan Chiu-fun, Permanent Secretary for Education and Manpower, said the Education and Manpower Bureau would seek to enrich learning experiences of all students. Under the new senior secondary curriculum reform, each school will be given a cash grant amounting to one-tenth of a teacher's salary to provide for learning experiences in arts, music, sports and community service, she said. 'Schools may use the money to subsidise students, employ part-time coaches, or whatever,' she said. 'Students from low-income families may also enjoy subsidies offered by the Hong Kong Jockey Club Life-wide Learning Fund. We hope to see different sectors coming forward to support the reform.' But Tai Hay-lap, a member of the Education Commission, pointed out that the fund only subsidises Primary Four to Six or Secondary One to Three pupils who are either eligible for full Student Financial Assistance Agency or CSSA grants. The Jockey Club will provide schools with a $240 subsidy for each eligible student annually. It will be up to schools to decide how the money is spent. 'It is becoming the norm that every student must possess skills in non-academic areas, but the access to these activities is limited by family income,' said Mr Tai. 'Financial subsidies will then play a vital part in narrowing the gap in learning opportunities. However, I don't see the government providing enough financial initiatives.' He said the government should provide ongoing funding for researching and building a community network between schools and different sectors, such as the business sector, arts, sports and music organisations, instead of more teacher training. 'Much money has been invested on relieving the workload of teachers and solving their problems because they have been able to speak up loudly. However, poor families do not have a say in the matter and their needs are ignored,' he said. 'Everyone is so caught up in defending their own interests that they forget the first and foremost goal of education is to benefit children.'