Chung Ng Sui-fong was wracked with worry as she waved goodbye to her autistic son on his first day of secondary school, five years ago. On her way home, she envisioned her son, Chung Yuet-ming, being shunned or bullied because of his difficulties in socialising, of him being embarrassingly loud and clumsy during lunch, or being ridiculed for his awkward gait. For a month she walked with her son to Sha Tin Tsung Tsin Secondary School, an English-medium school, brought him his lunch and sat by him for as long as she could during the break. But her fears were soon eased, as Yuet-ming began to settle into his new school with the help of compassionate teachers and educational psychologists. Since Form Two, Yuet-ming received individual academic coaching from his teachers after the government provided the school with more teachers and assistants. When he entered Form One, Yuet-ming was ranked 179th out of about 200 students, but now, the Form Five student tops his class. The 17-year-old is also a member of the school's Chinese orchestra and is preparing to sit the challenging Grade 8 piano exam in October. But few Hong Kong students with special educational needs are as fortunate as Yuet-ming, whose school is one of only 37 mainstream secondary institutions that enrol special-needs students, and obtains government support, including extra teachers and assistants, on top of regular funding. For the remaining 400-odd secondary schools, neither extra teaching staff nor specific funding arrangements are available, with the only help being the option of individual schools applying for money to purchase equipment necessary to help visually or hearing- impaired or physically handicapped students. School-sponsoring bodies overseeing 11 schools or more may also seek funding from the Education and Manpower Bureau (EMB) for an educational psychologist. But this avenue is not widely used - 145 schools have regular access to the EMB's education psychologists, with 12 specialists being spread across those schools. The EMB, meanwhile, offers three levels of teacher training for such students, and has assigned 23 mainstream and special schools to assist others through various means, including sending teachers to other schools and running workshops. The issue of a poor secondary support network for special-needs students is a contrast to the government's approach to primary schools. About 400 primary schools enrolling special-needs students either get extra staff, or receive per-capita subsidies of between HK$10,000 and HK$20,000, depending on the degree of the student's disability. Educational psychologists and speech and hearing therapists for targeted students are usually available from the EMB or externally. The government's definition of special-needs students eligible for subsidies includes those with autism, special learning disabilities, visual or hearing impairment, and mental and physical disabilities. The situation was brought to a head a few weeks ago when parent representatives at a Legislative Council meeting on integrated education lashed out at the government for giving what they said was scant support to special-needs students in mainstream secondary schools. Iris Keung Wai-lin, chairwoman of the Association for Specific Learning Disabilities, criticised the EMB fordelaying its release of an official assessment test kit to detect learning disabilities in secondary students, a disorder in understanding, writing or speaking languages found among roughly 12 per cent of students in Hong Kong. She said that while such an assessment tool would be ready later this year, it would be available only to junior secondary students. As a result of the absence of a standard tool, many suspected cases had not been assessed, she said. But even a proper diagnosis of a student with a disability would not guarantee follow-up action, said a frustrated Ms Keung. 'The EMB doesn't provide anything to secondary students diagnosed with [a specific learning disability],' she said. 'It's up to the school to decide whether to cater for special-needs students. In many cases, students with special learning disabilities, who have difficulties with writing, are not encouraged to take notes or to do homework using the computer. Some are too slow in jotting down notes and end up sitting in class learning nothing.' Heidi Tong Hui Sim-kiu, convenor of the Support Group on Integrated Education, said the concept of simply 'going to school to sit in class' and learning very little was common among secondary students with autism, mental-developmental delays and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder. 'They have to take as many subjects as others, with few adjustments to the curricula,' she said. 'Often, their needs are ignored in a class of 40 and they don't understand what's said in class.' Mrs Tong urged the EMB to introduce special classes in certain subjects for these students and employ trained teaching assistants to help tailor curricula and assessments, as happens in English Schools Foundation (ESF) schools in Hong Kong. ESF schools have a three-tier structure to cater for a full range of special-needs students' problems. They include basic support for less severe disabilities in all ESF schools, and learning-support classes in five particular schools - which still enable the students to integrate in some mainstream classes. There is also a special ESF school for the most disabled. The chairman of the Aided Secondary Schools Heads' Association, William Yip Kam-yuen, said a secondary school with 800 to 1,200 students would generally be provided with just one social worker and might not get an educational psychologist unless the organisation sponsoring the school could afford one. The psychologist would usually be shared between seven and 10 schools. 'If the government is serious about integrating students in mainstream schools, it should provide resources specifically for these students,' he said. 'Patchy provisions reflect how low a priority integrated education is on the government's agenda.' Francis Yu Shing-ip, a senior inspector at the EMB for special-education review, said the EMB had so far focused on integrated education in primary schools because it was important to intervene with special-needs students at an early age, and that secondary schools already enjoyed more resources. He said that while 37 secondary schools accepted students with more serious disabilities, others usually had only a few special-needs students of less serious nature. Mr Yu said there were now about 2,500 secondary students in Hong Kong with special needs, but admitted that the figure underestimated the size of the issue because some students with reading and learning difficulties had never been assessed. He said schools were, meanwhile, expected to make good use of the Capacity Enhancement Grant, introduced in 2000. The scheme enables schools to hire external support on a needs basis. Mr Yu said that, from next month, extra teachers would be given to schools admitting mainly lowest- banding students, and that many special-needs students were likely to be band three students. Extra support would also be given to schools with a large number of such students or pupils with serious disabilities. Mr Yu said that schools should adopt the 'whole-school approach', which calls on everyone - from principals and teachers to students and even cleaners - to embrace the culture of providing the right education for all and develop a sense of responsibility towards special-needs students. Pang I-wah, deputy head of the department of educational policy and administration at the Hong Kong Institute of Education, said most primary and secondary schools in Hong Kong had yet to develop an inclusive culture. Dr Pang, also the spokesman on integrated education for the pressure group Education Convergence, cited training for teachers as an obstacle to fostering such a culture. He asked: 'How are we to provide the right amount of appropriate training for 40,000 teachers in a short time?' Those teachers who had acquired skills to handle a certain type of disability might end up having to cater for students with a different need, Dr Pang said. Under the current system of allocating Secondary One places, government and schools with special-needs resources would not know the number of special-needs students who would be admitted, or the nature of their disabilities, until the students turned up, he said, adding that many teachers found it difficult to handle different types of special-needs students at one time. Along with parents and several other educators, Dr Pang urged the government to assign only one or two types of disabled students to roughly one-tenth of schools with good track records in integrating special-needs students. But Betty Ip Tsang Chui-hing, the EMB's deputy secretary, said at the recent Legco meeting that it would be difficult to allocate specific types of special-needs students to designated schools under the Disability Discrimination Ordinance, which obliged schools to take in any successful candidate unless they faced an 'unreasonable hardship'. The EMB encouraged schools to develop expertise in one or two types of disabilities, Mrs Ip said. 'How do schools develop expertise without adequate provision from the government?' asked Andrew Tse Chung-yee, chairman of the Special Education Society of Hong Kong. 'I have doubts as to how effective the funding mode for primary schools is. There's no monitoring of how schools spend the per-capita subsidies, and special-needs primary students receive between HK$10,000 and HK$20,000, even when their individual needs may require different kinds of support. What we need [are] diagnoses followed by specific support.' Mr Tse added that the EMB's plan to provide more teachers for schools with band-three students would help academically poor students, not those with special needs. Resources were especially important in making integrated education work in Hong Kong, where an elitist tradition and an examination-oriented education system put teachers in a difficult position in helping special-needs students, he said. Teachers and principals would only feel secure when sufficient resources were available for special-needs students without disrupting the pursuit of better academic results, he added. Civic Party legislator Fernando Cheung Chiu-hung is pessimistic about putting integrated education in the hands of a government obsessed with boosting competitiveness, churning out elites and ramping up efficiency. 'The government has picked up the western rhetoric of equality for all, but run it according to a commercial principle of maximising efficiency,' he said. 'Nobody benefits in the end.'