Months ahead of taking power in 1997, Tung Chee-hwa made an impassioned commitment to education, placing it alongside housing and the elderly at the top of his list of priorities. Calling education 'the key to the future of Hong Kong' in his inaugural policy address, he promised a top-to-bottom overhaul of teaching and learning. One of the first major changes came the next year with the introduction of a formal mother-tongue education policy, which halved the number of English-medium secondary schools and ruled that all but 114 had to teach entirely in Cantonese. Reforms got into full swing in 2000, when the Education Commission published its blueprint for a shake-up of the schools system. Rote learning was out and primary schools were to adopt activities-based approaches. School was to become a place of fun, and high-pressure exams were to be cut to a minimum. The most ambitious part of the reform - the overhaul of the senior secondary curriculum, the reduction of secondary education to six years, and the addition of an extra year at university - will not be fully introduced until next year. The path has not been an easy one though, and for many, the jury is still out as to how successful the much-touted, and much-criticised, reform package has been. Teachers' groups have complained about the stress of coping with reforms in teaching methodologies and modes of assessment at the same time as they had to handle quality assurance inspections, pass language benchmark criteria, deal with an ever more diverse range of students, and face growing competition among schools. And these factors have been compounded by a plummeting birthrate, which has dropped by around 35 per cent in a decade. The resulting decline in school enrolments has had a pronounced effect on primary schools, with dozens struggling to attract the required minimum of 23 Primary One students each year to avoid being closed by the government. The effects of that decline are now beginning to be felt in secondary schools. The tensions reached a breaking point early last year. Upwards of 7,500 teachers took to the streets in January to complain about the pace and scope of reforms and the effect of increased work pressures on their personal lives. Their action was prompted by insensitive comments by then permanent secretary for education and manpower Fanny Law Fan Chiu-fun about the suicides of two teachers, which some had linked to work stress. But the protest became an opportunity to vent frustrations at what they saw as top-down reforms and the heavy-handed approach adopted by Mrs Law and Secretary for Education and Manpower Arthur Li Kwok-cheung, whom critics accused of being unwilling to listen to opposing views. Then in November last year, the reforms were given a damning report card by a poll of business leaders - conducted by the South China Morning Post in conjunction with pollsters TNS - which gave the government a B for effort but an F for effect. But Cheng Kai-ming, chair professor of education at the University of Hong Kong and one of the masterminds behind the changes, maintained that reforms were on the right track. 'It will bring unprecedented fruits in the long run. People will see that children are receiving a much better education than they did 10 years ago,' he said. Reform had so far been most successful in primary schools, he said. In secondary schools, teachers faced the pressure to prepare students for exams, which gave them less flexibility to experiment with teaching strategies or expand the scope of learning. He conceded that it was 'unfortunate' that the timing of the reform coincided with a declining student population. A condition for reforms to be carried out smoothly was for teachers to be secure, so that they would consider reforms as merely an extra element to their routine, he said. Professor Cheng said that while teachers' unions condemned the reform 'as if it was the cause of their trouble', everybody understood that the real threat was demographic decline. The government's planning in dealing with falling student numbers was inadequate, he said, adding that strategies deployed to implement the reforms were weak in terms of the sequence of introducing various policies and making priorities. In the years to come, Professor Cheng said universities should design entrance requirements that would ease exam pressure on students and teachers. He said a solution should also be devised to reduce inequality among schools. 'We still live in the legacy of a selective and screening system. Student diversity is emerging as the major problem that teachers have to tackle,' he said. Other academics remain less convinced. Cheng Yin-cheong, director of the Centre for Institutional Research and Development at the Hong Kong Institute of Education, said the reforms had so far achieved little. Improvement in academic performance had not been evident, as reflected in several indicators, including the results of the city-wide systems assessment released late last year, he said. On average, about 20 per cent of Primary Six students failed to reach the basic benchmark in Chinese, English and maths. 'Last year, over 20,000 students scored zero marks in the Hong Kong Certificate of Education Examination,' he said. 'It's a grave concern.' And contrary to the stated aims of the reforms, the system remains examination-oriented. Teachers were also becoming weighed down. 'Teachers have to endure more meetings, produce minutes and documents and promote their schools. They've had less time to prepare for classes and communicate with students,' he said. It was difficult for teachers to focus on teaching when surrounded by problems such as big class sizes, a large number of teaching sessions and threats of school closure. 'Their morale is low,' he said. Neither were parents happy about the education system, he added. Professor Cheng suggested the government amend the policy of school closure and reduce class sizes to ease teacher stress. However, John Lee Chi-kin, dean of education at Chinese University, said that by definition, reforms triggered instability, and uncertainties that had stemmed from recent changes in the education system in Hong Kong were compounded by 'external destabilising factors', most notably dwindling student numbers. 'Teachers are enthusiastic about the reform, but their jobs aren't secure. This is the crux of why there's much frustration over the changes,' Professor Lee said. Another factor hindering the progress of the reforms was a loss of trust between the government, school sponsoring bodies, and teachers. But he said the government had softened its approach and adapted to feedback from educators, such as in deciding not to publish the results of external school reviews. It had also increased its investment in education over the past decade, Professor Lee said. Tony Sweeting, honorary professor of history at the University of Hong Kong, who specialises in the development of Hong Kong's education system, said he was 'not a big fan of the reforms process'. He felt the reforms were flawed at the outset as the blueprint's authors had 'used a lot of 'shoulds'' and had based their plans on theories of 'new managerialism' from Britain and the US rather than solid educational research. 'On the other hand, there are lots of great things happening in schools and some incredibly innovative teaching going on,' he said. One of most vocal critics of the reforms throughout the past decade has been Cheung Man-kwong, president of the Professional Teachers' Union and Democrat legislator for the education sector, often seen as the arch-nemesis of Mrs Law and Professor Li. However, he denied the largest teaching union had been deliberately antagonistic towards the government. 'Initially, the union was in support of the reforms,' Mr Cheung said. 'We believe their direction is right, but we object to the way implementation has been carried out.' But the government's top-down approach and failure to listen to different opinions had meant that battle lines had been drawn when collaboration should have been sought. 'The past decade has been like a bad dream for Hong Kong's education sector,' he said. The competition between schools had introduced a sense of fear that overshadowed everything principals and teachers did. 'Once you have the schools focused only on survival, they can no longer spare any effort on teaching and learning.' He was positive about the future, however, saying Mrs Law's replacement as permanent secretary in November last year by Raymond Wong Hung-chiu had marked a sea change in the government's approach. 'We now have a good relationship with Mr Wong. There is room to negotiate,' he said. 'I just hope that the education sector can wake up from this bad dream and the whole reforms process can start again from the beginning. But it should be a partnership, not a dictatorship.' Reforms timeline 1998: Mother-tongue education policy introduced, only 114 secondary schools can still use English as medium of instruction 2000: Education Commission, under Antony Leung Kam-chung, publishes reform proposals - focus shifts to 'whole-child development' and away from rote learning, beginning with primary schools 2001: Gradual curriculum reforms implemented into secondary schools 2005: Scholar report confirms the division between Chinese-medium schools and English-medium schools is to stay, students still to be allotted secondary school places according to three academic bands 2006: Start of wide-sweeping 3+3+4 reform of secondary schools system, which students now in Form One will be first to experience.