Will all this strain be worth it?
Educators are looking back on a decade of reforms, upheavals and ever-fewer students. The past 10 years have been described by the head of the largest teaching union as 'the education sector's nightmare'.
The decade saw struggles between teacher groups and the government, primary school closures due to a falling student population and stress and work pressure blamed for the suicides of some teachers and students.
The Education and Manpower Bureau has come under fire for pushing through reforms too quickly and for adopting a top-down approach rather than listening to teachers' views. The seemingly relentless drive for improvement at every level of education has created ill-will among the teaching community and a breakdown in trust between the government and schools.
But few teachers would deny that change was necessary. The old system was widely faulted for being high-pressure, too test-oriented, prone to drilling students and producing passive learners - criticisms still levelled at some Hong Kong schools today.
Kelvin Li Chun-fung's experience is fairly typical. The 22-year-old, in his final year of informations systems studies at City University, said his memories of school were dominated by cramming and stress.
'My secondary school years were preoccupied with studying,' he said. 'The purpose of enrolling in Primary Six was to get into a good secondary school. There was little room for thinking.
'The HKCEE and A-level exams were so stressful. I still remember how nervous I was the nights before the release of the HKCEE and A-Level results. I lay awake all night and suffered stomach pain.'
William Yip Kam-yuen, chairman of the Hong Kong Association of Heads of Secondary Schools, has been a principal since 1994. He said there had been a dramatic sea change in the school system since the handover.
'Over the past decade, the whole of education seems to have changed, and I am talking about globally - not just in Hong Kong,' Mr Yip said. 'Things have become a lot more complicated. In some ways the situation has improved, in others it has regressed.' One of the improvements is the increase in school autonomy in developing school-based curricula and other areas of management.
'If you look back to 1997, the whole system was very centralised,' he said. 'Over the past decade that has relaxed and schools have much more freedom.'
That flexibility, however, came at the same time that the government was raising the bar on teaching standards, he said. 'Though there is now more freedom, there are also more stringent requirements on teachers in terms of professional competency, self-improvement and level of education,' Mr Yip said. 'Professional development requirements have certainly increased. The same is true for principals.
'That is a good thing because it has raised the quality of our teachers, but at the same it has definitely added to the pressure we are all under.'
Alex Cheung Chi-hung, chairman of the Aided Primary Schools Heads' Council, said: 'It just seems to get tougher and tougher every year, and every year the workload increases even more. But we shouldn't be so negative. In terms of the education curriculum, and as far as teaching and learning are concerned, there have been big improvements.'
Mr Cheung said initiatives to make education more lively and interactive, moving away from traditional rote learning, had given students room to develop a wider range of skills. 'Hong Kong students used to be very poor at speaking in public,' he said. 'Testing students on their oral abilities in primary school has strengthened their presentation skills and meant they are now a lot better at expressing themselves verbally.'
But teachers' lives were undeniably a lot tougher today than before the reforms began, he said. And they were bitter about the constantly increasing workload.
'There used to be a nickname for Hong Kong's primary school teachers - 'Pun Yat-on', after an actor who died years ago,' Mr Cheung said. The name is a Cantonese pun for 'half-day worker', a dig at the light workload and short hours of primary teaching. 'I don't believe anyone would dare call our teachers Pun Yat-on now. There's no half-day teaching these days.'
Yvonne Liu Suk-han, a secondary teacher of English who started teaching in 1991, said the increase in workload had altered her attitude to teaching.
'Some teachers have lost their passion for teaching and students can feel it when teachers don't care for them,' Ms Liu said. 'Teachers are tired and confused.
'When I first started teaching I had the time to chat with students during lunch and after school. Now there isn't even time to prepare for classes. I'm loaded with paperwork - a new government policy always entails meetings and paperwork.'
Ms Liu said teachers' workloads depended largely on the attitude of a school's management and how strictly they enforced Education and Manpower Bureau guidelines - such as the requirement that teachers complete 150 hours of training every three years.
'I know some school principals simply ignore that requirement,' she said. 'But I also have friends who have to sit the Putonghua benchmark test - as demanded by the school head - even though they don't teach Chinese.'
The benchmark test was introduced in 2001 to ensure teachers of English and Chinese have the necessary language skills, due to the large number who had no qualifications in the subjects.
But many teachers saw this as another example of the government's top-down approach, and officialdom's obsession with 'bean-counting'.
In Primary Three, Primary Six and now Form Three, students undergo the Territory-wide Systems Assessment (TSA). It is used to determine the performance of schools and the education system in general, and has no effect on students' academic records.
Schools are now required to carry out self-assessments, evaluating their own performance from every angle. Then, external reviews bring teams of assessors into schools to repeat the process from an independent standpoint.
Mr Cheung said this threatened to turn teaching into an administrative pursuit. 'We spend our time in meetings, going to conferences and filling out paperwork,' he said. 'We have no space left to focus on what is supposed to be most important - education.'
The government's stated aim is to drive up the quality of schooling, creating a culture where schools and teachers are constantly taking critical looks at themselves to spot ways to improve. Officials say the results of TSA tests and school reviews will not be used to determine school closures or the allocation of student numbers. But teachers' suspicions persist, given the sharply declining birth rate and increasingly commercialised education system.
The Primary One admission in 1997 was 67,000. Last year there were just 51,000 entrants. Fewer still are set to start school in September, but the enrolment crisis is yet to reach its peak. Only 45,000 babies were born to local mothers in 2003.
Survival has become the watchword of those who run primary schools: they need to enrol at least 23 Primary One pupils each year or face closure. This policy has led to the closure of 39 primary schools since 2003. A further 15 are scheduled to close in the coming academic year; and a further 25 are preparing to shut their doors later.
Cheung Man-kwong, president of the Professional Teachers' Union, the largest teaching union, and Democrat legislator for the education functional constituency, said that while the reforms had sound aims, the climate of school closures had skewed them into something unhealthy.
'Schools need to self-evaluate, they need to have external reviews and they need to assess students every step of the way,' he said. 'You can give very logical reasons for every one of these points, but once you throw the threat of school closure into the equation, it is all lost. All that is left for schools and teachers is fear. The entire school is transformed into a mechanism for survival.' This resulted in teachers handing out leaflets in shopping malls to promote their school when they should be planning lessons, he said. Schools in Tai Po and Tin Shui Wai were bussing pupils in from Shenzhen in order to maintain the minimum enrolment.
Any form of official evaluation, such as external school reviews, sends principals into a flurry of administrative activity in the belief that they will be penalised if they cannot provide reports on every aspect of the school's workings.
'I know of a school that filled an entire room with documents ahead of their external school review,' Cheung Man-kwong said. 'It ended up that no one in the school was teaching, as all their time was taken up filling out paperwork.'
Cheng Kai-ming, chair professor of education at the University of Hong Kong and one of the architects of the reforms, conceded that the government had not handled the falling birth rate well. But he warned against confusing this with the reform issue, noting: 'Everybody understands that the real threat is demographic decline.'
The teaching reforms were on track, he said. Teachers were coming round to accepting the notion of putting learning first, even if it did mean more work for them. But the benefits of the changes would not be seen right away, Mr Cheng noted.
'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.'