The extension of free education to senior secondary schooling this September is bound to give a boost to the public schools sector. Along with plans to reduce class sizes in primaries and secondaries, it is a long-awaited move by Hong Kong to catch up with international trends. Both moves have been the latest steps in ongoing reforms introduced in all government and aided schools since 2000. However, the impact of the changes on students in the public schooling system remains to be seen and the uncertainty is a key concern for many. A series of reforms has shaken up nearly every aspect of the public schools sector, from curriculum and management to public assessment and student admission. The aim is ambitious, seeking to nurture students to attain not only an all-rounded development but also high academic standards. Schools are being guided to draw up school-based curricula to better suit the needs of individual students. But given the large number of schools in the public sector - in 2007-08, there are 586 primaries and 503 secondaries - implementation differs from school to school in terms of pace and approach. Many have started devising more refined approaches to cater to the needs of students of different abilities, which is a relatively new concept in Hong Kong. Some schools have difficulty doing so because of large classes, insufficient manpower or limited resources. Some schools have reduced classes down to sizes of around 20, as enrolments drop, and introduced more interactive teaching methods. The government's decision to reduce class sizes in primaries has lessened the threat of closure because of insufficient new intakes. But the threat lingers, with the city's birth rates having fallen since the 1990s. As such, schools have been forced to fight for admissions. In districts where the drop has been sharpest, the competition has turned into a marketisation of education, with teachers often pressed to organise promotional activities and distribute leaflets on their days off. On the other hand many schools, especially traditional elite ones - with overwhelming applications but a lack of space for campus expansion to split classes - have been left with no choice but to stick with large class sizes. But it remains to be seen how much reforms will change the exam-oriented tradition in the mainstream system, at least in its early stage of implementation. In many schools, internal and public exam results remain a dominant theme of school life. In September next year, a sweeping reshuffle of the senior secondary curriculum will mark the culmination of reforms. Senior secondary years will be reduced from four to three. All students staying on through to Form Six will sit a single Hong Kong Diploma of Secondary Examination at the year end. The new curriculum is progressive in that it provides students with wider choices of modules to encourage active learning. The introduction of liberal studies as a core subject aims to help them integrate knowledge in different fields and depart from the traditional approach of treating subjects in isolation. It will ask students to explore issues most relevant to their lives, such as their personal identity, Hong Kong current affairs and global environmental issues. It is also not difficult to see the new system is intended to ease pressure on students, who now sit two major public exams in three years - the Hong Kong Certificate Education Examination, which filters students into matriculation, and the Hong Kong Advanced Levels for university places. But it will take years to determine if the new regime can really benefit students. Only time can tell if the reforms will help students reduce their reliance on rote learning for exams and pursue more creative and independent thinking. For parents who want their children to study abroad, the local public system has its limitations. For example, the exam system disadvantages students applying for places at top universities in countries such as Britain and Australia. Only about 4 per cent achieve top grade As in their HKCEEs and A-levels, compared with an average of 24 per cent in British A-levels. Many students look for other options offered by the local independent sector, such as the increasingly recognised International Baccalaureate diploma programme that has been adopted in a number of Direct Subsidy Scheme schools. Or they go overseas early. This may become more of a concern when the new secondary diploma kicks in, specifically whether it will enjoy the same international currency as A-levels. The heavy emphasis on academic performance makes many parents hesitant about choosing local public schools. This is especially so with those from western countries, who find they apply greater pressure with high amounts of homework and routine exams. It is a system in which competition is fierce. Efforts are being made to cater for students of different abilities, but they will take time to have a real impact on the environment and culture as a whole.