Mohammad Mehmood is a bright boy, but he's struggling at school. Almost every subject is taught in Chinese and, although the 10-year-old speaks fluent Cantonese, he finds it difficult to make sense of text. 'I can recognise many Chinese characters and know their meaning. But when they are combined in a long sentence, I don't understand what they mean,' says Mohammad, the only Pakistani pupil in his class. A growing number of children share Mohammad's predicament. An integrated education policy introduced in 2004 brought more ethnic minority students into mainstream schools than before, when South Asian and Southeast Asian children mainly attended one of 20 designated schools. Such schools, which teach Chinese at rudimentary levels, receive annual grants of HK$300,000 to HK$600,000 for support programmes. Mainstream schools don't and aren't geared to help ethnic minority children gain proficiency in Chinese. Thrown into such an environment, it's no surprise that the students flounder. Mohammad's mother, Nina, transferred him from a designated school to a mainstream alternative two years ago, hoping his grasp of Chinese would improve. Instead, his grades plummeted. 'I was born in Hong Kong and speak Cantonese but I don't read and write Chinese characters, which excludes me from a lot of jobs,' she says. 'I don't even speak our mother tongue, Pashto, with him at home and we've stopped him from reading the Koran because we want him to focus all his attention on learning Chinese,' she says. 'All the family think that mastering Chinese is the only way out. I don't want him to end up like me.' Having more racially diverse classrooms promotes social integration, but children from ethnic minorities can fall behind without remedial language lessons, says Dr Kwan Che-ying, an assistant professor of Chinese at the Hong Kong Institute of Education. 'On my visits to mainstream schools, I find teachers are usually too busy dealing with Chinese students and fail to pay particular attention to [minority pupils],' says Kwan, who runs a training scheme for teachers tutoring ethnic minority children in Chinese. A rare few manage to clear the Chinese-language hurdle, among them webpage designer and stand-up comedian Vivek Mahbubani. It took a lot of hard work and sacrifice, says Mahbubani, 27, who reads and writes Chinese. 'I never got help from my parents, as they don't know Chinese. I was among the lowest Chinese scorers in Primary Two. To catch up, I went to a tutorial centre every day to bone up on my Chinese while my friends went out to play after school. 'I would watch Chinese TV and read newspapers, but the best way is to talk to people as you have to listen, comprehend and respond.' Mahbubani attended Diocesan Boys' School, a top local school, and graduated from City University. But activist Fermi Wong Wai-fun says the language barrier means most ethnic minority children aren't getting an education that will equip them for meaningful jobs. Elite English-medium schools won't take them, and they can't afford to attend international schools. At Chinese-medium schools, where there is little provision for pupils from non-Chinese backgrounds, 'they just give up learning', says Wong, executive director of minority rights group Hong Kong Unison. Youngsters usually do well at English but fail Chinese, so only a handful progress beyond secondary school qualifications. Although a pass in Chinese isn't a formal condition for university entrance, educators say many institutions have made it a tacit requirement. Poor prospects for her children spurred Indian housewife Sithi Hawwa and her family to migrate to Singapore two months ago after living in Hong Kong for 15 years. 'Even though my two sons spent all their lives in Hong Kong, they can just read a smattering of Chinese characters, and have no idea how to write them,' says Hawwa, whose husband works in the semiconductor industry. 'It's rare to find ethnic minority people working in government posts in Hong Kong. In Singapore, they hold a lot of different posts in various sectors.' Most ethnic minority families aren't in a position to relocate, however, and youngsters' lack of academic qualifications coupled with a poor command of written Chinese means many end up in low-paying jobs. Over time, frustration and hopelessness may lead to more serious problems such as drugs. It was a Nepali construction worker's plea to help save his son from drug addiction that led Wong to set up Hong Kong Unison in 2001. 'It was difficult to find schools for ethnic minority youths then, and his two sons fell prey to drugs,' says Wong, a former social worker. 'When his elder son died from an overdose, the worker sought me out because no social centre was willing to help his younger boy. The case stiffened my resolve to help alleviate their plight.' Although the situation has improved, Wong says the education system fails to address the needs of ethnic minority students and help them break free of a cycle of poverty. To improve minority youngsters' chances of gaining tertiary education, the Joint University Programmes Admissions System last year decided to accept results from the British-administered Chinese public exam as part of candidates' assessment. But registration for the easier British exam costs HK$965, five times the fee for the Hong Kong exam - a large sum for ethnic minority students, Wong says. 'Most South Asian families in Hong Kong, especially Pakistanis and Nepalis, are poor, with some even on welfare. The fee is unfair to them.' Taking an easier version of the Chinese exam is a stop-gap measure to boost university entrance among minority students, but a better solution would be to devise an alternative Chinese curriculum suitable for them, Wong says. Professor Tse Shek-kam, associate dean of education at the University of Hong Kong, who recently completed a two-year study of minority students' learning needs, agrees. Chinese words, based on pictographs, are an alien concept for the youngsters, Tse says. 'They might force themselves to memorise the words as pictures but easily forget the stroke arrangement,' he says. Methods used to teach Chinese students won't work with ethnic minority youngsters, he says. 'Teachers have to start from conversational Chinese and break down each character into its various components. Cultural elements familiar to them must also be added. For example, we use Pakistani and Hindu fables accompanied by Chinese text to pique their interest.' Minority children are likely to find additional difficulties coming to grips with liberal studies, a new compulsory subject alongside Chinese, English and mathematics under the revised secondary syllabus, says Dr Chan Kui-pui, principal of the Delia Memorial School in Mei Foo. Since 800 of the school's 890 students are non-Chinese, it's a pressing concern. 'Most minority children stay within their community,' he says. 'Without much exposure to the wider Hong Kong environment, they will find it hard to understand many modules dealing with Hong Kong and mainland issues.' That's why, with a HK$380,000 grant, the Delia school developed an alternative curriculum four years ago to help minority children master the Chinese language. It uses textbooks in which Chinese characters are accompanied by Romanised Cantonese, and includes cultural elements familiar to the youngsters. 'It features sports such as cricket and hockey, which are popular with Pakistanis, and reflects the religious and social values of their communities,' says Chan. Delia's results have spurred education officials to consider an alternative Chinese curriculum for other mainstream schools.