Lost childhood: Hong Kong’s daunting quest to ease the agony of early schooling

Yonden Lhatoo is encouraged, but far from satisfied, by the government’s long-overdue move to curb drilling in kindergartens and primary schools

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 09 March, 2017, 11:39am
UPDATED : Thursday, 09 March, 2017, 9:09pm

My favourite little boy in the world recently flunked his first pre-kindergarten “entrance exam”. I’m talking about my godson, and I’m not in the least embarrassed to tell you about it.

He just turned two and has barely started speaking, so he wasn’t having any of it when he was forced to pay attention in a room full of strangers and jump through a bunch of hoops with aptitude tests and other nonsense.

His mother tells me he threw a tantrum and refused to cooperate, so he “failed” the “interview”, along with another little boy who was also not in the mood that day.

She also sent me a photo of the two toddlers, after their ordeal, playing at a nearby supermarket. They were riding a shopping trolley with abandon, faces reflecting a state of blissful unawareness that we can never recapture in adulthood. And that’s exactly what they should be doing at this age. What else is there for a two-year-old except fun and games?

The Hong Kong centres getting children ready for kindergarten

The amount of stress that parents in our city put themselves and their toddlers through in securing kindergarten and primary school seats is just insane. And totally unnecessary.

I feel sorry for our children, many of them bespectacled far too early in life, their young bodies bent under school bags filled with homework, and tender minds burdened with responsibilities denying them their right to enjoy childhood.

The Education Bureau flashed a faint light at the end of this tunnel recently by issuing new rules barring all kindergartens from forcing writing assignments on children in their first year. The new guidelines also discourage mechanical copying and calculations in the second and final years of kindergarten.

I feel sorry for our children, many of them bespectacled far too early in life, their young bodies bent under school bags filled with homework

The directive applies to some 80 per cent of children in non-profit kindergartens, or 144,700 kids in 760 schools. Those who ignore the rules and carry on with the usual robotic drilling risk losing government subsidies.

Schools are also advised to postpone dictation and written tests for one semester in Primary One to ease children into the life of inevitable drudgery and drilling that modern education entails.

Sounds like a step in the right direction at last, but there’s a catch. The rules don’t apply to private kindergartens, which means they can still provide an alternative to parents who feel their children will be less prepared for the big bad world unless they’re drilled right from the start. It’s the textbook definition of a vicious cycle.

It doesn’t help that money-grubbers posing as educators prey on precisely such insecurities in the world of parenting. Remember that outrageous advertisement some time back for a tutoring centre that personified this problem? Touting kindergarten “interview training” for kids as young as 18 months, it featured a crying little girl with the slogan: “You don’t like competition? But competition will find you!”

Watch: Interview training for Hong Kong toddlers

An incredulous parent once sent me this excerpt from a test for primary students. You have to fill in all four blank spaces with one common word that completes each sentence: A rich man needs —. A poor man has —. If you eat —, you die, and when you die, you can take — with you.

If you can figure it out, congratulations. You’re ready for primary school. I guess I’m not – I had to cheat to find the answer.

Nearly 40,000 parents join campaign to scrap ‘too difficult’ Hong Kong primary school exam: can you pass it?

By the way, my godson has been accepted by another kindergarten. I’m not jumping for joy, but looking at that photo of him at play, I’m really reminded of some lines from that old poem by John Greenleaf Whittier about lost childhood:

Blessings on thee, little man,

Barefoot boy with cheek of tan ...

From my heart I give thee joy –

I was once a barefoot boy!

Yonden Lhatoo is a senior editor at the Post