Hong Kong’s school system shuts out non-Chinese-speaking special needs children
Shalini Mahtani says Hong Kong has a moral responsibility to support all children – including non-Chinese-speaking special needs youngsters. The Education Bureau must take urgent steps to address the acute shortage of school places for this group
Having a special needs child brings many challenges to parents, not least in terms of education. In Hong Kong, non-Chinese-speaking families have it especially hard. There is little support available, public acceptance is low and there is an extreme shortage of school places.
The majority of special education needs children have mild to moderate needs and can be integrated into mainstream schools. Sadly, most private schools in Hong Kong don’t want them, claiming that they cannot accommodate such needs. Our research shows that many schools filter out these children at the admissions stage. They may require a child to sit still during an hour-long interview or not to shout out answers in a group activity. These are virtually impossible tasks for children who are hyperactive.
Children with mild to moderate needs could be sent to one of 10 English medium of instruction public schools. Here, one of the greatest problems is a lack of skills. Teachers often cannot identify the special need until the child is much older and precious time has lapsed. The waiting time for an assessment can take two to three years.
Those with more severe needs can opt for private school, but the waiting list can take years. Those who cannot afford private schools, over 80 per cent of the child population, will end up in a public school, and all 60 public special schools teach in Cantonese.
The Education Bureau can take steps to improve the lives of such children. Firstly, it needs to ensure that private schools are doing their fair share. Families who cannot afford to go private should not be forced to choose between public schools or leaving Hong Kong. All private schools must be required to admit children with mild and moderate special needs.
Secondly, it should increase the number of private special schools. Jockey Club Sarah Roe School should be asked to build another school and the government should actively encourage new international special schools to set up here.
Thirdly, we need an English-language public special school. It is simply unacceptable to burden non-Chinese speaking children with severe needs with having to learn Cantonese when they already struggle with basic functions.
Lastly, the government must address the difficulties faced by mainstream public schools, starting with teacher training – an increase in the hours spent on special needs training plus a mandatory cultural differences component.
Hong Kong must work to help families with special needs children. As an international city trying to retain and attract talent, this is critical. We have a moral responsibility to help all children.
Shalini Mahtani is founder of The Zubin Foundation. www.zubinfoundation.org