Twelve-year-old Colin might never have expected it, but his current school year is undoubtedly the most adventurous of all. Instead of attending Form One classes like his peers, he is set for diverse learning experiences in the company of five other children of similar ages. Their parents are among a few who have embraced the concept of the gap year, usually associated with secondary school graduates who spend a year exploring other experiences rather than progressing straight to further study. They have decided to take their children out of normal schooling for a year to give them a much-needed respite from the high-pressure environment. In place of a packed curriculum and cutthroat competition in the local system, they have banded together to provide an alternative, experiential education for their children instead. Each is paying HK$5,000 a month for a coach to guide and accompany their children in a year-long journey. Colin spent his first week navigating around various neighbourhoods with the other children - two of whom were due to be in Primary Five, while the rest would also have been in Form One. The group ventured in search of landmarks, such as a pre-war pawn shop in Wan Chai, the Hong Kong Museum of History in Tsim Sha Tsui East, and the much-hyped escalators linking Central with the Mid-Levels. They were given a small allowance each day for lunch and transport, so they had to resort to public transport and affordable food. "He was very happy and excited about the trips, being able to visit different places every day," says Colin's mother, Doreen Ho Mei-yee. "The trips helped boost his self-confidence and trained him in useful life skills, such as problem solving and decision making. They asked different people on the streets for directions to their target destinations, and had to decide what advice to take and how to get there." In the past, Colin had been very indifferent at school. That is a major reason his mother obtained permission from a secondary school head to defer his Form One enrolment to next September. "My son used to find learning super-boring. He was withdrawn and rather shy at school. I hope to help him pick up the motivation again and improve on his weaknesses in the coming year." Another parent, Mrs Chow, took the bold step for similar reasons: her daughter lacked interest because of the demanding curriculum. The gap year programme, designed by the parents and the coach, combined outdoor activities, games and puzzles, with tutorials in Chinese, English and maths. There will also be regular discussion sessions at a family centre that has offered space to the experimental group, along with theme-based online research at home. A freelance education consultant, Ho feels a strong need to bring balance into students' lives, sparing them the onerous homework load and incessant drills. In her view, the new 3+3+4 academic structure has exacerbated pressure on schools to ensure their students excel in the Diploma of Secondary Education (DSE) exam, rather than catering to different learning needs. "The pace of learning at schools is so fast and the curriculum so difficult that it has led to a deep sense of failure or frustration among many students," she says. "Schools are so focused on the academic side that they have no time to impart life skills to students." Universities' strict adherence to using DSE scores to award admissions further fuels the pressure on schools and students to outperform one another, she says. Schools are so focused on the academic side that they have no time to impart life skills to students Doreen Ho, parent In the view of many parents, students and educators, the competitive culture has spilled over to the primary level. Ho shares a common gripe among parents that the Territory-wide System Assessment (TSA) used by the Education Bureau to gauge primary students' basic competencies has prompted intensive drilling instead. While the bureau views it as a "harmless" measurement tool, the TSA has been widely criticised as fuelling competition among schools. "Schools compare students' performances among themselves," says Ho. Although Ho considers herself an ally of another outspoken parent, Cam Cheung, who advocates a growing homeschooling movement, she chose not to homeschool Colin because of the time and heavy commitment involved. Both parents, however, are core members of the concern and advocacy group EDiversity, which has organised conferences on alternative educational approaches in the past two years. Both have organised other activities to dissuade parents from cramming their children's time with tutorial lessons and studying. At the same time, Cheung finds there are few educational choices for the less academically minded. "While more preschool kids are educated in a more liberal way, there is a seriously inadequate number of primary and secondary schools that are run based on a different educational philosophy," she says. "By the time they can choose, for example, to go to a youth college at the age of 15, many students have been battered by the system so much that those who can't stay in their original school for senior forms feel as if they are failures." At present there are three direct subsidy schools that provide non-mainstream education - HKICC Lee Shau Kee School of Creativity, Caritas Charles Vath College and CCC Kung Lee College. The latter two schools are open only to Form Four to Six students, providing them with work-based training. Steven Lee Kwok-wai, principal of Caritas Charles Vath College, says there are enough options, but schools have little incentive to refer students to alternatives such as his, since any drop in student numbers could put them at risk of having their classes cut by the Education Bureau, which means reduced resources. "The government policy is conflicting. On the one hand, it subsidises schools such as ours to provide an alternative option, but, on the other, it provides no safety net for mainstream schools," he says. Some parents might have switched schools if there had been better publicity about alternative curriculums. "The bureau should be providing guidelines to help parents choose the school that suits their children, or help match them with the right schools for their children," Lee says. But whichever school they attend, building confidence is key to the growth of every youngster. Ho hopes taking her son out of the mainstream environment temporarily will be worth the risk. "I hope he will be more ready, especially emotionally, for the competition, and able to face up to the learning challenge positively in the next academic year."