Education Bureau's review should look at the big picture
"Achieving the overall learning goals for secondary education" is the key purpose of the Education Bureau's medium-term review of the academic structure launched in 2009. Beginning last week, the three-month exercise will provide input for the final recommendations for change expected next summer.
Some of the learning goals are well known, such as creative thinking, independent learning skills, an independent reading habit, a healthy lifestyle, and an ability to contribute to the nation and society. They underlie the revamped senior-secondary curriculum.
Amid criticisms of the liberal studies subject, which aims to broaden students' horizons and thinking, the subject should not be the prime focus of the review. The broad range of topics in the six modules has raised doubts about whether teachers can handle the load but it will betray the goal of learning if the purpose is to dampen political activism among youngsters, as reported by the media.
It is one thing to consolidate the content so students and teachers can find the learning process and tasks to be completed more manageable. It is another to dictate what kind of questions students should or should not be asked. Undue interference in the exam syllabus is an erosion of academic freedom.
There is another pertinent issue that demands equal attention: universities' admission criteria. Strangely, this area is missing from the review.
Much has been said about the immense pressure facing students, despite the reform. The root cause lies in the ultra-competitive, examination-oriented system.
Besides the four core subjects of liberal studies, Chinese, English and mathematics, students have to choose from a range of electives in senior secondary years, for the sake of acquiring broader knowledge.
As well as traditional subjects, a host of applied learning courses are also available, such as performing arts. These subjects are often outsourced by schools to professional institutes, with students taking lessons with them instead.
Initially, students were expected to take three electives, on top of the four core subjects. But in a pragmatic move, more students are opting for two electives, so they can concentrate on them in hope of getting a higher overall score in the Hong Kong Diploma of Secondary Education exam, thus maximising their chances of entering university.
Education Bureau statistics show that the percentage of students taking three electives dropped to 30 per cent last year, from more than 50 per cent in 2009.
Some schools have reportedly given their students a free rein in deciding on the number of electives.
Universities tend to only consider students' scores in the top six subjects in the public examination. They do not have a transparent system, or one that accommodates students with outstanding achievements in non-academic areas.
Lee Suet-ying, chairwoman of the Hong Kong Association of the Heads of Secondary Schools, is still frustrated with the "gap" between school and university education.
She also supports an increase in degree places to ease the pressure on students.
"The secondary system has changed, but universities have not," says Lee. "People don't know what criteria universities use in accepting students with outstanding non-academic performance."
A high-stakes examination imposes pressure. It is time for a flexible, open admissions mechanism to accommodate different talents.
It is not necessary to do away with the public examination, but bold ideas from leaders would be useful in striking a better balance.