International schools in Hong Kong

Harrow Hong Kong sticks to its guns over controversial switch to simplified characters only in Chinese lessons

International school says it is dropping traditional Chinese characters from curriculum for younger pupils after ‘listening to a variety of views and following detailed discussions’

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 06 June, 2018, 10:24pm
UPDATED : Thursday, 07 June, 2018, 1:13pm

An international school that sparked controversy for saying it will only teach simplified Chinese characters to younger children to fit “the context Hong Kong will be in by 2047” defended its decision as one made in the best interest of pupils.

Harrow International School Hong Kong, in a statement issued on Wednesday, made clear that it was dropping traditional Chinese characters from the curriculum of the Lower School – kindergarten and primary level – after “listening to a variety of views and following detailed discussions”.

It would also introduce more co-curricular activities where traditional Chinese was used, it said.

Harrow, located in Tuen Mun and with about 1,300 pupils, raised eyebrows when it sent parents a letter on Monday announcing the change which would take effect from August next year.

The letter acknowledged that the teaching of traditional characters was “desirable” but added: “We need to prepare our pupils to be fully literate in the context that Hong Kong will be in by 2047.”

The letter was forwarded to several media outlets, with some parents questioning the school’s statement.

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Harrow did not respond to a request to explain why it mentioned 2047. That is when guarantees of autonomy enshrined in the Basic Law – Hong Kong’s mini constitution – as well as the principle of “one country, two systems”, which allows the city to continue its own ways of governing and living after its handover from Britain to China in 1997, are set to expire.

The teaching of Chinese has been a sensitive topic in Hong Kong. Cantonese and traditional characters are the norm in government schools and protests have erupted against suggestions to teach local children the Chinese language in Mandarin. Recent consultations on a curriculum framework on Chinese history for secondary students have also triggered anti-mainland China sentiment, and fears Hong Kong’s history would be seen as secondary to Chinese history.

On Wednesday, education sector legislator Ip Kin-yuen called the episode “ridiculous”.

‘No political considerations behind Chinese history change’

Ip said international schools in Hong Kong were free to design their own curriculum and “it’s totally fine even if they don’t provide Chinese language classes”. However, a change of curriculum should only take effect with parents’ consent, he said.

“If Harrow decides to teach simplified Chinese characters only among pupils who will be newly admitted in 2019, and the parents agree to the arrangement, there is no problem,” Ip said.

“But applying the decision to existing students, to whom the school promised two choices, and failing to provide any valid reason, adds up to very poor practice.”

He added: “The school should stop pretending to know what will take place in 2047 and stop trying to justify its breaking of a promise with such an unconvincing political reason.”

Harrow has provided a “two pathways programme” in teaching Chinese to Lower School pupils since its establishment in Hong Kong in 2012. The medium of instruction is Mandarin but pupils can choose which characters to learn.

In its letter on Monday, Harrow said there would be a “phased transition” to a simplified characters curriculum as pupils moved up from the Lower School but did not explain how it would be realised in practice. On Wednesday, it said teaching one set of characters would bring “more focus and clarity” to pupils in their learning.

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Of the 36 international schools the Post contacted, all said they used Mandarin as a teaching medium, 21 taught simplified characters only, eight taught traditional characters only and seven taught both.

The Canadian International School is one of the six, where native and near-native Chinese-speaking students learn traditional characters, and non-native-speaking students simplified characters.

“[The school] is not considering any changes to its Chinese programme unless we are officially notified by the Hong Kong government that Hong Kong will no longer use traditional characters,” Penny Pan, director of Chinese studies at the school, said.

“As an international school we will always honour our host country.”

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Lau Kit-ling, an associate professor of Chinese language education at Chinese University, said international schools’ choices of traditional or simplified characters depended more on “the use of Chinese as a tool” than effectiveness of learning.

“The Chinese language is a second language for their students … Some schools may think simplified characters will be more useful for their students as they will have more contact with the mainland in the future,” Lau said.

Additional reporting by Veta Chan