Hong Kong children with special education needs (SEN) have been affected by the departure of teachers who quit their jobs in recent years mainly to emigrate. Concerned parents and an expert say these children need time to adjust to new teachers, and not all the replacements are sufficiently trained to deal with them. With only about 40 per cent of teachers in regular schools trained in SEN, one suggestion is for all trainee teachers in universities to undergo a compulsory special education diploma course and gain the skills needed in the classroom. The problems were highlighted in a research paper compiled by the Legislative Council Secretariat and released last month, giving an overview of special needs students and teachers’ qualifications. There were almost 59,000 SEN students in primary and secondary schools in 2021-22, double the number from a decade earlier. The paper said that the proportion of these children in the total student population rose from 4.4 per cent to 11 per cent over the period. It attributed the rise to increased awareness and improvements in identifying children with special needs. Children with dyslexia made up the biggest group of special needs students in public schools, followed by those with attention deficit and hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) and Autism Spectrum Disorder, which were both rising, it said. Most SEN children attend mainstream schools, while almost 8,400 with more challenging conditions are enrolled at special needs schools. Number of special needs ethnic minority students in Hong Kong underestimated: NGO The paper highlighted that the exodus of teachers in recent years could have a negative impact on these students. Hong Kong lost 3,389 teachers in public primary and secondary schools in 2021-22, up sharply from 1,991 in the previous academic year, raising the attrition rate from 4.4 per cent to 7.4 per cent, the paper said. Nearly 200 teachers in special schools quit in 2021-22, almost double the 105 in the previous year. The spike in resignations came amid a wave of departures by Hongkongers mainly to Britain, Canada and Australia, which offered easier migration schemes after Beijing imposed the national security law in Hong Kong in 2020. Study: ethnic minority students face barriers to special education in Hong Kong The report was concerned about the potential adverse impact on SEN students when experienced teachers they were familiar with left and added that this should not be overlooked. “This is because newly recruited teachers may lack practical experience regarding the learning habits and behaviour of individual SEN students,” it said. “Besides, some SEN students may need time to establish trusting relationships with other teachers after personnel changes.” Pinky Tai Ngan-yung, director general of the Special Education Needs and Parents Association, a concern group supporting parents, agreed that SEN students, especially those with autism, were resistant to change and needed more time to establish trust with new teachers. Tai, also the mother of an adult child with special needs, said: “Not only students, but we parents also work with the teachers for many years, but it became very common for them to leave over the past two years, with most saying they were emigrating to the UK.” Supporting special educational needs (SEN) students Some teachers who quit moved to other schools as vacancies arose. “Students are the victims when their trusted teachers leave,” Tai said with a sigh. Pointing out that the replacements were less experienced and some may not have been trained to teach SEN children, she suggested that all aspiring teachers be made to obtain a diploma in special education. Professor Kenneth Sin Kuen-fung, of Education University’s department of Special Education and Counselling, said the high departure rate had affected SEN students and schools found it hard to hire suitable teachers. He said that students and teachers might need time to get used to each other, and building a relationship and sense of security took time. Hong Kong DSE students with special educational needs reveal study challenges “Without experience in special education, some teachers can hardly understand students with autism even if they are given the teaching materials,” said Sin, who is chairman of the Hong Kong Special Education Society, a group that has championed integrating SEN children into mainstream schools. Responding to queries from the Post, the Education Bureau spokeswoman said teacher training courses at Hong Kong’s universities already included modules on special and inclusive education. “Therefore, prospective teachers would have mastered the basic knowledge and skills in caring for students with special educational needs upon graduation,” she said. Number of special needs ethnic minority students in Hong Kong underestimated: NGO The bureau also provided courses for teachers to increase their professional skills in dealing with SEN students, with basic courses offered online to give them flexibility in attending, she added. The bureau earlier set a target of each special school having 85 per cent or more teachers with SEN qualifications by next year. According to the Legco paper, only 75 per cent of those in special schools were trained in special education. “A higher ratio might be warranted as students attending special schools generally have more severe learning difficulties and require more intensive support,” it said.