SCMP Sunday, April 30, 2000


The writing's on the blackboard


Director of Education Fanny Law Fan Chiu-fun was full of praise when she talked about a recent visit to Shanghai to get first-hand information on its schooling system.

The eastern coastal city's creativity in teaching methods, stimulation for pupils to think and respond, as well as bold steps to revamp the curriculum, all illustrate areas where Hong Kong's education system has fallen behind even that of the mainland.

And the findings of her five-day trip have only reinforced the determination of Mrs Law and fellow education reformers to overhaul the inflexible system and structure of local education.

Possibly as early as Tuesday, a final blueprint on education reform will be tabled to the Executive Council for approval and then published for community-wide consultation.

The document will allow Chief Executive Tung Chee-hwa to lay down the framework for the schooling system in the new millennium. It will mark the third and final phase of a lengthy process that began in January 1998, to formulate a road map for the SAR's education system.

Unlike the two previous rounds of consultation which addressed the broad aims of education and a review of the present academic structure, curricula and assessment mechanisms, the final round of consultation will be far more controversial.

The community will be given a chance to speak up on a wide range of proposals that affect the interests of the major stakeholders - teachers, principals, students and parents.

At primary school level, the admission system for primary one places will be drastically overhauled to alleviate pressure on six-year-olds for a place in "elite schools". A more equal allocation system that is mostly based on the place of residence and disallows written and oral tests will be introduced.

The Education Commission is adamant that classes comprising students with mixed abilities will not necessarily drag down overall results, citing research in other countries that shows this has a positive impact on learning.

At the secondary level, the plan is to abolish the much-criticised Aptitude Assessment Test in the next school year. The public will be asked to comment on a replacement system that takes into account the performance of students in their final three years of primary education.

Secondary schooling will be divided into junior and higher levels, with three years for each. The long-term goal is to re-introduce a four-year university system.

The revamp at the secondary and post-secondary levels will trigger a range of reforms for the curriculum, examination and entry systems into universities.

Officials concede the issues are far more complicated than anticipated. More time is needed for a detailed study on how it can be implemented.

One key reformer said: "The priority now is our basic education . . . to remove the unnecessary pressure on students from examinations so that teachers will have a wider space to design their courses."

An announcement on Friday about measures to reduce teachers' "non-professional" duties is one of many in the pipeline to allow more room for creativity among teachers.

Given that these reforms will directly or indirectly affect almost everyone in Hong Kong, no one is underestimating the scope for resistance from vested interests.

Led by banker Antony Leung Kam-chung, the Education Commission has tactfully masterminded the whole reform exercise by exerting pressure on the one hand and being supportive to affected parties on the other.

Representatives of vocal and powerful education groups such as the Professional Teachers' Unions have been co-opted into the process to ensure controversial reforms have already been argued through before they are made public for wider debate. Support from parents, the community and some quarters in the media has been solicited to pressure schools to expedite such changes as publishing performance records demonstrating improvements in teaching standards.

"Parents in general support the reforms. We now have to get the support from teachers and principals in the next phase. We are convinced the package will be good for Hong Kong," the reformer said.

Over the past two years, a clear consensus has emerged on the need for change. A cynical line of thinking is that Hong Kong's education system could hardly get much worse. This means any moves to rationalise its structure are sure to be welcome.

The fear is that controversies will be inevitable in the mammoth exercise of re-engineering the complicated system when reforms are being put into practice.

A fine balance will have to be made between support for, and pressure on, stakeholders such as teachers, principals and schools to implement the changes. It will be an equally delicate task to balance the need for diversity and fairness to parents and schools in such matters as the choice of students, schools and learning subjects.

In a broad sense, there is a growing awareness of the need for a complete change of mindset in the new economy; other places have recognised the need for such changes, ahead of Hong Kong.

Speaking to the South China Morning Post earlier this month, Singapore Prime Minister Goh Chok Tong said: "The next challenge for us is to move into the 'new economy' where ideas, innovation and creativity are important."

The Lion City, he said, was examining whether the model that emphasised good management and organisational skills would still work in the new economy.

The driving force of change has been no less strong in Hong Kong, where the dot com frenzy has demonstrated just how fast those changes can be. The commonly held view of a decline in the competitiveness of school graduates, in every area from creativity to language skills, has community alarm bells ringing for action.

The education reformer lamented that stakeholders had been engaged in trading blame in the past about the failures of the education system. Parents blamed teachers, teachers blamed principals, principals blamed supervisors, and supervisors blamed the Education Department.

There was also a lack of clear guidelines of responsibility - setting out who should do what.

If the ongoing quest for a genuine revolution inside classrooms is to succeed, it will not just require drastic surgery to remove the bureaucratic barriers and obstacles in the system.

There is also a need for communal consensus with no conflicting signposts on the path towards a freer and more creative.