SCMP Saturday, September 15, 2001
Building a model future
While many teachers equate education reforms with increased workloads and brand many new ideas as impractical, school principal Paul Yau Yat-heem sees them as an opportunity to fulfil dreams.
Mr Yau - the mastermind behind Tseung Kwan O's new Logos Academy - is a beacon among front-line educators.
While local schools are often criticised for their closed-door attitude, Mr Yau, who is also chair of the Education Department's Committee on Learning Resources and Supply Services as well as a member of the Education Commission, is an exception.
Taking the initiative to visit professional colleagues and schools worldwide during his holidays, he has expanded his network of educator friends well beyond Asia. He also shares his experiences widely, having held staff training sessions for almost 80 secondary schools within the last two years at Queen Maud Secondary School, where he was formerly principal. In an exchange trip to Shanghai in May, the 48-year-old grumbled about his more-than-adequate Putonghua while getting ready to make a presentation on the development of IT in education in Hong Kong. "If the speech was in Cantonese, I could better explain the essence of my approach," he said.
His willingness to share is not reserved for fellow educators, and at the end of the conference, an informal chat with reporters lasted until midnight.
An umbrella Christian organisation, the Hong Kong Chinese Christian Churches Union, has also benefited from his expertise. Last year he drafted a proposal for its first school, the Direct Subsidy Scheme (DSS) Logos Academy, due to open in Tseung Kwan O next September.
Several church organisations under the union, the largest religious body in the SAR, such as Sheng Kung Hui (SKH), the Church of Christ in China (CCC) and the Baptist Church, have established a number of high-ranking schools over the last century, and it seemed a natural progression for the SAR's largest religious body to go it alone.
"Having 300 churches and more than 200,000 Christian members, the union realised that it was in an excellent position to run a school," said Mr Yau, the only frontline educator on the union's education committee.
The school's name, Logos Academy, reinforces the pioneer's attempts to create something different to other local schools. "Logos" is a Greek word meaning word or truth and "academy" alludes to the names of top-tier high schools along America's east coast.
The school he proposed will be the first in Hong Kong to implement a five-year primary schooling system. Its children will move on to secondary section after Primary Five. This, and six years of secondary schooling, will mean that students will be ready to move on to university two years earlier than peers at local mainstream schools.
Schooling will be divided into three stages of learning, based on the psychological development of each child. Activity-based learning will dominate the first stage, from Primary One to Three, with children free to learn without the pressure of exams and too much homework. Mr Yau said the three years constituted an essential transition period through which the school could prepare its students for the much tougher learning mode in the later stages.
The second stage, from Primary Four to Secondary Three, would be "the key stage", with students expected to acquire generic skills and indulge in large-scale project work. They will also take part in overseas study trips.
The last three secondary school years will be devoted to the International Baccalaureate diploma programme. This would distinguish the school from the international schools in Hong Kong and overseas that have adopted the IB, where students usually take two years to complete the diploma. "We feel there is too much in the curriculum to be taught within two years and we also want to give more depth to each of the subjects," he said.
Initially, Mr Yau did not plan to be the one to implement his "dream school" as principal. After the Education Department approved the proposal last summer, the Hong Kong Chinese Christian Churches Union spent months interviewing prospective principals until they realised that no one would be more suitable than the man who drafted the plan. "The union said to me: 'You couldn't bear to see your brain child faltering in other people's hands. So why not be in charge of the school yourself?'," he said.
The new challenge means he had to leave the school he had "cultivated" and led for 13 years. While it is not among the list of elite schools in Hong Kong, Queen Maud Secondary School has long been distinguished for its progressive approach and IT development under Mr Yau's headship.
But the autonomy he will enjoy at the Logos Academy, as the head of a DSS school, proved too attractive to resist. With sufficient financial support, he will recruit only university graduates to the teaching staff. Those he has already hired are all experienced educators, with some holding doctorates and some coming from university teaching posts.
A large number of part-time teachers could also be employed to teach non-academic subjects, such as drama and dancing.
"Since our teachers won't be overloaded with work, we will be able to send them overseas for additional training," he added.
As a pioneer of education reform, Mr Yau is a champion of the textbook-free approach to teaching, an activity-based curriculum and extensive parental participation, and has said that a parent group will be formed before the school starts next year.
He believes that end-of-term examinations alone are not as effective as continuous assessments in detecting students' weaknesses. "Maybe we will draw inspiration from Who Wants to be a Millionaire and ask our students to take a multiple-choice quiz at the end of each school day," he said.
Mr Yau's influence is felt beyond his own schools. He not only plays active roles as a member of numerous education bodies, including the Education Commission, the Education Department, Hong Kong Examinations Authority and various secondary school councils and university boards but his expertise spans the field of curriculum development, school quality assurance, IT in education, gifted students education, examination and school places allocation, textbook quality, home-school co-operation and professional development.
"I am not only creating a new type of school, but a model. If our approach works, I am very sure that I will be sharing my experience with others."