SCMP Saturday, January 6, 2001

Islands 'cut off from reforms'


Outlying island schools have voiced frustration that they cannot meet the demands of the Government's education reforms because they have inadequate facilities and manpower.
Even as the latest curriculum reform proposals emphasise the need for comprehensive education with a range of resources targeted at "whole person development", many of the 17 village schools on outlying islands have been found to lack facilities such as libraries, art or music rooms and proper sports grounds. Their management has also been criticised for being dominated by people who know little about education.
The Northern Lamma School in Yung Shue Wan has been so desperate for extra space that it took matters into its own hands by building an extension. However, it has been forced to halt construction after falling foul of the Government and the local rural committee.
This week the government primary school launched a petition, which already has more than 2,000 signatures, urging the Lands Department not to pull down the structure. The project, aimed at providing an assembly hall, library, music room, canteen and parent-teacher conference room, was suggested and funded by the school's supervisor, school management council member Chau Kim-hung.
Mr Chau sought permission from the Lands Department in December 1999 to start building. As he had received no reply six months later, he decided to go ahead while awaiting approval. But the building work was brought to a halt after the local rural committee reported it to the Government.
This week Mr Chau voiced his disappointment at the seeming lack of concern about the poor conditions of outlying island schools. "Under the current funding system, I know it is impossible to get any financial support from the Education Department for the project," he said. "But even though I am willing to shoulder the full cost, I don't know how many more months I need to wait before the Lands Department will give me the permission to restart the work."
Tony Hui Tat-keung, the Education Department's chief school development officer for the outlying islands, arranged a three-way meeting with the Lands and Housing Departments last November to discuss the Northern Lamma structure. "From the education point of view, I totally support Mr Chau's project," he said. "But the Education Department alone cannot make the decision. It is true that Mr Chau has violated regulations by starting the construction without getting permission from the Government."
The Education Department requires all schools to provide information technology (IT) rooms. But the village schools complain they have no spare space for this.
The CCC Tai O Primary School is short of classrooms because it has had to convert one to an IT room, forcing six classes to share five teaching rooms. The school also has to borrow space in a nearby church for its staff room.
Mr Hui said that the department would like to help but was dependent on funding from the finance committee, and priority was given to larger and more popular schools.
Such uncertainty is concerning schools. CCC Tai O Primary School headmistress Hor Lai-man said: "I still have not heard anything from the Education Department, although I called the district education office many times. We have no idea how long we need to wait before our campus can be improved."
Meanwhile, the management of outlying island schools is another obstacle to reform, according to Mr Chau. He said that the domination of school management councils by indigenous villagers has put teachers under enormous pressure.
"Many of these villagers are poorly educated and are not trained to be educators. But they are often the ones setting the policies for the schools and guiding the teachers," he said.
Mr Hui described a liaison group for principals of the island schools as being about little more than "eating and drinking". Recently, he has launched a series of workshops for principals and parents, on how to educate island children. A task group would also be formed in coming months to plan the development of these schools.
Principals, however, also complain of difficulties in hiring high-quality teachers because of the distance of their schools from the urban areas. They said the workload on staff left them little time to care for the needs of individual students.
Ms Hor said only 10 teachers took charge of her six classes. "Each of the teachers has to sit for two to three subject committees, which include chairing at least one of the committees," she said.
Gloria Chang Pao-yueh, a teacher at Northern Lamma School, said she had to teach as many as 35 lessons each week. "My days seem to be just filled with teaching, correcting piles and piles of homework, then teaching again. I wish I could do something more for the students," she said.
The popular perception, even on the outlying islands, is that these schools are second-rate. This is not reflected in recent exam successes, however. For example, in the last three years 50 per cent of Northern Lamma School's leavers were allocated to schools in Bands One or Two.
Ada Cheung Wai-ching, principal of Wing Chor School in Tai O, said that the manpower and financial shortages reinforced perceptions that the standard of outlying island schools did not match up to city counterparts.
"Rarely can we arrange visits off the island. It is inevitable that outlying island pupils are often looked down on by their classmates when they study in the urban schools later on," she said.
Cheung Kin-wai, principal of Caritas Vocational School in Cheung Chau, said poor conditions among the schools were hitting teenagers. "Many children are 'locked up' on the island because their schools don't have the resources to organise extracurricular activities for them, and parents also find it time-consuming to take them to town. So they can only kill time by hanging out in their neighbourhood. In many cases, it's the time they get to know the gangsters," he said.
Parents who are sceptical of the quality of education provided by village schools would rather send their children commuting for hours everyday to schools in town.
As a result, school places are increasingly taken by the children of mainland immigrants. For example, new immigrants account for about 50 out of the 140 students at Northern Lamma School, according to Mr Chau.
Sandy Chao Pui-han, whose daughter is a Primary Three pupil in the school, worried that her child's progress would be slowed as the school tried to accommodate more mainland students, who tend to lag behind in English and Cantonese and were made to join classes with younger students.
But some parents favour village schools, in particular for their small class sizes and proximity to the countryside. Kit Lai, whose son is in Primary Four at Peng Chau Nim Shue Wan Shu Chun Public School, said: "There are just four to five pupils in my son's class, which makes it possible for the teachers to give enough attention to individual students. I can speak to any of the teachers about my son's progress."
The school's location provided a healthy environment and enriched the curriculum, she added. For instance, pupils could learn to grow vegetables and had plenty of space for outdoor activities.
But last year the school was ordered to close in 2004, said principal Kwok Kwan-ying. She said the Education Department removed the school from the local primary school lists two years ago without informing them.
"Lots of children in our neighbourhood come from overseas or the mainland. Our school offers them an alternative to international schools in the city," Ms Kwok said. A majority of the 19 pupils currently in the school are international.
Cheung Man-kwong, president of the Professional Teachers' Union, has urged the Education Department to formulate a new set of policies to cater for the needs of outlying island village schools.
"These schools are located in an environment that can actually provide rich resources. It's a pity that the Education Department has failed to see the potential for their development into green schools."