SCMP Tuesday, August 1, 2000
Forget opinion polls; forget politics. Next to economic recovery and property prices, the subject closest to the public heart is the education system. In no way is that more evident than in the response to the Education Commission's proposed reforms. Nearly 9,000 individuals and organisations submitted proposals before the deadline yesterday.
Many of the reforms have been welcomed by all sections of the community. Others are highly controversial. Doing away with rote learning and encouraging children to think creatively, analyse, question and solve problems by using their own initiative marks a cosmic shift in the system.
But some of the most radical ideas are perhaps more idealistic than practical. Mixed-ability classes put greater strain on teaching staff, and do not necessarily serve the best interests of pupils. When classes are small and each student has individual attention, the system works well. In the crowded classrooms of Hong Kong, the dangers are twofold: in some cases, work will progress at the speed of the slowest; in others, the demands of brighter children will eclipse the needs of those who require extra time and attention to bring them on.
While the demise of the Academic Aptitude Test will be unlamented, there is bound to be a difficult transitional period until standards have improved, and the ultimate goal is reached. That is five or six years hence, when all schools have a mixed intake and offer the same high level of comprehensive education - always assuming that proves attainable.
The system has not been an unqualified success when tried in other countries. Changes to the banding system are bound to be contentious. Most importantly, reforms have to win the support of teachers and parents. The discord caused in the teaching profession by benchmarking tests, and the disquiet spread by the proposed abolition of elite schools, are just two of the hurdles to be overcome.
The debate promises to be lively. With so many contrasting viewpoints to consider, some hard bargaining lies ahead before the reforms go through. But whatever compromises are reached, they cannot stop the winds of change from blowing through the corridors of academe. They will sweep away cobwebs and bring in an education system tailored to the needs of the young adults who will shape Hong Kong in the 21st century.