SCMP Wednesday, August 9, 2000


Steady progress

Declining education standards have caused so much concern in recent years that even a modest two per cent improvement in exam results becomes a cause for rejoicing. If it is true, as the examiners insist, that the latest Hong Kong Certificate of Education Examination papers have been marked to the same standard as in previous years, then the authorities must be doing something right.

But a substantial improvement of academic levels will not come until more of the planned education reforms are in place, and until a far greater percentage of the school population than the 38 per cent which passed this year is able to move on to higher education.

Of even greater concern is the number of students at the other end of the scale. An astonishing 16.5 per cent failed every examination subject. That suggests the school system itself is failing a high proportion of pupils, which could mean there is something intrinsically wrong with the methods of teaching. Of the 140,000 students who sat the exams, a full 50,521 achieved the necessary six-plus points qualifying them for entry to Form Six. But there are only 24,000 places available at Government-subsidised schools, less than half the required number. When places at private schools are added, the total is still only about 30,000.

No matter how disappointing that will be to those who miss out, at least they are no longer simply written off as in previous years. Making final judgments about an individual's potential at age 16 or 17 is doing so far too early in life. With its new learning-for-life philosophy, the Government has recognised that a great deal of talent goes to waste unless opportunities exist for late developers to make up for lost time. Without such chances being available the whole community can lose, along with the pupils themselves.

Many more opportunities exist today for those unlucky students whose marks are not high enough to win them places, and also for slower learners who are not able to score passing marks. They must work harder to make up the distance lost by poor HKCEE results but, with determination, they too can eventually enter colleges or universities through the Project Springboard initiative programme or by taking advantage of the new lifetime learning opportunities.

Various training schemes this autumn will offer advancement opportunities to 50,000 post-secondary Form Five graduates, but the remainder will face a bleak employment situation. The jobless total may be declining but it is doing so slowly. Unemployment for the 15-to-18 age group during the second quarter of this year was nearly 23 per cent. And on-the-job experience is not quite as valuable if there is no permanent work available when it ends.

This morning, the annual scramble begins for students who are seeking to enroll in schools of their choice. Their class will be one of the last to enter under the present system.

If the Education Commission's vision is correct and if its reforms are implemented, the old rote-learning system will be discarded. That alone should reduce much of the angst and anxiety of school days. In addition, the banding system will be refined and lessons should become livelier thanks to greater pupil participation. Altogether, the climate in schoolrooms should change beyond all recognition.