SCMP Tuesday, May 9, 2000


Learning curve

It is pointless to pretend there will be no pain involved in reforming the education system. Radical changes involve going back to the drawing board and accepting that a lot of the old certainties have no real relevance to the modern world.

A system which slots young children into narrow bands, rote learning, the culture of an academic elite nurtured at supposedly "top" schools - these are concepts that most developed nations abandoned decades ago. Here they remain so deeply entrenched that it will take a change of attitude at every level of the community to get the new ideas accepted.

The Education Commission has taken a scalpel to the system. Inevitably it will hit pockets of resistance. There will also be pro-reformists who think it has not gone far enough. Overall, however, there is agreement that today's education process is unsuited to meet the challenges of a changing economy. If Hong Kong is to remain a vibrant city, it needs a workforce peopled by creative thinkers and problem solvers. That cannot be supplied by pupils who sit obediently taking notes as a teacher intones instructions.

Once the reforms are carried through, primary schools will be transformed. Students about to enter secondary schools will still be slotted into bands, but by reducing the number of bands from five to three, the stigma attached to a lower band is reduced because each band will encompass a wider range of abilities. In time, the banding system will be abolished. What is important is that the new system will do away with the Academic Aptitude Test, now a key tool of determining banding that led to cramming rather than knowledge for its own sake.

Now that primary schools can only choose 15 per cent of the intake, there are bound to be parents prepared to move house so their child qualifies on residency grounds. But reforms cannot be held up because people cheat. After some years of mixed ability classes, the concept of "top" schools will diminish, and the scramble for places will be less of a problem. But elitism has not been eradicated. Secondary schools will have a greater say in the pupils they accept. Tests and assessments will continue to mark out the brightest from the less academically inclined.

Gone will be the outdated practice of streaming 15-year-olds into science and arts disciplines which gives no opportunity to discover other aptitudes and interests. And since all Form Five students will be kept on for another year, lessons will have to be made more stimulating and relevant. Nothing is gained by keeping reluctant students sitting at a desk if they would rather be working. Positive though these reforms are, they have to be paid for. The cost of keeping all Form Five students at school for one more year is huge. Should the duration of most first-degree programmes be extended from three to four years, the bill would be even higher. But the commission has asked the universities to find the money to do so - a proposal which has naturally not gone down well.

But with a third of government spending on education going to the tertiary sector, there is a strong case for the primary and secondary sectors having a priority claim over additional resources. The Government will need to spend more, but new sources of funding should be explored.

A new commitment to lifelong learning should not mean the Government footing all the bills. In a changing work environment where people may have to make several career changes during their working life, there should not be too much resistance to paying part of one's way through college. The students will be the ones to profit in the long run.

However welcome the reforms, success or failure rests in the staff room. Principals must be fully committed to these ideas, and capable of inspiring enthusiasm in others. Teachers complain they are already burdened with too much paperwork. Now, they are being asked to revolutionise their approach in a way that will require a lot more input. But it will be worth the effort. The job will be more rewarding, students more responsive, and if all goes well, a roundly educated population better equipped to meet the challenges of the Internet era.