The Hong Kong Education System

How is the education system structured?
All children of Hong Kong residents are entitled to twelve years of universal basic education and are expected to attend school between the ages of six and eighteen. Most children attend kindergartens from the age of three onwards although there is only limited public funding for pre-school education in the form of means-tested subsidies. Although after the age of fifteen education is no longer compulsory, only a small proportion of teenagers drop out of formal education entirely at this stage.
Primary education lasts six years and the vast majority of primary school students are taught in Cantonese. Secondary education is divided into three stages. Secondary Forms One to Three are a foundation stage; Forms Four and Five prepare students for the Hong Kong Certificate of Education Exam and Forms Six and Seven prepare students for the Advanced Level Exam and university matriculation. These two exams are scheduled to be replaced by a unified diploma from 2011 onwards.

A very small number of less academically able secondary level students and students with learning disabilities or behavioral problems have the option of attending prevocational schools, technical colleges and special schools where they can follow a curriculum which is modified to suit their needs and take vocational courses alongside a core of conventional academic subjects. However, most such students attend mainstream schools as there has been a drive by the government to integrate such students into the normal curriculum.

At many schools, students are streamed into 'arts', 'business' or 'engineering' streams from Form Four (usually age fifteen) upwards. They are required to study a block of complimentary subjects, which it is believed would lead logically to certain degree and career choices. Thus for the majority of students there is little flexibility in the options that they take after Form Three and they are effectively required to make permanent choices determining the shape of their future careers at the age of fourteen. One of the intended benefits of the new senior secondary curriculum, which is scheduled for introduction in 2009, is that rigid streaming is expected to become a thing of the past.
Promotion between forms in a school is not automatic and usually depends on a student's performance in coursework and exams having met certain minimum requirements. Thus it is not that unusual to have to teach a seventeen year old in a class of predominantly thirteen year olds.

At the end of Form Three, students compete to obtain subsidized places in their own schools and students who have performed less well in assessments at this stage may have to apply elsewhere or wait to be allocated through a pool system. Subsidies for students in forms Four and above are means tested so better off parents are expected to contribute a proportion of the costs of their children's last four years of secondary schooling. The least able students often find that the only schools that are willing to take them are a very long way away from home and therefore the only practical choice left open to them is to go to a private school or take evening classes.

However, starting from September 2006, all students entering Secondary One will take the New Senior Secondary Curriculum by the time they enter Secondary Four. Instead of taking both the Hong Kong Certificate of Education Examination (HKCEE) and Hong Kong Advanced-Level Examination (HKAL)to gain admission to tertiary education, this batch of students will take only one examination, Hong Kong Diploma of Education Examination. Under the new reform initiatives, students will take four core and one elective subjects (as the minimal admission requirement). The four core subjects are Chinese Language, English Language, Mathematics and Liberal Studies. This new university admission requirement will be effective from 2012. An overview of the new syllabus can be found here.

What different types of schools are there in Hong Kong?
Schools in Hong Kong fall into four main categories according to how they are managed.

Of the 430 secondary schools in Hong Kong, about 30 are government schools and are directly controlled by the Education Department. Teachers at these schools are often employed on civil service terms and are recruited and deployed through a central allocation system. Nonetheless, the principals of these schools have considerable freedom to make decisions about the day to day running of the school.

The vast majority of schools in Hong Kong are subsidized schools. These are often also called sub-vented or grant schools. They are independently owned and managed by a board of governors but they are dependent upon government funding. Most of these schools were originally founded by Christian or Buddhist religious orders, by charitable bodies, or by organizations representing people with a shared ancestry or who migrated to Hong Kong from the same part of the mainland.

Direct Subsidy Schools are schools that receive government funding but are also allowed to charge fees, subject to the requirement that they fully or partially subsidize places for a set proportion of their intake. These schools generally follow the local curriculum but enjoy greater freedom over staffing, class size and admissions. Schools in the DSS scheme are largely subject to market forces and in some cases the competition between them has led to more innovative teaching practices.
There are also a number of independent fee paying schools in Hong Kong, some of which cater mainly to the international community and some of which cater mainly to post Form Four students who were unable to obtain a place in a government or subsidized school. NET teachers will only be posted to government or subsidized schools. Schools are also categorized by the type of syllabus that they follow and (unofficially) the typical level of ability of the students on roll.

The majority of schools in Hong Kong are technically also categorized as 'grammar' schools. 'Grammar' schools are attended by 91% of secondary students in Hong Kong. This category may be confusing to teachers who are used to the term being used to describe elite selective schools which traditionally prepared students for university matriculation. In Hong Kong, the term 'grammar' school simply denotes that the students follow a conventional academic syllabus and are prepared for the HKCEE (post-16) and HKALE (post-18) exams.

Students in secondary schools are placed into three 'bands' according to their performance in school based assessment at the end of their primary education, and there is a considerable amount of competition among students for places at the most prestigious schools. Schools are for the most part filled by students who fall within the same banding and so you will often hear people talking about the banding of their school.

The fact that conventional schools are often called 'grammar' schools is indicative of a major problem in the education system. Universal free secondary education came about comparatively recently in Hong Kong, as recently as the 1960s and 1970s New schools set up at that time attempted to closely imitate the syllabus taught at the elite schools despite the lack of financial resources and the fact that the syllabus was too demanding for most students to be able to cope with.

Other types of schools include:
1. Prevocational and technical schools where students follow a less academic, more vocational syllabus,
2. Skills opportunity schools and practical schools for demotivated students and slow learners; and
3. Special needs schools which cater for students with a physical or mental handicap.
However, the government has adopted the policy of integrating students with special needs into mainstream schools and so these special school categories are rapidly being phased out.

What are the main problems in the education system in Hong Kong?

Over the past few years, the government has been eager to convince the public that it is treating education as a priority. A number of governmental and semi-autonomous bodies, including the Curriculum Development Council, the Education Commission, the Standing Committee on Language and Research, the Quality Assurance Inspectorate, Education Convergence and so forth, advise the government on education issues. The result of this is that a large number of initiatives in education have had to be implemented by schools at the behest of these bodies without sufficient reflection about whether teachers are ready for them or about the workload involved. New initiatives often require schools to set up committees or to do the paper-work in order to be able to prove to the Education and Manpower Bureau and to school inspectors that they have responded to government recommendations; the result of this is that teachers are weighed down with bureaucracy and often complain that they have insufficient time to prepare lessons, help individual students, or simply enjoy a life outside of school. These top-down initiatives have also often demoralized teachers because they seem to have been based on the assumption that teachers are not sufficiently professional to be able to judge for themselves what is in the best interests of their students.

Another significant problem faced by teachers and students in Hong Kong is a shortage of funding. Although the past decade has seen dramatic increases in the amount of money spent on education by the government, schools are still under-funded in comparison with their counterparts in the west.
The typical class size in secondary schools in Hong Kong is 40 to 42 students. These students often have to be accommodated in cramped classrooms that do not lend themselves to innovative teaching methods, and having such large classes makes it difficult for teachers to get to know their students well. The government has decided recently that it will reduce the maximum class size in secondary one classes to 38 in September 2008 and to 36 in September 2009.

Many schools also suffer from a lack of equipment and resources. There are huge discrepancies between the facilities in long established schools in affluent areas which are able to benefit from the financial support of alumni and parents and schools in poorer neighborhoods which depend solely on government funding. Despite massive government investment in education, some schools have only one photocopier and there are even a few schools where the budget is so tight that teachers are required to provide their own toilet paper!

Due to the economic downturn in recent years, the government had to delay providing funds for essential maintenance work at some schools. Recently the media has reported cases of students having to be taught in rooms affected by damp and leaking ceilings. More recently, the government has been enjoying record surpluses and has been catching up with renovation work, but it will be some time before the effects of this are felt in all schools.

Perhaps the biggest worry for teachers is the very low birth rate in Hong Kong. Over the past decade, this has fallen very rapidly so that now each couple in Hong Kong has on average only 0.9 children. As a result, the school population has begun shrinking. Many primary schools have not been able to enroll enough students into their Primary One classes in order to satisfy government funding requirements, and are consequently facing the prospect of closure. Even though the government has begun to phase in small class teaching, the proposed reduction in class sizes will not be enough to prevent secondary schools running into the same problems, and it is expected that as soon as 2010 some secondary schools will fail to recruit sufficient numbers of students to be allowed to continue operating.

What are the major concerns for English language teachers?
The Education and Manpower Bureau has identified a number of major concerns which it encourages schools to focus on, and teachers and subject panels are encouraged to incorporate responses to these concerns into their lesson plans. Most of these concerns are relevant in some way to the teaching of English. They include: fostering a reading culture; instilling positive attitudes towards life-wide learning; enhancing moral education; using IT for teaching and learning; and developing civic and national education. You will almost certainly be asked to contribute ideas for how to achieve some of these objectives in your panel.

Since 2007 HKCE English students all sit the same exam and the examination authority has also switched from normative to criterion-based assessment of English. 15% of the examination marks are determined by school-based assessment. For this assessment, students are required to read two books and watch two videos, including fiction and non-fiction, and then discuss these with classmates as well as giving individual oral presentations. Teachers are required to report oral marks at the end of Form Four and at the end of Form Five. There has been considerable concern about the impact that this has had on teachers’ workloads.

How is the education system changing?
The government has already initiated several major changes in its education policy in the past few years. The most significant of these has been the decision to require the majority of secondary schools to use Cantonese as the medium of instruction instead of English. It is hoped that this will make it easier for students to understand what they are being taught and so will enhance student motivation and the quality of teaching and learning. However, one third of schools (those at which a minimum proportion of students are sufficiently strong at English in order to be able to cope with using the language as a medium of instruction) have been allowed to keep teaching in English. As parents associate English medium of instruction with better English and better career prospects for their children, these EMI schools have become heavily oversubscribed.

Only recently, the government decided to introduce new criteria to determine whether schools can remain EMI, with a view to putting these in place in 2008. In order to use English, a school would have had to ensure that 85% of its students fall in the top 40% for English, Math and Chinese. These requirements would mean that English medium schools are penalized for offering places to children who are native English speakers but who are less academically inclined or who do not speak or read Chinese. However there is some confusion at the moment as the government has suggested that it may be willing to be more flexible in deciding whether schools should be allowed to use EMI, even suggesting that some schools may be allowed to use EMI for some classes and CMI for others. Schools will also have to prove that their teachers are capable of teaching in English; older staff members who entered the profession before the Use of English A-level exam was created may find it difficult to prove their language ability on paper.

The government has launched a Quality Education Fund, which allocates resources to schools on a competitive basis; in order to be awarded funds, schools have to demonstrate that the money will be spent in an innovative way and will enhance learning. Many schools have used these funds to develop original and forward-looking schemes in fields such as information technology and multimedia but a criticism of the QEF is that it has led to an uneven distribution of funds.

The government is also determined to promote the use of information technology in schools and has put large amounts of money into pilot I.T. projects in selected schools. The government also requires every teacher to pass a benchmark in order to demonstrate that he or she has attained basic information technology skills. In order to comply with this requirement, you may find that you are expected to attend very lengthy I.T. courses. Some teachers have complained that they have been required to waste hours being 'taught' very basic I.T. skills that they had already mastered. Others have expressed the concern that the more advanced courses that their schools want everyone to pass don't fall far short of qualifying those who take them for working for NASA! In the early stages of this scheme, schools conducted in-service training to enable their staff to reach the IT benchmarks; now if you need IT training it is more likely to have to take place in your own time and at your own expense.

Another major change is the drive to promote professionalism in education. At present a significant proportion of teachers do not hold a first degree or do not have a teaching qualification. The government intends that in the future all teachers will have a university degree and hold a teacher’s certificate, but a shortage of funds and recent salary cuts may make it difficult for the government to attract a sufficient number of graduates to the profession over the next few years. Therefore, the government has decided to require teachers who do not hold a degree in the subject that they teach to complete extensive ‘subject knowledge’ courses – English teachers are being required to take these courses even if they have passed the language benchmark, and many of them complain that they are expensive, time-consuming and of limited practical relevance to their needs in the classroom.
In addition all serving teachers are also required to complete 150 hours of continuing professional development over a three-year period, although what counts as CPD has been defined very broadly and is at the discretion of individual schools. A common concern is the poor quality of training provided for teachers by the Education and Manpower Bureau and the lack of consultation with teachers over what they perceive to be their training needs.

Prospective English teachers are now required to sit benchmarking tests or take courses in order to demonstrate their proficiency in the language. NETs, together with local teachers who have a degree or PCEd. majoring in English, are exempt from benchmarking.

The most dramatic changes to the education system, however, are those that have been proposed recently by the Education Commission. The commission wants to replace the HKCEE (post 16) and HKALE (post 18) exams with a unitary exam and wants to reduce senior secondary schooling from four years to three in order to make it possible for university courses to be extended from three years to four. Under the proposed new senior secondary syllabus, all students will be required to study a three-year senior secondary course leading to a diploma. This will include compulsory English, Math, Chinese and Liberal Studies as well as either two or three additional optional subjects. Both traditional academic subjects and more career-oriented courses will be on offer. A significant proportion of marks for every diploma subject will come from school-based assessment. This reform is aimed at giving a greater number of students access to a complete high-school education which will potentially equip them for university; at present only 18% of students continue their education beyond Form Five. However, the new syllabuses and the requirement to conduct school-based assessment will greatly increase teachers’ workloads, at least during the transitional period.

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