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Bold new era of 14-19s


GCSE-style exams and A-levels will be scrapped in favour of a three-year diploma. Katherine Forestier reports

Hong Kong has decided to abandon its UK-influenced exams system in favour of a new International Baccalaureate-style diploma.

The former British colony, now a Chinese Special Administrative Region, has published its education action plan. It wants to replace the Hong Kong Certificate of Education Examinations (equivalent to GCSEs) and A-levels, with a three-year diploma.

Pupils will spend three years in junior secondary and three years in senior secondary, ending at age 17-18. This will allow them all full access to secondary education, - only 30 per cent of pupils take A-levels at the moment. University courses will be extended from three to four years.

Following consultation earlier this year, the new academic structure will be phased in from 2009, a year later than proposed, to give schools and teachers more time to prepare.

The curriculum will be radically different. Students will study four mandatory subjects - Chinese, English, maths and liberal studies - and two or three electives, which can include vocational courses.

It will also include the independent enquiry study, similar to the International bac's extended essay.

Fifteen to 35 per cent of the school day will be devoted to other learning experiences, including moral and civic education, community service and aesthetic, physical and career-related activities. Secretary for education, Professor Arthur Li Kwok-cheung, said there was huge support for changes, which were a "landmark in our education history".

The government would invest HK$7.9 billion (pound;6 bn), compared with HK$6.7bn originally proposed, to meet the preparation costs.

Chris Wardlaw, deputy secretary for education, said the plans would enable Hong Kong to catch up with other countries - its participation rate in senior secondary education is low by international standards. It would also be "leaping ahead" with new approaches to learning, teaching and assessment.

Liberal studies, he said, was unique. The enquiry-based subject includes three broad areas of concern about the human condition and the contemporary world. These include self and personal development; society and culture; science, technology and the environment. It represents a radical departure from the spoon-feeding for exams that has characterised the approach to learning in Hong Kong.

"It deliberately starts from a multi-perspective viewpoint, crosses and links disciplines and focuses on the creation of knowledge in a globalised environment," Mr Wardlaw said.

Assessment would be standard-referenced and include more school-based assessment.

There was remarkable consensus for the new structure, he added."We can reflect on the similar proposals under way in the UK, where it is widely accepted that changes must be made, but there is not yet sufficient consensus on the way forward," he said.

He added that cutting one set of exams and having fewer examinable subjects would give space for students' broader development.

The Hong Kong exams and assessment authority will seek international recognition for the new diploma and is working with the University of Cambridge Local Examinations Syndicate to benchmark the qualification against GCSEs and A-levels.

Cheung Man-kwong, president of the Professional Teachers' Union, said: "If class sizes are to remain at 40 pupils, it will be hard for students and teachers to have the interaction suggested in the new curriculum."

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