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Colony makes ready for return to mainland rule

MACAO With the Portuguese-administered territory of Macao reverting to Chinese rule in late 1999 - two years after Hong Kong - the Macao education authorities are preoccupied with preparing children for life under a new regime.

In particular this means adapting the education system to the local culture and conditions. Immigration from China has risen sharply in the past decade and the population of Macao is markedly young - 23 per cent of the population of 410,000 are of school age.

Portuguese and Macanese (of mixed Portuguese-Chinese parentage) people are becoming a smaller proportion of the population and the use of Portuguese is rare outside the civil service.

Despite the administration's stated desire to preserve Portuguese culture in the Far East, the aim of educating a Portuguese-speaking elite to administer the territory has largely been abandoned and Macao is moving towards universal Chinese-medium education.

In 1991, 90 per cent of school places were provided by private fee-paying schools. New immigrants in particular were likely to lose out - creating an underclass which has contributed to the soaring crime rate in the enclave.

Ninety per cent of children aged six to 11 were in full-time education but this drops to only 58 per cent of 12 to 14-year-olds - a figure which compares poorly to Hong Kong's nine years of compulsory education.

A scheme to provide subsidised and free places at primary level in private schools was launched this year as part of the administration's commitment to providing six years of compulsory education by 1999. There are also plans to build 16 new schools Two-thirds of all school-age children and virtually all primary pupils are set to receive free education this year. The subsidy scheme will be expanded by 1999 to include 12 to 14-year-olds.

The scheme has also enabled the administration to have more control over the schools - something that China is said to favour. Portuguese administrators, however, have noted that it would be an anomaly to take control suddenly of schools after four centuries of colonial rule which allowed schools considerable autonomy.

From this September all schools will have to follow the same educational guidelines, which will standardise the curriculum and will enable the government to have a greater say in what is actually being taught. The Catholic church which runs half the church-run schools says it is not against standardisation of the curriculum as long as it does not lower standards. Church schools predominate in Macao - 83 per cent of schools are church run and teach Chinese.

These schools also tend to teach English rather than Portuguese as a second language. The administration allows pupils to choose between the two but problems in recruiting Portuguese teachers and the importance of English, not only as an international language, but because of Macao's proximity to Hong Kong, has meant few schools can offer Portuguese.

Luso-Chinese schools represent about 5 per cent of the total and follow the Portuguese system with instruction in Chinese. Other schools follow the Taiwanese or mainland Chinese systems. And there are a handful of English-medium and Portuguese medium-schools following British and Portuguese curricula.

With the introduction of a standardised curriculum new history textbooks will be prescribed - in particular for fear that Macao will be subsumed into China after 1999 and its unique history forgotten.

But unlike Hong Kong where controversy has arisen over the writing of history textbooks for use after 1997, in Macao the administration has said where discrepancies appear between the Chinese and Portuguese versions of historical events, students will have to study both versions and make up their own minds.

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