Suicides spark staff protests

Hong Kong teachers have unleashed their fiercest opposition yet to the territory's ambitious education reforms following the suicides of two colleagues.

The main teachers' union has blamed work pressure for the deaths - although Hong Kong law does not require an inquest into suicides where there are no suspicious circumstances.

One recent survey found 60 per cent of teachers were working more than 60 hours a week.

The deaths, and the government's response, sparked protests last week.

Fanny Law Fan Chiu-fun, the permanent secretary of education, infuriated teachers by saying: "If their deaths are related to education reforms, then why are there only two?"

She was forced to apologise the next day amid calls for her resignation.

But the apology did not appease teachers, who marched to the chief executive's office - equivalent to the UK's No 10 Downing Street - and dumped dozens of education reform documents at its door.

The Professional Teachers' Union is calling for key reforms to be overturned, including the introduction of school-based assessment and external school reviews which, they say, burden teachers with too much administrative work. It has urged members to boycott tasks related to reforms teachers regard as unnecessary.

The government responded to the discontent by unveiling new measures to relieve pressure, including an extra HK$1.3 billion (pound;90 million) funding for schools, a hotline for distressed teachers, and a committee to investigate the causes of pressure.

Discontent had been simmering after several surveys had shown that large numbers of teachers were suffering from stress and overwork.

Hong Kong's education reforms, which were begun in 2000, embrace almost every aspect of the system, from the allocation of school places to curriculum and examinations. They will culminate with the scrapping of the British-style Hong Kong certificate of education (equivalent to the GCSE) and Hong Kong A-levels, in favour of a three-year diploma all students will be able to complete.

But teachers are concerned that many will lose their jobs with the curriculum shake-up and that extensive re-training will add to their heavy workload.

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