There is a strong education culture in Hong Kong. Parents have traditionally pushed their children, so that school performance has been higher than would be expected from ability profiles and standards have not been a major issue.
The Hong Kong government's working group on education standards, set up in 1993, was less a response to concern over standards than to keep up with trends in the West, according to the chairman, Dr Cheng Kai-Ming, dean of the department of education at Hong Kong University.
The Hong Kong school system is relatively homogenous and geared towards academic vigour. There are fewer failures and fewer really outstanding students. This in part stems from the belief that success in school depends on effort: anyone who works hard can achieve. In addition the belief is strong that everyone should adapt to the system rather than the system cater for individual needs.
At secondary level over-reliance on exams has led to concern that rather than working on reasoning skills, students are merely becoming proficient at regurgitating facts. The biggest debate has been over standards of English language, widely seen to be declining. Measures have been taken such as minimum grades in English language in order to secure university entrance. However, the government does not want to be seen to be directing large resources into English language teaching a few years before the handover to Chinese rule.
As many as 20 per cent of children are thought to have problems coping, and the view is growing that rather than heap additional work on them, as at present, remedial teaching needs to be instituted.
Efforts are also being made to reduce class sizes (45 is the norm) so that those with problems can be more easily identified, and to improve teacher training, particularly at primary level. Teachers have to cater for children with backgrounds, including those with illiterate or semi-literate parents, often refugees from China. These parents pressure their children to do well to secure opportunities they did not have themselves, but cannot help with schoolwork.
The inspectorate carries out periodic audits but is criticised for being secretive and having no sanction against failing schools. The inspectorate issues warnings and believes that in a society where "face" is important, the fear that it could go public with criticisms is enough to force improvements.
The working group on education standards has recommended a system of benchmarking, where successful schools will be held up as an example for others to follow. However it has no suggestions as to how failing schools will be identified and assisted to make changes.