Hong Kong's scores for maths, science and problem-solving are among the best in the world, but is it proving bolder than Britain in shaking up the 14 to 19 system. Katherine Forestier reports
Christopher Chen Cheuk-wan was expecting to leave school at 15 . He was considered to have no hope of passing high-pressure exams and the school was unable to offer him a place after Form 3, when compulsory education ends in Hong Kong. But Christopher is bright - his failure to keep up was caused by frequent hospital stays - so he was given a second chance in a new type of senior secondary.
Church of Christ in China Kung Lee college in Causeway Bay is one of eight schools piloting a curriculum aimed at widening opportunities for the many young people who fail to complete secondary education. It offers an alternative to the competitive academic route: the eight schools offer practical subjects which are taught alongside the basics of languages, maths and personal education.
Christopher studies commerce as part of his Hong Kong certificate of secondary education and is expected to get the results he needs to stay on.
His school involves local businesses, giving pupils a chance to learn through realistic tasks such as running a company. A team of 20 pupils put together a firm called Para Dice, which made multi-purpose furry dice that doubled as containers for a Chinese chess game. They were sold at a Christmas fair hosted by HSBC, the colony's famous international bank.
Kung Lee college's programme is part of a wider government reform, billed as the biggest education shake-up since schooling was made compulsory in the mid-1970s. It goes as far as Britain's Tomlinson proposals, to which Tony Blair is not yet fully commited, in overhauling the exam system and embracing both secondary and tertiary sectors.
In 2008, the exam system - modelled on GCSEs and A-levels - is to be replaced by a single diploma completed at the end of Form 6 after three years of senior secondary education. Form 7, which finishes at 18 or 19, will be scrapped. University study will be extended from three years to four.
The changes are seen as crucial for Hong Kong now that its labour-intensive factories have moved to mainland China and its future depends on developing as a knowledge-based economy.
Chris Wardlaw, deputy secretary for education and manpower and one of the reform's architects, says increasing global competition and changes in society and the economy demanded the move. It was necessary for all students, rather than the few, to be able to finish secondary schooling.
Liberal studies is a unique feature of the Hong Kong solution, comprising self-development; society and culture; science, technology and the environment and independent research.
"Liberal studies is very much our response to the issue that knowledge is changing," says Mr Wardlaw. "Students can look at knowledge in different ways. It has to be multi-disciplinary and more student- focused.
"What everyone wants - whether universities or small and medium-sized enterprises - is people who are proficient in languages, have a strong understanding of maths and a good general knowledge of the critical issues facing society, problem-solving skills and critical thinking."
Hong Kong excelled in the 2003 Programme for International Student Assessment (Pisa) tests - coming top in maths, second in problem-solving and third in science. But the study also revealed serious weaknesses.
Students had the lowest self-esteem, were the least satisfied with school life and had the poorest sense of belonging to their schools.
Mr Wardlaw said Pisa confirmed the need for change. "We can now tap into the resilience and perseverance of Hong Kong students by making the systemic changes and adding value," he said.
Susan Ha Lau Yuen-yung, the principal of Kung Lee college, is concerned that the new diploma would still fail to cater for all students, particularly the less academic. She questions whether the interaction envisaged in liberal studies could take place in classes of up to 40, the norm in Hong Kong. Like many other principals there, she supports the general direction of the reforms. "People see the need for change.
Politically, it is a matter of how, not why," she says.