Parents' reports on quality may bring in extra funds
The past year was one in which the Hong Kong government, seeking quick improvements in the "quality" of education, suggested one-off cash incentives to schools.
Quality has become a shorthand for steering away from an education system excessively geared towards exam results to one which fosters greater thinking, communication and problem-solving skills.
Previously, the focus of the quality debate was on standards of English. This year for the first time, there has been recognition of broader failings in the education system to bring out communication and problem-solving skills.
A report by the Education Commission, which makes recommendations to the education department, suggested cash awards of up to 10,000 HK dollars (Pounds 8,000) on the basis of comments from parents on school quality. Another proposal talks of a one-off bonus to the 20 schools with the highest number of pupils showing an improvement in homework and extracurricular activities.
Hong Kong parents, however, judge the quality of education purely on how it helps students achieve high examination grades. There is still very little understanding of how modern teaching methods, extra-curricular activities and projects which cannot be graded, can contribute to children's thinking skills.
For some years there has been grave concern about language skills in English or Chinese. Teachers, employers and the universities, agree the ability of students to communicate verbally or in writing has declined. Meanwhile, Hong Kong has changed from a manufacturing to a service economy requiring higher problem-solving and creative skills. Hong Kong is particularly keen not be left behind Singapore and Taiwan which have already begun to tackle such issues head on.
A proposal by the University Grants Commission this year suggested that students who fail English or Chinese language AS level examinations should be made to pay full university fees of around 200,000 dollars (Pounds 15,400) a year. At present the government provides a grant of up to 80 per cent of the fees.
University heads this year also demanded a return to four-year degrees to make up for declining school standards.
Critics of the commission's proposals say the government cannot talk about improving students' communication and thinking skills when it has not reduced class sizes from 40 to 35 as it promised, and converted bisessional schools to full-day schools.
During the 1960s and 1970s, years of maximum refugee influx from China school construction in Hong Kong could not keep up with the massive rise in population. Schools used classrooms for one year group in the morning and another in the afternoon. The government is committed to expanding schools to get rid of bisessional schooling, but progress is slow.
Class size and bisessional schooling has particularly been an issue in the introduction of the so-called Target Oriented Curriculum, in English, Chinese and mathematics in primaries, like the British national curriculum it uses key-stage type targets and assessments and more project work. It is an attempt to move away from text-book oriented, exam-dictated methods which is thought to be holding back communication and thinking skills at primary level.
Despite massive resources being poured by the education department into developing and promoting the new curriculum and its extension to 80 per cent of primary schools during the 1995-96 academic year, few of the schools appear able to implement it properly because of large classes and short school days.
A frequently-heard criticism by teachers is that the curriculum is too Western in concept and only appropriate for teaching English, for which is was originally developed, and only later extended to Chinese and mathematics. There is actually quite hostile reaction to the curriculum from mathematics educators. Hong Kong's education system is likely to undergo a major review next year after the June handover to Chinese rule.
Tung Chi-Hwa, selected in December as the first post-1997 governor, has said a comprehensive review of the system is one of his priorities.