School Improvement - Why Hong Kong is taking aim at teacher workloads
One of the world's highest performing school systems is aiming to achieve even greater success by reducing teacher workloads and offering more support to "needy" students.
Hong Kong starts from a high base, having been consistently ranked in the global elite since international comparative studies of school systems began two decades ago. But on a visit to England, the territory's education secretary, Eddie Ng, told TES that official concern over poverty was a key reason for further improvements to its schools.
"We believe that the more effective education is, the better able people are to walk out from the poverty line," the minister said. He revealed that the number of years of free schooling was to rise from 12 years to 15, with three extra years of state-funded kindergarten education.
This is only the latest phase of the carefully planned development of the school system in Hong Kong, now a semi- autonomous region of China. The territory's methodical approach to raising standards of education has already paid dividends according to world rankings, and has won international admirers.
England's education secretary Michael Gove has praised Hong Kong for being a "restless self-improver". But despite its status as a former British colony, the territory has taken its school system in a very different direction to Mr Gove's reforms.
A new secondary curriculum has already emphasised the teaching of "21st- century skills" such as "learning how to learn". Now, in a similar vein, Mr Ng says Hong Kong wants to use technology to "enable our students to become self-directed learners", and to encourage "pedagogical innovation" so that "active learning can take place anytime and anywhere".
In England, by contrast, Mr Gove has encouraged a strict focus on "essential" subject knowledge and introduced a curriculum to match. Now the two places could also be seen as moving in different directions over teacher working conditions. Mr Gove's department is attempting to remove limits on teachers' hours and abolishing rules that prevent them from being asked to carry out certain clerical and administrative tasks.
But Mr Ng, who was in England for last week's Education World Forum meeting of ministers, told TES that Hong Kong was about to provide full- time clerical staff, "so that each primary school will have an extra helping hand in reducing the clerical and administrative duties of teachers and recognising their workload".
"I believe in working together with the teachers so that they put their time into the most critical areas like teaching," he said.
Demographics meant there was a "sense of urgency" about the need to further improve education in Hong Kong, Mr Ng added. "By 2018 we will have a potential downward trend in the population, so we believe we need to manage the future and nurture the younger generation," he said. That meant it was also necessary to focus more on ethnic minority students and those with special educational needs, because "every individual is important to the future of Hong Kong".
Mr Ng said that more than pound;15 million was being set aside to help improve the language education of children among the territory's 60,000 ethnic minority residents, from countries including Pakistan, India and Nepal.
"Over the years, we have found they have been in Hong Kong for up to three generations but they have difficulties picking up Chinese as a second language," Mr Ng said. "But we want them to take Hong Kong as a genuine home, so we need to make extra efforts to help them, including their Chinese capabilities."
Other largely Chinese states or systems - including Shanghai, Taiwan, Singapore and Macao - also excelled in the most recent Programme for International Student Assessment (Pisa). Asked if this success was about an inherently Chinese culture, rather than policies that other countries and cultures could adopt, Mr Ng said: "In most countries in Asia, parents put a lot of value on their kids' education."
But he also said the fact that the Hong Kong administration spent more than a fifth of its budget on education, and had done so "for years", was a factor.
Like his counterparts in Singapore, Mr Ng stressed that the motivation for participating in such studies was "not just to get a high rank but to try to learn from it, to see what else can improve". The minister cited Germany's vocational education system as inspiration for current efforts to diversify the options available to students in Hong Kong.
But what about Shanghai, the only system to have consistently outperformed Hong Kong in the last Pisa? Was there anything to be learned from the Chinese city?
Apparently not. "Different places have different focuses," Mr Ng said. "Hong Kong has its own strength and its own unique situation."
Study of success
In December, the latest Programme for International Student Assessment rated Hong Kong second best in the world for reading and science, and third for maths - a subject in which the territory has always appeared in the top four.
In 2012, it was ranked best in the world for reading by the Progress in International Reading Literacy Study, and its 13- and 14-year-olds came fourth for maths in the Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study.