Scottish approach sets example for high-achieving Hong Kong

11th February 2011 at 00:00
Former UK colony's successful approach has embraced CfE-style `thinking skills' agenda, says education minister

One of the world's top-performing education systems is emulating Scotland's approach to curriculum reform rather than that being championed by England's education secretary Michael Gove.

Mr Gove has pointed to Hong Kong's example several times, saying a curriculum overhaul was needed to bring England "back to the road travelled by the most successful education systems around the world".

But in an interview with The TES, a Hong Kong education minister revealed a key element of the curriculum reforms behind the territory's success has been the kind of explicit teaching of learning and thinking skills that drive Curriculum for Excellence in Scotland.

Mr Gove prefers a strict focus on "essential" subject knowledge.

Among the reforms in Hong Kong has been the abolition of exams at 16. This contradicts Mr Gove's claim that in "high- performing nations, there is an expectation that children will be tested in a wide range of subjects at 16".

The former British colony finished third in science and maths, and fourth in reading out of 65 education systems in the most recent 2009 Programme for International Student Assessment (Pisa) results.

Kenneth Chen, Hong Kong under-secretary for education, said much of the success was due to a curriculum introduced over the past decade emphasising "21st-century skills" such as "learning how to learn".

"Obviously, you need content and subject knowledge," Mr Chen said. "But more importantly, we feel that kids need to have that attitude that they need to learn continuously."

Mr Chen highlighted "liberal studies" - one of four core subjects in Hong Kong's senior secondary curriculum, which is designed to teach pupils how to learn and think critically and creatively.

"It is not a content-based curriculum," he said. "We are not asking students to memorise a whole set of facts and be able to regurgitate them in a test. Instead, the subject uses an issue-based enquiry method to teach students how to think and analyse."

This is taking the Scottish approach - perhaps not surprisingly since Hong Kong governments over the years have been advised by senior figures from Scottish education. They include Archie McGlynn, a former chief inspector closely associated with the move to school self-evaluation, which culminated in the inspectorate's "bible" of How Good Is Our School?

But policy in England will not be subject to these influences.

"I think that the purpose of the national curriculum is to lay down the bodies of knowledge and essential content in those subject areas," Mr Gove said. "There is a debate within Asian nations about the greater degree of creativity and scope for creativity in their curricula. But that is because they start at different positions from us. If we had the same level of performance in those core areas, then we would be having a similar debate. But the pendulum is in a different place."

Mr Gove has set up yet another curriculum review in England, but has already been accused of compromising it by cherry-picking ideas from other countries that he already agrees with.

Mick Waters, president of the Curriculum Foundation, who led the last secondary curriculum review in England, said it would be "unfortunate" to marginalise skills that are at "the heart of the curriculum" in successful systems.

In an article for The TES, Mr Waters said: "The pattern, in Singapore, Scandinavia, Hong Kong, Scotland and countless others, is to move away from a previous emphasis on facts and knowledge and entwine knowledge, skills and the development of personal qualities."

John Dunford, chair of the Whole Education campaign, said the review should recognise that employers sought "essential skills", such as teamworking, communication and creativity, alongside numeracy and literacy.

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