Why Hong Kong pupils are far more than exam robots

3rd June 2016 at 00:00
Ex-British colony is among the East Asian education powerhouses now focused on developing creativity

Yung Yau College sits, squeezed within a soaring housing estate, in Hong Kong’s New Territories, the once-peaceful countryside to the north of the city that now houses half of the former British colony’s 7 million people.

Lush, green wetlands are punctuated by vast housing developments that have sprung up since the 1980s to accommodate the mushrooming population.

The school’s location, little more than a mile from the Chinese border and Shenzhen, China’s answer to Silicon Valley, is pertinent as the school’s students have both the academic skills and the creative flair to be the tech entrepreneurs of tomorrow. It is a combination that should have the West fretting.

While it is well known that the main East Asian economies vastly outperform the West academically in global education rankings, there has always been a sense that Western students enjoyed a competitive edge thanks to their creativity and independence. Not any more. Yung Yau – recommended by Hong Kong’s authorities as a school to visit – demonstrates that the stereotype of the academic automaton produced by factory schools no longer fits.

Student-centred learning

“We pay attention to three things. The first one is knowledge. The second one is skills, in different competitions, science, technology, debating – our students show their skills,” Alex Kai, Yung Yau’s principal, tells TES.

“And also we stress attitude, which is important in Chinese culture. How to motivate students to learn, how to tell them learning is important. We teach them how to learn so that it is student-centred, not teacher-centred.”

The strong academic basis that the students have developed means the school is able to embed greater creativity and critical-thinking skills across its curriculum, Dr Kai explains.

Creativity is at the heart of what Yung Yau does. Instead of Stem – science, technology, engineering and maths – the school teaches “Steam”, with the inclusion of the arts. All pupils study 3D computer animation until the age of 16, and the liberal arts are compulsory along with Chinese, English and maths for all students until the age of 18.

‘Undergraduate level’

“In many countries, people think working in the creative industries means having creativity,” Liu Man-lee, vice principal at Yung Yau, says. “But we teach our students that you have to have diligence and know how to work collaboratively to work in this sector.”

Previously, parents in Hong Kong hoping for a more liberal, independent-style education would have had to turn to fee-paying schools.

But Yung Yau caters for the children of the waiters, construction workers and cab drivers of Hong Kong’s buzzing metropolis, not of its bankers, solicitors and accountants.

More than 70 per cent of the children at the school come from families on income support, but despite its heavily deprived intake it is viewed as a “band 1” – or top-performing – school for its attainment.

The students come in from a low base, but by sixth form many are at an undergraduate level, particularly in Stem. The school embodies what Western countries are trying to emulate, and why education ministers, not least the UK’s Nick Gibb, have flocked to the territory to find the secret to its success.

The results of Yung Yau’s approach are demonstrable. One 14-year-old showed how she built a heart sensor monitor linked to a smartphone. The device could be used by people with a history of heart disease and would phone the rescue services if they had a cardiac arrest. “She has already been approached by a chief executive of a company wanting to develop the idea and we’ve been advised to gain patents for several of our students’ projects,” Mr Liu adds.

The school is the product of Hong Kong’s wider education reforms, as the city sought 10 years ago to build on its strong academic platform by introducing more creativity, critical-thinking skills and problem-solving into its curriculum. Other high-performing East Asian jurisdictions have made similar changes, such as Singapore, which now has a more holistic approach to teaching.

Since leaving Britain’s control, Hong Kong has moved away from a UK-style education, scrapping public exams at 16 in favour of an ultimate high stakes test at 18, similar to the gaokao on the Chinese mainland.

But Dr Kai is adamant that it will keep a distinctive approach. “We have our Hong Kong style,” he said. “We have our own space to keep our style – we are not influenced by the Chinese government or the British government. We are a mixture of both.”


Reality check on Western schooling

While the UK may have little to teach Hong Kong in terms of international test results, there is one educational export that has left its mark on Hong Kong’s teachers – the BBC programme Are Our Kids Tough Enough? Chinese School.

The show placed a handful of Chinese teachers in a normal English comprehensive to find out how its students would cope with the demanding Asian teaching regime. And it went down well at Yung Yau College. “I showed it to all of my staff,” says principal Alex Kai. “Is that what an ordinary school in England is like?”

Another member of staff could barely believe the reality show was, in fact, real. “Is that how students usually behave?” she asked. “Don’t teachers discipline their students?”

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