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Transfer plan sunk by flood of pupils

Patriotism and the economy are to set the educational tone in the new Hong Kong. Yojana Sharma reports.

Hong Kong's authorities are rushing to build new schools to cater for thousands of extra children - three times the official estimate - arriving from mainland China. They have also been forced to abandon plans to reduce class sizes from 40 to 35 The education department's hopes of a well-planned, orderly transfer have been already dashed. Some 9,000 children arrived legally in 1996, and 20,000 are expected this year. However, early this year a huge number of children were smuggled in from China, often after dangerous journeys on rickety boats. Most had a father resident in Hong Kong and are therefore legally entitled to stay after the hand-over.

A closer look at the visa arrangements reveals another time bomb. Previously the Hong Kong government believed some 35-40,000 children were eligible to join a parent in Hong Kong. But in April, Hong Kong's chief executive designate Mr Tung Chi-hwa confirmed that 90,000 children had applied from neighbouring Guangdong province alone.

Another 20,000 may be eligible from other parts of China. This is three times the original estimate. The Hong Kong education department has had to add another seven secondary schools to its order for 16 new primary and secondaries by the year 2000.

And there are other problems. Some 80 per cent of secondary-age children and 50 per cent of primary-age pupills coming from the mainland have to repeat a class. Although they are on par with Hong Kong children in mathematics and science, they are at a severe disadvantage in English and often in Chinese, since the dialect spoken in Hong Kong is Cantonese rather than the mainland Mandarin.

Many schools are reluctant to admit mainland children because teachers do not want to give them additional attention. Some students are forced to travel large distances to the school that finally accepts them, others wait many months for a place despite a government pledge that immigrant children should be found a school within three months.

The government provides English language programmes at 50 special centres for nine to 15-year-olds. But, with a large number of children under the age of nine, educators want the programme expanded.

In September, schools taking in mainland pupils will receive extra government funding of Pounds 166 per primary pupil and Pounds 250 per secondary pupil, intended for school-based English language programmes. But the education department says it cannot force schools to take pupils.

Government studies have shown once the language problems are overcome, mainland-born children often outperform their Hong Kong peers.

According to Chan Shui-hon, principal of Lingnan secondary school: "Mainland immigrant students perform better academically because they treasure the opportunity to study, while Hong Kong students enjoy too much comfort and are distracted by leisure opportunities."

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