July 29th 2014
A modern city that invests in its future, Hong Kong is dedicated to providing the best possible education and development for its youth. However, with notoriously high competition for school places and increasing pressure on students to excel beyond expectation, Suraj Santani asks industry insiders if the cost is worth the payout.
In trying to nurture budding leaders who are “capable [of] lifelong learning, critical and exploratory thinking, innovating and adapting to change”, the Hong Kong government annually contributes more than HK$75 billion to the city’s education system. A number of reforms have been implemented in recent years, such as four-year university programmes and the requirement to pass English, Chinese, Mathematics and Liberal Studies at local secondary level, with the latter praised for encouraging students to adopt an analytical and broad perspective.
When compared to the International Baccalaureate (IB) curriculum, however, this may not be enough to cause a significant change, especially as most other subjects are learnt by rote. Amanda Jane Chapman, a Native-speaking English Teacher (NET) whose children attend a private primary school, is worried that by merely learning to “parrot what they memorize” from their books, local students may develop depleted emotional and social intelligence, along with traits of inertia and ignorance. “Hong Kong students do not grow into young adults capable of dealing with the world…and looking after themselves,” she told Localiiz.
According to the KELY Support Group, a non-government funded bilingual charity that provides non-judgmental and confidential support to Hong Kong youths, teens who are constantly sacrificing recreation to study subjects they’re not interested in or talented at can experience suppressed emotions and a loss of self-esteem and expression, which can eventually lead to drug addictions and crime.
KELY’s communications and development coordinator, Victoria Wong, reveals that, “Academic pressure is one of the leading factors of anxiety and depression…and even suicide,” in young people.
During their teens, students are often at their most vulnerable and malleable, craving support and guidance from peers, teachers and parents. Interestingly, the ‘Tiger parenting’ style, conceptualised by Amy Chua’s carrot and stick method, has shown its value for kids in stressful environments.
Anne Murphy, from the ITS Education tutorial centre, tells us that while, “Tiger parents may be more controlling [than Dolphin or Jellyfish parents], they raise children who do better academically, psychologically and socially.” Although the parents may seem authoritative and demanding, research shows that their constant involvement and feedback can motivate kids to perform better in order to receive more ‘rewards’.
Students aside, Hong Kong parents are also feeling the heat as it becomes more difficult to find and maintain school placements, especially since the government announced that it would stop supporting the English Schools Foundation (ESF) with its annual grant of HK$283 million from 2016. Many parents anticipate the school fees, and also the competition for placements, will escalate.
In other cases, parents complain of being obliged to pay debentures or deposits of up to HK$40,000, even in the early stages of applying to prospective schools – something clearly out of the question for many families. To make matters worse, schools tend to consider almost twice as many applicants as they have capacity for, resulting in potential students being subjected to lengthy interview and selection processes. This keeps many anxious parents harboring false hope, while the lack of a universal timeframe for announcing admission results also prevents them from seeking out other, perhaps more realistic, alternatives.
Perhaps ironically, it is the pre-schools and primary schools that are the most difficult to get into. Young candidates are famously given challenges way beyond their level or age, and are expected to exhibit countless traits and various talents gleaned with the help of extra-curricular classes.
This not only stresses the kids, but also stretches parents’ purses and helps to exclude those unable to afford the extras. While a school’s reputation thrives on having students who are bright, multi-talented and come from reputable families, there is a strong appeal for schools to make selections based on a child’s attitude, merit and potential, rather than the buoyancy of their parents’ bank account.
Since most local schools rely on sponsors, they are often viewed as less financially constraining. But, for non-locals at least, they can still be just as hard to get into. Reportedly, local schools show an inherent preference for students who can converse and learn in Chinese.
While respecting the importance of practicing Chinese in Hong Kong, former PolyU Professor Judy Tsui insists that as Asia’s World City, our goal should be to educate citizens of the world, not just of the local community. “As Hong Kong aims to be an international city and welcome tourists and businesses from all over the world, it would be a shame if local students are not familiar with foreign cultures until they reach university,” Tsui explains.
With Hong Kong’s birth rate declining, it’s essential that we nurture our youngsters to become leaders of tomorrow. But by placing equal emphasis on values as well as academic results, and through more acceptance and exposure, graduates of various backgrounds could not only strive for excellence in what they enjoy, but achieve personal happiness and professional success in a prosperous Hong Kong.
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