Letter to Candidate – 2022 Chief Executive Election “Hong Kong’s Education – Present Constraints and Future Prospects”
The Hong Kong Association of the Heads of Secondary Schools (HKAHSS)
14 April 2022
(This letter was sent to Mr. John Lee Ka-chiu on 14 April 2022)
The Education Reforms since 2000 greatly hinge on the vision of students’ whole-person development, which also forms the basis for the nurture of students’ independent thinking and character building. Two decades after the inception of the reforms, it is pleasing to see more lively modes of learning and teaching, diverse education opportunities and the enhanced care for students with special needs. Yet, there are still items in the education agenda for the consideration of the next term of government.
In the short period of the first 2-3 months in the 2021/22 school year, there have already been 8 cases of student suicide. The number and frequency are indeed very appalling. According to the latest figures on suicide cases released by the Centre for Suicide Research and Prevention, Hong Kong University in September 2021, the rate of suicide cases amongst young people aged 15 or under has soared to 1.3 in every 100,000, an almost double increase compared with the rate of 0.7 in every 100,000 in 2019. In April – May 2020, the Hong Kong Association of the Heads of Secondary Schools (HKAHSS) conducted a survey amongst secondary school principals with the Synergy Against Adversity Mental Health Consultancy Group to understand the need for school-based mental health services. In just several weeks’ time, about 300 principals responded. Data collected reflected that nearly 60% of the schools identified self-harm inclination amongst students. Over 80% of the principals attributed the sources of pressure on students to the following: social turmoil, conflicts amongst family members, unresolved personal emotion and academic studies. All these lead to the rapid deterioration of students’ mental health. Organizations such as The Hong Kong Federation of Youth Groups, The Department of Social Work of the Chinese University of Hong Kong and Hong Kong Christian Service have also conducted various studies related to students’ emotional and mental health condition. All these studies reported a relatively high pressure index amongst secondary students. More than half of the interviewees have displayed anxiety and depressive symptoms. All these surveys point to the same conclusion – the mental and emotional health of students is deteriorating and the situation is extremely worrisome. If no concrete mitigating or relief measures are in place in time, the situation will be going further downhill with a very heavy social cost.
At the same time, the pressure on teachers who are regarded as the ‘gatekeepers’ of students’ mental health has also been on the rise. The report released by the Youth Research Centre of the Hong Kong Federation of Youth Groups on 18 April 2021 revealed that teachers in general work over 60 hours a week. Their work pressure index has risen from 6.40 in the pre-COVID-19 period to 6.97 (10 being the highest) during the COVID-19 period. This is extremely undesirable.
Figures released in 2021 from a survey which has been conducted in 10 consecutive years by a number of rehabilitation and public organizations on the general health index of Hong Kong people titled ‘The Hong Kong Mental Morbidity Survey’ certainly warrant our very serious attention as well – the index has failed to reach the ‘passing’ line! This somehow concurs with our observation through contacts with parents. Pressure is looming on many of them as they have to take care of the various needs and daily routine arrangements of their children during school suspension and on-line lessons at home. Besides, they also face economic pressure arising from the pandemic. All these challenges parents facing will eventually affect the healthy development of their children in one way or another.
In face of this ‘tsunamic’ deterioration of mental health, we have the following suggestions:
- The government should work to ensure that each and every student will have a happy and mentally healthy life to enjoy living and learning, which is facilitative to their self-actualization in the long run. It is important for the government to diligently conceive plans on emotional education and devote ample resources so that schools have room and manpower to achieve the goal in promoting the happy and healthy growth of children.
- Some years ago, the government set up the Committee on Prevention of Student Suicides in response to the rising cases of student suicides. While the government fully accepted the report by the Committee which was released in November 2016, nothing very concrete has been done since then except issuing a letter to schools bidding all teachers to perform the role of the ‘gatekeeper’. Without any concrete action, there is no way to assess if this is really effective. The government should reinstitute the Committee, expand its scope of work so that it would conduct comprehensive researches on the mental health conditions of both students and teachers and come up with targeted measures. The government should also ensure that the suggestions and policies adopted should conscientiously be put into practice.
- Since its inception in 2016/17, the Student Mental Health Support Scheme has been serving 90 schools in providing mental health services for students. Yet, case referrals to the public hospitals still take quite some time. The government should further allocate resources so as to shorten the waiting time for help to be offered in time. The government should also probe into the possibility of expanding the scope of the scheme to support teachers with mental health risks.
- Student mental health issues are not just only induced by the COVID-19 challenges. The keen competition of the education system in Hong Kong has been overloading students and thus generating a lot of pressure and anxiety, especially in their secondary school years. The government should work in collaboration with the education profession to scrutinize the heavily criticized school curriculum and assessment arrangements so that appropriate improvements can be made in time.
Opportunities for Tertiary Education
According to the statistics released by the Organization of Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) from 2015 to 2019, the rate of tertiary education qualifications amongst people aged from 25 to 34 in 43 countries (excluding China) reached 44.9%. Yet, the current annual first-year-first-degree places under the subsidies of the University Grants Committee (UGC) in Hong Kong are about 15,000, with an increase of only 500 places compared to 14,500 25 years ago. Judging only by the increase in UGC subsidized places, the increase is 3.4% in 25 years. Even if we add the 5000 senior undergraduate intake places under the UGC provisions for graduates of sub-degree programmes and students with other qualifications, the number only constitutes 35% of the university-age population. This is much lower than that of 50% in Singapore, and those of the major cities in Mainland China such as 76% in Beijing and 73% in Shanghai. As an international city, it would be hard to maintain our competitive edge if our talent nurture provisions are not on par with other neigbouring regions.
Since the inception of the Hong Kong Diploma of Secondary Education (HKDSE) in 2012, the annual average rates of male and female candidates who meet the minimum university entry requirement (attaining Level 3 in Chinese and English as well as Level 2 in Mathematics and Liberal Studies – 3322) are 30% and 45% respectively. This persisting imbalance between male and female candidates will in the long run be affecting the social and economic development of Hong Kong. Besides, the emphasis on language proficiency in the minimum university entry requirement cannot cater for students who fail to attain Level 3 in the language subjects but are talented or strong in Science, Mathematics and other non-language areas. Perhaps it is this restrictive language bar that has led to the enduring sex imbalance in university admission.
To further enhance the nurture of human resources of Hong Kong and to ensure equal opportunities for both sexes to unleash their potentials for social betterment, we have the following proposals:
- The government should continue to put in resources in tertiary education so as to raise the university admission ratio to a comparable level with its international counterparts.
- Ever since 2022, university admission has been enhanced through the School Nominations Direct Admission Scheme (SNDAS). Under the scheme, it is estimated about 1000 students with different talents that cannot be fully reflected through the HKDSE results can be recommended by their schools for university admission. This is a good start and the government should increase such quota to embrace students with different talents and facilitate their further studies.
- In 2019, the HKAHSS and the Chinese University of Hong Kong jointly conducted a survey titled “Survey on the Curriculum Reform: From Present to the Future”. From the responses of 162 principals, the majority opined that the minimum university entry requirement for the 4-year bachelor degree courses should best be changed from the present 3322 to 14 points from the best 6 subjects. The government should take note of this appeal and review the minimum university entry requirement. The proposal will not lower the standard of university admission. On the contrary, it will allow more flexibility to accommodate students who have special talents other than language proficiencies.
- The mere increase in university places and changes in university admission criteria will not be sufficient to raise the general manpower level of Hong Kong. The government should also review the university curricula so as to match with the pace of the fast-changing world and the need of future social development. This would also help students unleash their potentials and versatilities. Besides, the social incidents in recent years have somehow upset the harmony in university campus life. An active review on how to refine and boost the campus milieu for the healthy development of students should be engaged.
- The present focus of the universities of Hong Kong is mostly on academic studies and research. Their contact with schools at primary and secondary levels as well as the community is not vibrant. This is rather different from many renowned universities overseas which have become the education hub in their community or locality. They share educational resources and research findings with people in their community and thus contribute to the raising of humanistic literacy of their nations. Many universities in Mainland China have helped build up learning or research bases in secondary schools to facilitate students’ early contacts of various knowledge in greater depth and breadth. We would certainly see a bright new future if our universities will render their service and collaborate with different parties in the community and enhance its connections with secondary schools.
- In recent years, it is pleasing to see that the Applied Learning (ApL) curriculum has become increasingly popular amongst senior secondary students. With a wide spectrum of courses, the ApL curriculum also provides students with good career orientation as well as broad learning experiences. Universities should seriously consider formally including ApL courses in their university admission system so as to increase the flexibility to embrace students’ talents and at the same time giving due recognition to efforts that students have put in these courses.
Technology and Education
In recent years, schools in Hong Kong have gained considerable progress in “Bring Your Own Device” Implementation, internet services support and the application of hard and soft wares in education. In the last two years, schools have begun adopting blended learning (the complementary use of actual and virtual learning modes) under the COVID-19 challenges within a very short period of time. Teachers’ adept mastery of the skill involved has helped sustain learning and teaching effectiveness. This considerable achievement is not easy to come by without much might and efforts from teachers and students. To sustain and build on this hard-earned achievement, the government should have better and more concrete planning on what to learn and how to learn through the IT platform besides merely disbursing money to schools. At present, many efforts are still very much school-based and this is not desirable in this fast-changing world when individual schools’ efforts and energies cannot be synchronized, well-supported or fully shared. Worse still, there is no trace of how to develop individualized student learning strategies through the use of big data and adaptive learning platforms. Neither have we seen any progress in the reduction in teachers’ workload through information technology.
At the same time, development in STEM education in Hong Kong is lagging behind a bit compared with the more advanced countries and regions. Again, the government lacks a clear direction in STEM education. What it can best do is to provide schools with disburse financial resources and allow free development of STEM education according to individual schools’ interpretation. Without the central coordination of the government and a systematic STEM curriculum structure and framework in most schools, STEM education will easily be reduced to a bunch of activities or competitions. At the same time, Artificial Intelligence (AI) in Education is still at its slogan stage till now without any substance. The government therefore should exert much greater effort to help schools move towards the level of their counterparts in the more advanced countries and regions.
To equip our next generation with good information literacy on par with other advanced cities, we have the following suggestions:
- As schools need much support in the development of STEM and AI curriculum, the government should take the lead in setting up the curriculum framework and the inventory of skills that should be mastered by students. It should also prepare samples and exemplars to enhance teachers’ understanding. Besides, the arrangement for teachers’ study trips to Mainland and overseas will enhance their knowledge of the latest development in the area. Besides, the government should allocate more resources to tertiary and teacher training institutes so as to nurture talents to support the planning and development as well as learning and teaching of STEM and the application of AI in education.
- In the current staff establishment in schools, there are no posts for teachers specially in charge of STEM and AI. There are also no teaching assistants, laboratory technicians in this area. Neither are there any clear prospects or careers pathway for them. All these result in a rather high staff turnover rate. The government should set up the post of ‘IT in Education Coordinator’ in schools and put in place a career ladder for IT technicians with appropriate salary scales and welfare terms. It is only with these measures can there be a stable serving team in schools.
- The use of AI to assist learning and teaching calls forth a strong back-up support of data analysis and logarithms which is way beyond the efforts of any individual school. Holding numerous and bountiful student data by the Education Bureau and the Hong Kong Examinations and Assessment Authority, the government should work out how to well use the data it has captured within the stipulations of the Privacy Ordinance to build up a data bank, which will be the first crucial step for AI-assisted learning and teaching.
- With the vigorous development of the metaverse in the IT field, we can foresee the interchange of actual and virtual realities in the future. The government should take the bold lead to plan in advance how these newly-developed/developing technologies can be applied in schools to facilitate student learning. At the same time, it should also carefully assess the impacts of such advancements on students’ mental and psychological development.
- In the long run, the employment opportunities related to STEM and AI will affect the motivation of students’ interests in these areas. The government’s efforts and strategies in innovation and technology industries will have washback effects on the implementation of innovation and technology education at the primary and secondary levels.
The population structure of Hong Kong is facing challenges related to ageing and the drop in birth rate. This results in the continuous drop in the need for school places. The number of students in Primary 1 has dropped from 56,600 in 2018 to 46,700 in 2021, with a plunge of about 10,000 in 4 years. At the same time, the student population in the secondary level is not stable. The number of students joining the Secondary School Places Allocation System in 2018 was 49,500 with a rise to 54,100 in 2020. Yet, there was a drop of 2,000 to 52,000 in 2021. In the foreseeable future, it is not likely for any rebound in student population in both the secondary and primary levels.
The decreasing number in student population has very far-reaching impacts on the social development and education system in Hong Kong. It is envisaged that some schools will be required to close or merge due to the drop. There will also be the movement of student transfers and this ‘musical chair’ effect will bring undue pressure to schools. At the same time, in face of possible closure and merger, teachers will be troubled and concerned about whether they will face dismissal, school transfer or career change. At the same time, it would also be very difficult for the teacher training institutes to plan for service provisions and this will definitely affect the healthy training and turnover of the teaching force.
To well manage and capitalize on the opportunities arising from the drop in student population, we propose the following:
- The government should capitalize on the arising opportunity to improve the quality of education through refining the teacher-student ratio. The reduced class size will facilitate greater interactive learning strategies, more vibrant student-teacher and student-student interactions to enhance learning efficacy. This will also result in better care for students’ needs and diversities through individualized guidance and tailored programmes.
- The government should also review the existing school places allocation system and plan well in advance in determining the optimum class size with reference to the needs of individual districts. The early planning will mitigate the negative impacts of the drop in student population.
- The government should also create space for teachers to build up transformative energy so that schools will have ample human resources and knowledge to develop new and innovative projects such as STEM and AI curriculum, IT in Education, National Education, the Rule of Law and Law-related Education, the collaboration between universities and secondary schools, promotion of healthy campus and other headway projects.
- All along, the secondary education in Hong Kong has been implemented under the stringent official curriculum framework. Yet, if we aim to develop and nurture talents for today and tomorrow, the curriculum should change with more forward–looking planning as well as individualized design in learning and teaching. With the opportunities in the drop in student population, there is room, without the input of extra resources, to try out more proactive and innovative endeavor. We can also take reference of the good practices in other more advanced education systems. All these will help bring in new elements in education.
Teachers play a pivotal role in education and they are the great driving force behind education reforms. In the last three years, front-line teachers have been standing tall on professionalism in helping students through challenges one after another while also striving to maintain the education quality. Yet, it is so unfortunate that they have to face continuous and sometimes organized malicious attacks which are greatly detrimental to the harmonious and efficacious school environment. Teachers’ morale is seriously hampered and this will affect the development of education and the nurture of talents.
To fully unleash teachers’ potentials and capabilities through due respect and recognition, we suggest:
- The government should strive to safeguard the respect for the professional autonomy of schools and teachers. When there are malicious attacks or smearing, the government should responsibly and appropriately protect teachers from unnecessary and unreasonable disturbances.
- The non-statutory advisory body, Council on Professional Conduct in Education (CPC), would be dissolved by the end of April 2022, after which there will not be any teacher participation in the ruling of issues and cases related to the professional conduct of the teaching profession. Upon the dissolution of the CPC, the ‘Code for the Education Profession of Hong Kong’ which was put into practice since 1990 would become a historical paper. When announcing the dissolution of the CPC, the Education Bureau said that it would provide ‘clear guidelines and examples on teachers’ professional conduct’. From this we understand that the only ruling party for complaints about teachers’ professional misconduct in the future will be the Education Bureau. With the complete absence of front-line education workers, how can the autonomy of the teaching profession be safe-guarded? This autonomy on which professionalism is forged is very vital to the self-regulating spirits underlying each profession. In the research report on “How to Promote Hong Kong Secondary School Teachers’ Professional Status and Social Recognition” released in 2021 by the HKAHSS and the Hong Kong Policy Research Institute, it is revealed that principals and teachers interviewed opined that the setting up of a self-regulatory professional body would enhance the social recognition of teachers. Over 80% of parents shared similar views. To respect the views of the education profession and stakeholders, the government should seriously consider setting up a statutory professional body for the teaching profession.
Capitalizing the Opportunities of the Greater Bay Area Development
In the Outline Development Plan for the Guangdong-Hong Kong-Macao Greater Bay Area announced by the Chinese Central Government on 18 February 2019, Hong Kong will be an integral part of that development plan. Together with Macao, Guangzhou and Shenzhen, Hong Kong will be identified as one of the core cities, as well as core engines for driving regional development. All along the years, local tertiary institutes such as the Hong Kong Baptist University, The Chinese University of Hong Kong and The Hong Kong University of Science and Technology have respectively engaged in collaborative campus building projects in the Greater Bay Area.
To well prepare our students in advance, we have the following suggestions:
- The Outline Development Plan clearly supports Hong Kong in consolidating and enhancing its status as an international financial, transportation and trade centre as well as an aviation hub. The government should therefore hinge on our competitive edge and work with all tertiary institutions for the training of talents in these areas. Besides serving local students, Hong Kong can develop into a financial and trade education hub in the Greater Bay Area.
- The development of the newly-announced Northern Metropolis plan and Qianhai Shenzhen-Hong Kong Modern Service Industry Cooperation Zone would strengthen the status of Hong Kong as a financial centre. At the same time, it will facilitate the development of innovation and technology industries. Besides the continuous development of STEM education, the government should promote the collaboration of tertiary institutions and the commercial sector so that achievements in scientific researches will be translated into actual applications that will bring about products and services of economic values.
- At present, there are discrepancies between the salaries and payment schemes in Hong Kong and the other parts of the Greater Bay Area. Unless the employers in the Greater Bay Area are willing to offer attractive housing and other welfare packages, Hong Kong graduates may not consider working in the Mainland. While The Greater Bay Area Youth Employment Scheme has been set up with an aim to bridge the salary gap, this can only encourage cross-border employments for a specific period of time. If the government really would like to address the issues of concern and expand the horizons of Hong Kong students so that their future development opportunities will not be undermined, it should have long-term planning to clear obstacles and iron out differences along the way.
- After the COVID-19 challenges, the government should plan to build more schools in the Greater Bay Area to meet the needs of the children of Hong Kong residents working there. It should also consider subsidizing students’ school fees and work on the academic interface so that these children will be able to return to Hong Kong for further studies. Yet this should not be done at the expenses of cutting the number of existing schools and classes in Hong Kong. In the long run, to enhance the integration of Hong Kong into the Greater Bay Area, much more work should done in the area of mutual recognition of academic system and qualifications, and transfer of studies between Hong Kong and the Greater Bay Area.
One of the key tasks listed in Mr. John Lee’s Election Manifesto is to boost Hong Kong’s competitiveness, which can only be achieved through the nurture of talents. All development and progress in any society hinge on the power of education. The government’s budget for education in 2021/22 is HK$110.9 billion which constituted 15.2% of the total government expenditures. The budget for education in 2022/23 is HK$111.9 billion (13.8% of the total government expenditures), which is much lower than the past years and fails to meet the baseline as proposed in the Incheon Declaration and Framework for Action (Education 2030), which earmarks at least 4-6% of gross domestic product (GDP) and /or allocating at least 15-20% of public expenditures for education. We earnestly anticipate that the next term of government will invest sufficient resources so that the education development of Hong Kong is on par with other advanced cities.
The success of education requires abundant resources. More importantly, up-to-date education policies and careful strategic planning are crucial. We all know that policy making cannot solely depend on the government’s efforts. We sincerely hope that the government should aim at ample communication and collaboration with stakeholders. At the same time, it should actively embrace the suggestions from front-line education workers and unite different walks in society to work for the future development of our younger generations.
 ‘Council on Professional Conduct in Education to officially end’, The Government of the Hong Kong Special Administration Region Press release 19/01/2022
2021-22學年開學短短兩、三個月間，便發生8宗學童自殺事件，個案之多、頻率之密，令人震驚。香港大學防止自殺中心於2021年9月公布當時最新的自殺數據，15歲或以下少年自殺率由 2019年的 0.7（即每十萬人有 0.7人自殺），躍升至 2020年每十萬人有 1.3人自殺，升幅近一倍。2020年4月至5月，香港中學校長會與「逆境同行」精神健康顧問團隊透過問卷調查，以瞭解中學校長對中學生精神健康的校本需求。在數周內獲近300 位校長回應，當中顯示近60%中學發現學童有自殘傾向，超過80%中學表示，社會的動盪氣氛、家人間的衝突、個人情緒的欠缺紓緩、學業的壓力，均令學童的情緒及精神健康迅速惡化。香港青年協會、香港中文大學社會工作學系、香港基督教服務處等機構亦有不同的學生情緒及健康狀況研究， 發現受訪中學生的壓力指數偏高， 過半受訪學生出現焦慮及抑鬱徵狀。所有研究及調查均指向同一結論，學童的情緒及精神健康每況愈下，情況令人極度擔心，若不再有具體紓緩政策，情況只會越趨惡劣，社會亦將為此付出沉重代價。
作為學童精神健康的守門人，教師隊伍的壓力亦與日俱增。香港青年協會青年研究中心「青年創研庫」於2021年4月18日公布有關「支援教師應對教學新挑戰」研究報告，發現逾半受訪教師平均每周工作60小時或以上；教師的工作壓力指數由疫情前的平均6.40分，上升至疫情期間的6.97分 （10 分滿分），情況絕不理想。
- 2019年，本會與香港中文大學合作進行「課程改革的調查研究——從現在到未來」， 從162位中學校長回應中，較多認為應以文憑試最佳6科總成績14分為入讀大學的基本要求。政府應聆聽教育界聲音，檢討4年制學士學位課程最低入學要求。這個放寬並不會降低大學收生水平，而是讓大學有更大彈性按個別課程需要取錄更合適的學生，也讓在語文能力以外有獨特潛質、具學習能力的學生得以一展所長。
香港學校在推行學生自攜裝置計劃、網絡基建及軟硬件應用上均有相當不錯的發展。過去兩年疫情影響下，學校已開始混合式學習 (Blended Learning)，在面授課堂與網課的互補下，老師在疫情下仍能頗有效地進行教學，以及跟進學生的學習進度。老師、學生在短時期內建立起進行混合式學習的能量，這進展得來不易。承接並延續這得來不易的成果，政府除為學校繼續提供財政資源外，更需就「如何學」、「學甚麼」等，作具體規劃。目前運用資訊科技於教學上，仍是家家煉鋼，這對於一日千里的資訊科技教育，並不理想。至於以資訊科技協助學生自學、善用大數據讓學生作適性學習、運用科技減輕老師的工作量等等，至今更未見寸進。
香港正經歷人口結構的老化和少子化等問題，小一學額需求正不斷下降，參加小一派位學童人數由2018年的 5.66 萬人，下降至2021年的4.67萬人，4年間減少了近一萬名學童。中學情況亦未見穩定，2018年中一派位人數僅為 4.95萬，之後回升至 2020年的 5.41萬；惟2021年中一學童數字下跌愈2000名至5.2萬。而在可見的未來，中、小學童人口難以回升。
- 非法定組織的「教育人員專業操守議會」將於2022年4月底解散。解散以後，所有有關教育專業操守的裁決，將不會再有老師的參與，而自 1990年開始的《香港教育專業守則》亦將成為歷史文件。教育局已宣布將「就教師專業操守提供清晰的指引及示例」* ，以後有關教師專業失德的投訴，只有教育局的裁決。在前線參與全缺的情況下，如何才能真正保障教師的專業自主，讓業界能真正自主自律？本會與香港政策研究所於2021年發表「如何提升香港中學教師的專業地位及社會認同」研究報告，受訪的中學校長和教師表示，若設立一個自治的專業機構，能有效提升中學教師的社會認同。不約而同地，問卷調查中亦有超過 80%的家長認同此建議。政府應尊重學界及其他持分者的意見，積極考慮成立一個具備法定地位的教育人員專業組織。
我們樂見李家超先生的三大競選綱領中，「全面提升香港競爭力」是其中一項重點，而提升競爭力的不二法門，是人才的培育。任何社會的進步與發展，都需要借助教育的力量。特區政府2021-22 年度教育方面的開支預算為1,109 億港元，佔政府開支總額預算 15.2%，而2022-23年度教育開支預算總額為1,119億港元，只佔政府開支總額預算13.8%，較過往為低*，未能符合聯合國多個組織提出之《2030年仁川宣言及行動框架》（Incheon Declaration and Framework for Action）的資源投放基準，即教育開支應佔國內生產總值的至少4%-6% 及/或 公共總支出的至少15%-20%。期望新一屆政府能投放足夠的資源，讓香港教育發展不遜於其他先進城市。