The Revelations of the ‘Departure Tide’ of Teachers and Students on Hong Kong’s Education
The Hong Kong Association of the Heads of Secondary Schools (HKAHSS)
30 May 2022
For education workers in the front-line, it is not difficult to notice the rising number of teachers and students leaving schools in the recent 2 to 3 years. The continuous trend of teachers leaving, even during the school year, has exerted much impact on students’ learning and the school operation regardless whether the vacancies can be filled immediately or not. The leaving of students may not have instant impacts on the school operation. Yet, with more and more empty seats in the classrooms, there will eventually come a day when schools cannot maintain the optimal number of classes to sustain their further development.
Aiming to promote professionalism and quality of education in Hong Kong, the Hong Kong Association of the Heads of Secondary Schools (HKAHSS) has great concerns over this departure tide of teachers and students. In November 2020, HKAHSS conducted its first survey on ‘Student Withdrawal from School and Teacher Turnover’. In September 2021, a second survey on the same issue was conducted in collaboration with Hong Kong Centre for International Student Assessment (HKCISA), the Chinese University of Hong Kong to collect data in 3 consecutive school years in 2018-19, 2019-20 and 2020-21 which include the number of student withdrawal and teacher turnover, reasons behind and the impacts on schools. Perhaps the departure tide as reflected in the survey results is not something unexpected by many and the problems arising might have gone unnoticed. Yet, it is the strong wish of the HKAHSS to present concretely the magnitude and severity of the problems through actual figures and data so that in-depth discussion can be held within the teaching profession. We further wish that the education authority, which has a pivotal role and inevitable responsibilities, should work closely with frontline educators in coming up with proactive measures to address issues well in advance so that what might have been crises can be turned into development opportunities. The key points as revealed from the survey were released in our Annual General Meeting in December 2021 and the full research report has also been uploaded onto our website.
The Departure Tide and Its Impacts
- With regard to its severity, student withdrawal does not just affect schools but also the overall development of Hong Kong.
Data collected from 140 schools reflects a sharp increase in student withdrawal with an average of 32 students per school. The number is equivalent to the size of a whole class in an aided school. Among them, 65% are junior-form students, which implies that the impact of their withdrawal on schools will last for some years. While school transfer can be a reason for student withdrawal, figures in 2020-21 reveal that 60% of those who have left are actually leaving Hong Kong. If this trend continues, the future pillars of our society will be dwindling. Hong Kong is not a place rich in natural resources. ‘Human talents’ is almost our only resource. So the government has to take immediate and timely action to plan for the nurture of and retaining human talents before it is too late.
- The continuous trend of teacher turnover will definitely affect the school operation and at the same time the overall quality of education in Hong Kong.
The sharp increase in teacher turnover in 2020-21 is nearly double of that in 2019-20 and also in 2018-19. From the 140 schools, there are on average 7.1 teachers leaving per school. The sharp increase is across teachers with different years of experience. In other words, schools are now facing the draining of teachers across all age groups, including the middle managers and even very senior teachers. The staff establishment in schools is different from other sectors. For some special subjects such as Home Economics, Music as well as some elective subjects of the senior secondary curriculum, there is usually one teacher per subject. Constrained by the staff establishment, schools may not be able to find suitable replacements for teachers leaving. Furthermore, many principals expressed that it has become extremely difficult to recruit teachers for the new school year. The situation is rather different from that of the past when staff recruitment was not really a problem with applications flooding in. With the table turned, the difficulty in staff recruitment will greatly affect students’ learning. Worse still, many middle managers, senior teachers or Principals left schools in the past mainly due to retirement. Schools, therefore, did have ample time to pave way for succession and passing the baton with a seamless transition. It is so unfortunate that in the current situation, many teachers decide to leave just within a very short period of time and some are even leaving in the middle of the year. It is not difficult to imagine the serious negative impacts that will incur on the school operation, students’ learning and the support efforts for their whole-person development.
This ferocious departure tide is different from the emigration tide in the past. From our observation, teachers leaving are bringing their whole family with them and they even close their Provident Fund accounts. It seems that they are determined to go for good. We are much worried about when this net outflow of education human talents will stop.
Teachers’ turnover and their leaving Hong Kong reflect the problems of brain drain we face today. At the same time, we will face the same problems in the future as some students are leaving Hong Kong as well. Human talents have been very important resources and the issue of brain drain will affect its future development. Shouldn’t the government take action to address this continuous talent drain to stabilize the situation?
Can Challenges be Turned into Opportunities?
While some may view the leaving of students and teachers as a natural consequence of the emigration tide, does it mean that the problems arising do not deserve our serious attention? Does it also mean that the government cannot do anything to embrace the challenges and turn them into opportunities?
- Decline in student population – both a challenge and an opportunity
The decline in student population can be a problem and at the same time an opportunity depending how we embrace it. If the present provisions are maintained without any reduction despite the student population decline, schools will be able to work for refinement and innovative measures in learning and teaching. This is evident in the Voluntary Optimisation of Class Structure Scheme implemented in 2010 in which schools operating 30 classes could gradually downsize to 24 classes with a 5-year toleration period for ‘surplus teachers’. That scheme provided ample manpower for schools to implement various refinement measures. At the same time, it facilitated the successful inception and development of the New Senior Secondary Curriculum. It would therefore be desirable for the government to take reference of that scheme and ride on the tide of declining student population. With proactive and well-planned policies as well as no reduction in the current provisions, schools will also have room and manpower to take care of students’ emotional and mental needs arising from the social incidents as well as the development of innovative education for global interface.
In the past 2 years or so, students’ learning and their healthy development have been seriously affected by social instability and the pandemic. If the government is ready to reduce the class size, every student will be able to benefit from all-round care and more personalized learning.
While the normal school life has been disrupted by the pandemic, many innovative learning modes have arisen: blended learning as a result of the mixture of on-line and actual classroom teaching as well as home learning and school learning. There is also an array of assessment modes such as the combined use of formative and summative assessments as well as the parallel operation of online assessments and actual assessments. If schools are provided with ample manpower, the hard-earned achievements of these mixed learning and assessment modes can be further consolidated and developed.
At the same time, many countries are reforming their curriculum in various ways. Some are promoting the massive cutting of curriculum contents. Some are thinking out of the box and going beyond conventions while some others are promoting schools without walls. While not all these reform endeavours are suitable for our students, we can further probe and study to find out the best mode(s) for them if there is ample manpower. We can devise the most appropriate school-based curriculum contents as well as learning and teaching modes. We can also work on cross collaboration amongst schools, districts and even cities. These collaboration endeavours will help mode our students’ forward looking vision which is much needed for their embrace of future needs.
- Early intervention for teacher turnover
While teachers’ turnover may be attributed to a number of factors, it will definitely affect the education quality of Hong Kong no matter what. Amongst them, the push factor in which the work environment in schools is no longer appealing and thus it is not easy to retain talents is after all the most basic and primary. In the 2021 survey on ‘Student Withdrawal from School and Teacher Turnover’, participating principals expressed that key factors for teachers leaving included social atmosphere, the disrespect for and distrust of the teaching profession, COVID-19 challenges, and colossal changes in educational policies. All these are beyond the control of schools. The findings coincide with the findings of another research titled “How to Promote Hong Kong Secondary School Teachers’ Professional Status and Social Recognition” conducted by the HKAHSS in 2019-2021 in collaboration with the Hong Kong Policy Research Institute. Retaining teaching talents does not hinge on paying lip services or inducing economic incentives. On the contrary, what really matters is a good and conducive atmosphere in which teachers feel the respect and social support. They also need an environment in which they will have professional autonomy to work on the best education for the younger generations.
It is our earnest and sincere hope that the government will take proactive policy action to address the arising issues so that teachers can be assured to focus on the core business of education. At the same time, teacher education and training is essential for the nurture of enough teachers to take over the baton for the education and betterment of the young people who are so important to the future of Hong Kong.
Teacher turnover and the decline in student population are already indisputable facts which may undermine the development of education in Hong Kong and its future development, if they are not handled properly and in time. All in the education field should try our best and rally efforts with all our might to overcome the arising challenges. It is also important for the government to shoulder its responsibilities in proactive planning and devising appropriate policies so as to build up a conducive and facilitative environment for the training, nurture and sustaining of talents for the future of Hong Kong and our younger generations.
- 學生「離場」情況嚴重，受影響的不單是學校，還有香港的整體發展 –
調查數據顯示，2020-21學年學生退學數字驟升，在受訪的 140所學校中，平均每校有32人退學，相等於一所公營學校一整班學生的人數，且當中65% 為初中學生，那表示這批學生的退學，對學校的影響會持續多年。
- 老師離職數字不斷攀升，影響學校運作，更影響整體教育質素 –
2020-21學年教師離職數字飊升，高於 2019-20學年及2018-19學年近倍，在受訪的 140所學校中，平均每校有7.1位教師離職，不同年資的老師離職率全數增多，也是說，學校面對的是不同年齡層老師的流失，包括中層甚至高層老師的嚴重流失。學校教師編制有別於其他機構，某些學科如家政、音樂，與及部分只於高中開辦的選修科，在教師編制的局限下，可能只有一位老師任教某個學科，若該任教老師突然離職，學校不一定可以覓得合適的老師填補空缺。時近學期終結，許多學校校長正表示教師空缺乏人填補的問題，以往一個教席空缺有數百封求職信的現象已一去不返，更多時間是教席乏合適的人問津，對學生學習影響甚大。更甚的是，過往中、高層老師或校長離職，多是已屆退休之齡，學校有足夠時間作好「接班人」培訓。但現時不乏短期通知便離職，甚或學期中突然離職。至於中層、副校長、校長的離職，對整個學校運作的暢順，與及學生課堂學習以外的全方位照顧，當也受到嚴重影響。
- 學童人數下降，是危也是機 –
疫情打亂了學校常規，但也創造了不少新的學習模式：線上與實體教學互相配合的混合學習（Blended Learning）、在家學習與學校學習（Home Learning vs School Learning）互相配合，甚至學校的考評模式也趨向多維度，進展性評估（Formative Assessment）與總結性評估（Summative Assessment）合併運用，網上測試與實體考核雙軌進行。如有足夠人手及穩定的環境，當能在疫後鞏固及繼續發展這些得來不易的成果。
在課程發展上，不少國家均在推動課程改革，有倡議大幅減省教學課程，有提出打破科目框架，有推動無牆學校（Schools Without Walls），林林總總，雖然不一定都適合我們的學生，但若學校有充裕人手，可以研究及推動最適合校本需要的課程及學與教模式，更可以跨校、跨區甚或跨城市進行不同形式的協作學習，跳出框框，讓學生學習更具前瞻性，更配合未來的需要，成就未來社會棟樑。
- 教師流失，須及早應對 –