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Monday, December 09, 2019, 00:17
Education reform in language key to more-inclusive HK society
By Bill Condon
Monday, December 09, 2019, 00:17 By Bill Condon

Migrant communities have been a welcome and permanent fixture in Hong Kong since the mid-19th century. New arrivals played a pivotal role and made a significant social contribution throughout periods of intensive change. Hong Kong eventually transitioned to a major regional trading hub with an international financial center to rival London or New York. The allure was a desire for economic gain, a better lifestyle and greater opportunity. 

These migrant communities have helped shape our diverse, multi-cultural, internationally minded and outward-looking society. 

According to figures published by the Census and Statistics Department in their 2016 Population By-census Thematic Report: Ethnic Minorities, almost 600,000 people, or 8 percent of the population, are categorized as ethnic minorities. A little over half are employed as domestic helpers. Most of the remainder are permanent residents and consider the Hong Kong SAR their home. Figures have risen significantly in the past 10 years.

Unfortunately, over time many people within these communities have become isolated. They remain detached from the broader society and their daily life is extraordinarily difficult because of the extremely high cost of living and very limited employment opportunities. They are entrenched in the low income trap with little hope of perhaps the most valuable commodity, access to a good education. Much needs to be done to enable these people to integrate into the mainstream and contribute more constructively to society and receive appropriate economic benefit. They are a valuable resource with a role to play in Hong Kong’s vibrant economic development.

Education is the key. It is also a pillar of central government policy as well as a fundamental pillar of any modern society. The principle that education is a “fundamental human right” has also been laid down by the United Nations. 

In the case of Hong Kong, the main barrier of entry into education is the language of instruction and the lack of adequate support for those not competent in the Chinese language

In the case of Hong Kong, the main barrier of entry into education is the language of instruction and the lack of adequate support for those not competent in the Chinese language. This prohibits many within these communities from fulfilling their educational potential from an early stage and dramatically curtails their ability to succeed at later stages in life. The education system does not cater for these non-native speakers or indeed students requiring additional learning support, including those with physical disabilities or behavioral disorders. 

Despite the diverse range of nationalities and cultures in Hong Kong, those who are not competent in Chinese are immediately at a serious disadvantage, making it almost impossible to obtain a place in local band one schools. For a very small number of families, the only viable option lies within the international school framework. This is prohibitively expensive and the vast majority of families simply cannot afford the fees. The resulting frantic competition for a limited number of school places in top schools, the never-ending quest to achieve high exam scores and the need to ease heavy parental pressure place an increasing and unnecessary burden on students and schools. 

Many local families also feel disenfranchised with the education system which they believe remains seriously underfunded, particularly when compared with many other places.  

The solution is relatively straightforward. Take a long-term view, channel sufficient funding into the education system and provide teachers with the tools necessary to assess, address and deliver the highest standard of education, consistent with a progressive, developed economy.   

The overall objective should be to improve standards across all schools for the benefit of the broader community. The system needs to provide adequate support and suitable programs so that every student can fulfill their educational potential. This will ultimately provide them with greater opportunities in an increasingly competitive landscape and the potential to make a significant contribution to society for greater financial reward. Educators need to be provided with the tools and support to recognize and reduce obstacles to learning across the community. 

The most authoritative study on the problem was conducted by the Equal Opportunities Commission’s Working Group on Education for Ethnic Minorities. Their recommendations were published in September in Closing the Gap and had three main recommendations. 

Perhaps the most important of these is to develop and provide a comprehensive Chinese-as-a second-language curriculum. This has received much support among relevant NGOs and other stakeholders throughout the community. It was suggested previously but not acted upon. Secondly, there is a desperate need to create proper teacher training programs which are recognized and accredited but specifically developed for teachers of Chinese as a second language. Their final recommendation is to develop formal examination structures that are specifically tailored to non-native language speakers. 

The government is aware of the issues facing ethnic minority communities and has initiated a series of measures to address some of the problems. These range from enhancing the kindergarten subsidy and provision of professional support services for schools on Chinese language learning and teaching to additional funding for schools admitting students with special needs. This is all good but not good enough to have a genuinely meaningful impact. Much more can be done and much more needs to be done. Now is the time to act and adopt the recommendations of the Equal Opportunities Commission. With vast sums of money lying dormant in the fiscal reserves, there is sufficient funding available.

The pillar of education becomes even more important when viewed from the perspective of the potential opportunities that the Guangdong-Hong Kong Macao Greater Bay Area will undoubtedly provide. The focus is to move the Bay Area up the value chain, and to do this, the most important element is a well-educated workforce.

It is perhaps somewhat surprising that a more inclusive stance has not been adopted as the examples of migrant communities in other places, particularly Chinese migrants, who tend to be among the highest academic achievers in overseas institutions. They also progress to successful careers in their chosen fields and greatly benefit their adopted communities.

The value of education should never be underestimated and the general consensus agrees that it is one of the most important resources that we can provide to future generations. 

Informed opinion suggests that fundamental reform of the education system is required to address the issue of inequality in education. This is damaging a significant proportion of the youth in the SAR and the time to act is now.

The author is a seasoned commentator and is involved with The Multitude Foundation.

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