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Embrace Wisdom, Embody Progress: Education, the Heartbeat of Hong Kong.

by Eddie Rayner

The Hong Kong government, giving full play to the strength of Hong Kong’s international and diversified quality education system and in line with the strategy of invigorating the country through science and education, is committed to attracting and nurturing talent for the good of the nation. Education UAE spoke to the Hong Kong Under Secretary for Education Jeff Sze Chun-fai, who, prior to joining the government, served as a school teacher at HKUGA College and as the Executive Director of Savantas Policy Institute. We first asked about the education system in Hong Kong and the standards it upholds.

Jeff Sze Chun-fai: IIn Hong Kong, we offer 15 years of free education from the age of three; kindergarten education followed by 12 years of primary and secondary education. University education is four years.
The Hong Kong government has always been committed to investing in education because nurturing our younger generation represents the future of our society. The standard of Hong Kong education is high, according to international benchmarking research, like the OECD PISA research study.

As for our higher education sector, Hong Kong is home to five top 100 world-class universities and it has one of the most dense concentration of world-class universities among world cities. So, we are quite proud of our education achievement and the Hong Kong government will continue to stipulate policies to enhance our education system.
Education UAE: How many schools are there in Hong Kong? And what is the breakdown between the public and private sector by school and by student?

In Hong Kong, we offer 15 years of free education from the age of three

Jeff Sze Chun-fai: Let me focus on primary and secondary education. For primary education, we have a total of 477 public schools and 116 private schools. That would be a total of 593 primary schools in Hong Kong, and for secondary schools, we have a total of 510 schools. Among them, we have 450 public secondary schools and 60 private schools.
Education UAE: How many teaching staff does Hong Kong have? And are you able to give an insight into the qualification and recruitment of these teachers?

Jeff Sze Chun-fai: For primary education, we have around 27,000 teachers, and in the secondary school sector, we have about 30,000 teachers. In order to become a teacher, the prospective applicants must fulfil the legal requirements by registering as a Registered Teacher (RT). For RTs, they will need to obtain a teacher qualification. There are a few ways for a teacher to obtain this qualification. The teacher could finish a Bachelor of Education degree at one of our teacher training institutions, or could finish a postgraduate diploma in education, meaning after first finishing the undergraduate degree, the teacher needs to complete a graduate diploma programme in education. Usually, for part-time studies, the duration is two years. For the full-time, it’s one year. Teachers without teacher a qualification can still be registered as a PT. The minimum academic qualification required of a PT teaching in a school providing primary and secondary education is an associate degree, a higher diploma, or an equivalent.

We also have ongoing, continuous professional development (CPD) for teachers in order to maintain the highest standard of our teaching force. The CPD requirements oblige each teacher to complete 150 hours of training over a three-year cycle. On average, our teachers will have 50 hours of training per year.

We partner with teacher training institutions in mainland China

Education UAE: What are the challenges that teachers could face when they start teaching?

Jeff Sze Chun-fai: Just like any other jurisdiction, a newly joined teacher may find the classroom situation to be a bit daunting. It is necessary for the newly joined teachers to have more experienced teachers as mentors to offer advice to them. The Education Bureau of the Hong Kong Government also organises training sessions for newly joined teachers and serving teachers in general. For every newly joined teacher, we have a specialised training programme for them in their first three years of joining the profession. There are certain training sessions for the newly joined teachers in order to get them accommodated to the teaching environments. In addition, we organise mainland study tours for all the newly joined teachers. We partner with teacher training institutions in mainland China. In order to broaden teachers’ horizons, we organise mainland study tours that last for three to four days so that teachers can experience the development of our country and learn education policy areas that would strengthen their professional knowledge.
Education UAE: The education funding system in Hong Kong for both private and public sectors is funded by a number of sources. Can you explain a bit more?

Jeff Sze Chun-fai: The way we define public schools in Hong Kong is if the school receives government funding on a recurring basis, then we classify the school to be a public school. There are different types of public schools in Hong Kong. We have government schools, we have aided schools, and we have DSS (Direct Subsidy Scheme) schools.
Let me explain what aided schools and DSS schools are about. These schools are actually operated by a non-profit making entity. It is usually a religious group or a charitable organisation in Hong Kong. The government provides funding to schools operated by this kind of non-profit making entity, which is called the school sponsoring body. Then the school sponsoring body goes on to hire the principal and the teachers and organises the curriculum for the school. The school is not exactly operated by the government directly, because different religious groups or charitable organisations may have a vision or mission of education. And then for DSS schools, they can be fee-charging. In addition to receiving government subsidies, DSS schools may charge a certain amount of tuition fee in order to provide additional support services and school facilities for their students.

We set up the Hong Kong Academy for gifted education

Education UAE: Is education free in Hong Kong?

Jeff Sze Chun-fai: Yes, we offer 15 years of free education in Hong Kong, although parents can opt for fee-charging schools if they so wish.

Education UAE: Can you tell us about the education curriculum reform and how this promotes the development of students?

Jeff Sze Chun-fai: Since the early years of the 2000s, the Hong Kong education system has gone through a major revamp. In the past, our secondary school was seven years. Now it’s six years. University education used to be three years like the British system. Now we have added one more year to make it four years in order to provide students with a broader university education. In the past, students took a public exam at Secondary 5 and another at Secondary 7. We have combined the two public exams into one, namely the Hong Kong Diploma of Secondary Education Examination.
The existing academic structure has been in place since 2009 when the first cohort of Secondary 4 students embarked on the three-year senior secondary curriculum. Basically, schools now offer four subjects, namely Chinese Language, English Language, Mathematics, and Citizenship and Social Development. In addition to taking the four core subjects, students are free to choose from a wide range of elective subjects such as Chemistry, Biology, Physics, Economics, Visual Arts, Music, and Physical Education. We equip students with 21st-century skills because the world has been changing and we need to prepare our young people to keep up with the times. With this in mind, we have been constantly reviewing the school curriculum and keep on renewing areas that need to be improved.

In tandem with the ongoing curriculum renewal, we have been working on STEAM education in order to nurture more talent for scientific and technological development. Even our Music Visual Arts curricula have been under review. Recently, we have sought to introduce new learning elements to the curricula in collaboration with experts.
Education UAE: Are there any strengths or weaknesses in the Hong Kong education system?

Jeff Sze Chun-fai: The strength is definitely the level of achievements and international recognition. Let me also say a few words about the higher education sector. Just now I mentioned the rankings. Hong Kong is a city of 7.4 million people, yet we have five top 100 world-class universities, which are pretty internationalised and diversified. We are also a popular study destination for many foreign students.

Jeff Sze Chun-fai: The Belt and Road initiative was advocated by Chinese President Xi Jinping 10 years ago. The third Belt and Road Forum for International Cooperation was recently held in Beijing, where President Xi announced eight major steps that China will take to support high-quality Belt and Road cooperation. The Belt and Road Scholarship fosters people-to-people bonds by encouraging students from different countries and economies along the Belt and Road to Study in Hong Kong.

Education UAE: How can newly arrived children from foreign countries obtain a school place in Hong Kong?

Jeff Sze Chun-fai: That would depend on which school level we are talking about. If we are talking about secondary school or primary school, then foreigners can of course choose to attend international schools or local schools. Because of the language barrier, it may be easier for foreigners to study in an international school. In Hong Kong, we have 54 international schools offering over 46,000 school places, primarily catering to non-local students of various nationalities. You can find all kinds of non-local curricula in Hong Kong, including those of Australia, Canada, France, Germany, Japan, Korea, Singapore, the United Kingdom, and the United States, as well as the International Baccalaureate (IB) programme. Students who are interested in pursuing further studies in Hong Kong can apply directly for our universities. I would encourage them to visit the websites of our universities so that they can learn more about the programmes offered.

Education UAE: How do schools in Hong Kong rank on a global level?

Jeff Sze Chun-fai: We don’t grade individual schools in Hong Kong because even though it is a small city, we still have over 1000 secondary and primary schools and not every school has a ranking per se. But as I said earlier, we make reference to international benchmarking research, like the PISA study, and our students perform consistently well when compared to other economies and jurisdictions. Looking forward, we will continue to develop a student-centred curriculum and strengthen our science education because of the technological developments in what is a fast-changing global economy. We need to continue to renew and update the school curriculum so that students will have the skills to cope with the challenges that they might face when they enter the workplace.

Education UAE: Do you put a lot of focus on gifted and talented students in Hong Kong?

Jeff Sze Chun-fai: We put a lot of effort into catering to students’ individual needs. We have students with special educational needs. We also have a lot of non-Chinese-speaking students in Hong Kong, and we also have special measures to cater to students from a lesser socio-economic background. For gifted education, we adopt a three-tier approach. There’s the class level, there’s the school level, and then there’s also the territory-wide level of support that we provide to the students.

We set up the Hong Kong Academy for Gifted Education. For the gifted and talented students, in addition to the school-based support that we provide, we provide specialised training in our Academy. The Academy partners with different professional bodies and universities to run certain advanced courses for gifted students. They train their students to compete in international competitions, like the International Mathematics Olympiad competition, the International Physics Olympiad competition, etc. The Academy also runs its own courses. In addition to helping gifted students develop their potential to the fullest by challenging them with a higher level of learning, we also put emphasis on nurturing their whole-person development, such as developing good social skills and do not simply focus on their areas of strength.

Education UAE: When you have gifted students, are there specific areas you would focus on; for example, architecture, science, maths, the environment?

Jeff Sze Chun-fai: We have different streams of giftedness. There’s mathematics, there’s science, there’s language, there’s music, arts, sports, etc. The Academy relies on school nominations to admit gifted students, but at the same time, it also accepts self-nominations. In addition, besides the Academy, there are other specialised academies to support students who have different types of strengths. For example, we have the Hong Kong Sports Institute.

Obviously, as the name suggests, the Hong Kong Sports Institute focuses on nurturing elite athletes. Some of these athletes can achieve outstanding results in regional or international competitions at a very early age. We want to make sure that these athletes, who are still in school, can balance their academic learning, as well as their sports training. For these gifted students in sports, the Hong Kong Sports Institute works with the schools to tailor-make certain programmes for these students. For instance, we may have a table tennis player who needs to be away for extended periods of time for training and competition outside Hong Kong. The player may not have time to attend school but with the support of the Sports Institute and the school, we can offer tailor-made online classes to cater to the needs of those athletes.