In order to compete in international commerce, the government places a strong emphasis on education. When free, compulsory primary school education was initiated in 1971, only about 40 percent of the male population had six years of education. By 1999, that figure stood at 75 percent. The figures for females throughout the same period jumped from 35 to 60 percent.
Until 2000, Hong Kong authorities continued citywide examinations for placement into preferred schools from kindergarten through Sixth Form. Examination scores were used to stream students into the major fields of science, humanities, or vocational training. Examinations have also been used to determine which secondary schools students will attend. In 2000, Hong Kong began to switch away from using examination scores to stream and place students. The HKCEE in the final year of senior secondary school and the HKALE in the final year of Sixth Form remain critical examinations for all students hoping to continue their education.
The government subsidizes education at all levels. Primary and junior secondary school fees for students attending government or government-aided schools are paid completely by the government. At the senior secondary and tertiary levels, students must pay fees, but the government offers many grant and loan programs that help students with financing their education. In addition, the government funds most of the costs for students attending certain public-funded tertiary institutions. Annually, government spending ranges between 18 percent and 23 percent of its public spending budget.
Although preschool is not mandatory, 90 percent of all children aged four to six attend preschool. Kindergartens are privately owned and operated, but they must register with the government and follow strict guidelines. The competition for finding good schools begins at the primary level. Until 2000, students in primary grade six took examinations that determined where they attended junior secondary school; the placement scheme has recently been revised. More than 80 percent of those aged 12 to 14 enroll in junior secondary school.
Once students finish grade 9 or are 15-years-old, school attendance is no longer mandatory. The government, however, guarantees openings for 85 percent of junior secondary finishers who want to continue to senior secondary or another type of education. The government also has committed itself to guaranteeing subsidized openings for all students who want to continue their education either in senior secondary or vocational training schools beginning in the 2002-2003 academic year.
The two years at senior secondary school prepare students for a broad range of options, but the main goal is to prepare students for the HKCEE. In their second year (S5), they take the HKCEE to determine who gets into the limited number of places in Sixth Form schools for a two-year college preparatory program. About a third of the students who begin senior secondary school qualify for openings in Sixth Form. Only 18 percent of Sixth Form students can attend universities in Hong Kong because of the limited number of openings.
Some students go from primary six (P6) into technical secondary schools. These schools offer five-year programs, although after the first three years, students are no longer required to attend school. Many students in technical secondary schools take the HKCEE with hopes of scoring high enough to obtain a place in Sixth Form. A small percentage of students finish junior secondary school and decide to take vocational courses offered by the VTC that lead to a Certificate in Vocational Studies (CVS). This prepares them for a broad range of jobs.
Although mainly attended by expatriates' children, the international schools, often run by religious groups, are popular with the affluent Chinese population. These schools are very expensive, with fees ranging from $5,000 Hong Kong dollars (US$641.05 in March 2001) to HK$20,000 (US$2,564.20) a year. Because they emphasize problem-solving and creative thinking, many Chinese parents consider the education superior to public schools. In 2000, there was already a two-year waiting period for openings in the international schools.
Students with special needs have several options. In 1999-2000 there were 74 special education schools, including practical schools and skills opportunity schools. Hong Kong also has separate schools for the blind, the deaf, the physically handicapped, and a school for students with social adjustment problems. Some of these schools are residential. All of the special education schools provide nurses, social workers, educational psychologists, speech therapists, and other specialists. In 1999-2000, nearly 9,500 students were enrolled in special schools. The government offers testing, screening, and checklists for teachers to identify and serve students with special needs. From these tests, students are placed into regular schools if possible.
The institutions at the tertiary level consist of degree granting institutions, teacher training, and postsecondary training institutions. The government guarantees subsidized, first-year university places for 18 percent of 17-to 20-year-olds, approximately 14,500 students in 2000. In addition, the government guarantees subsidized openings in postsecondary training at technical institutions for 8 percent of this age group.
University education is not totally free, however, even at the public-funded institutions. Students do have to pay their tuition, which amounted to HK$5,500 in 2000 (US$705.16). Tuition fees account for about 20 percent of the total budget per student for universities. The remaining money comes from the government.
With the transfer of Hong Kong to the PRC, significant curriculum changes have been instituted in the primary and secondary school curriculum. New courses in civics and Putonghua (Mandarin) are being taught. The civics courses cover information on China and its culture, the basic law that governs Hong Kong, and the meaning of the "one country, two system" policy. Mandarin is the common spoken language of the majority of people in China. In the ideal situation, students will be fluent in their "mother tongue"—Cantonese, English, and Mandarin. All primary schools teach in Cantonese but, until the 1990s, secondary schools had used mostly English. Since 1997, the government has implemented the "mother-tongue" policy, requiring all but about 100 secondary schools to use Cantonese as their language of instruction.
A new government education policy instituted in the late 1990s addresses the critical issue of the thousands of newly arrived children (NAC) from mainland China. The policy is to provide 60 hours of orientation, including courses in Cantonese, Hong Kong life, and Hong Kong culture. The government hopes to integrate these children into the mainstream educational system as soon as possible. For this purpose, the government has organized and given grants to hundreds of schools to conduct programs for these children.
In the late 1990s, Hong Kong's first Chief Executive Tung Chee-wah began a public campaign to reform education in Hong Kong. He, and other officials, wanted to make sure the citizens of Hong Kong were prepared to compete in a world that required constant changing and updating of skills. One of Tung's major projects was to make schools at all levels more accountable to the people and government. To do this, he introduced School-Based Management (SBM). Tung and other education officials believed that many schools lacked strong management goals and assessment methods for growth and improvement. Since the late 1990s, Hong Kong has proposed many reforms. Some have remained in place, some have evolved into new plans, and some have been tabled for lack of public support.
Target-Oriented Curriculum (TOC) is one of the reforms being promoted. Begun in 1995, TOC was supposed to redirect the primary and secondary curriculum away from academic, teacher- and textbook-centered, and driven by competitive, norm-referenced examinations to a curriculum that will encourage "individualism and whole-person growth, child-centered and task-based learning, and criterion-referenced assessment." Three core subjects make up TOC: Chinese, English, and Mathematics. The vagueness and subjectivity of assessment standards and the extra time required to create and evaluate student activities, however, has caused some teachers to question TOC. The general idea, however, of focusing on skills in these three subjects continues to provide the foundation for Hong Kong education reform in the twenty-first century.
In line with the movement to encourage more creative thinking in the classroom, the government launched major reform in methods of assessing students. Since the mid-1990s, the trend is to replace rigid, competitive testing with more individual student assessment and guidance. The major assessment tool being used in the early twenty-first century is the Hong Kong Attainment Test (HKAT).
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