Hong Kong's secondary schools are operated by three separate groups: the government (about 8 percent of students); voluntary groups largely funded by the government (about 77 percent of students); and private schools that raise their own finances (about 15 percent of students). Secondary education is divided into three years of junior secondary (S1-S3) and two years of senior secondary (S4-S5) school. Senior secondary students take the HKCEE, and about 30 percent usually score high enough to qualify for places in Sixth Form (Secondary Sixth or S6-S7), a two-year program that prepares students to take the university qualifying exam (HKALE).
There are three types of secondary schools: grammar, which concentrates on academic subjects; technical/ vocational, which prepares students to enter the workforce after their ninth year but also offers academic preparation if students wish to continue their education; and prevocational/special schools, which are for students with disabilities. In 1999-2000, there were 433 grammar, 20 technical, and 27 prevocational schools, with more than 450,000 students: 235,974 in S1-S3; 159,343 in S4-S5; and 58,248 in S6-S7. Although the pupil-teacher ratio is about 19 to 1, class size in 1998-1999 averaged in the upper thirties, not much lower than in 1985-1986, when there were slightly fewer than 40 students per class.
Where students attend school has always been a controversial issue. Certain secondary schools established superior reputations, and parents competed to place their children in these schools. Until 1978, the availability of openings in secondary schools was limited, so students had to take a competitive exam called the Secondary School Entrance Examination (SSEE) to get into S1. After 1978, the government guaranteed a subsidized place for everyone through S3 or the age of 15. Therefore, the SSEE was not needed and it was eliminated. To determine which junior secondary school students attended, the Secondary School Places Allocation (SSPA) was introduced. Under the SSPA, there was no competitive examination. Allocation was based on a student's academic record, the Academic Aptitude Test (AAT) used to weigh the academic standards at each school, parental choice of secondary schools, and school NETS or districts.
In the late 1990s, the Education Commission began an extensive review of the SSPA system and eliminated the ATT. In 2001 they began looking at alternative plans, but the interim system is similar to the former SSPA except with less dependence on public examination scores. The end result is that most students must attend secondary schools in their own secondary school NET. The government has encouraged primary and secondary schools to link together in a system called "Through Train" so that students will pass directly from P6 (sixth year of primary school) to specified junior secondary schools for S1. The commission plans to have a new system in place by 2004 or 2005.
Gaining a place in senior secondary schools is also competitive. Because there were limited places in senior secondary schools, the government created the Junior Secondary Education Assessment (JSEA) in 1980. In 1993, the present system called Secondary Four Places (SFP) was adopted. It combines student performance in school with a formula called Mean Eligibility Rate (MER), which determines the success of each junior secondary school in placing students in S4.
The government subsidizes places for 85 percent of the S3 leavers in grammar and technical schools and another 10 percent for places in vocational subsidized schools. In 1999, approximately 78,000 students finished S3. Almost all of them sought further education. In addition, a few thousand former S3 finishers sought some form of post S3 education. The government offered subsidized places for 73,749 students. Courses taught by other agencies and subsidized by the Department of Education covered 2,240 more students. The Vocational Training Council (VTC) subsidized 4,192 full time openings in vocational and industrial training, including study with the Construction Industry Training Authority and the Clothing Industry Training Authority. Other programs with private schools took 3,498 students in 1999. So in effect, almost everyone who wanted to continue schooling beyond junior secondary had the opportunity.
There are few expenses for students attending junior secondary school other than transportation, books, and uniforms. The government Student Financial Assistance Agency (SFAA) offers textbook assistance for needy families. Students attending senior secondary school, however, must pay an annual fee. For the academic year 2000-2001, this amounted to HK$5,050 (US$647.48). For Sixth Form the fee was HK$8,750 (US$1,121.80).
The SFAA provides fee remission and other assistance for needy S4-S7 students from families with average monthly incomes of under HK$23,200 (US$2,974.37). In 2001, the government promised that subsidized S4 places would be available in the future for everyone who wanted to further his or her education beyond the required nine years.
Getting into senior secondary school puts students on track to take the HKCEE and qualify for Sixth Form, but openings are limited. There were 23,956 guaranteed places in S6 for the 1999-2000 academic year. In recent years the percentage of students going on to post S5 study has been around 33 percent. Many of those who take the HKCEE are not associated with a school; they are retaking the exam to try to increase their scores. In 2000, of the 130,303 examinees, 41,267 were private candidates.
To prepare students for the HKCEE, senior secondary schools dedicate about 50 percent of the curriculum to the three core subjects: Chinese, English, and mathematics. In all, the HKCEE covers 42 subjects, and most students choose 7 or 8 for examination. Chinese, English, and mathematics must be taken by all students, then students select either humanities exams in subjects such as world history, Chinese history, geography, and economics; or science exams in subjects such as physics, chemistry, biology, and additional mathematics. The tests are scored on an A through F basis: A, 5 points; B, 4 points; C, 3 points; D, 2 points; E, 1 point; and F, not passing. The best six grades are counted, and they must total 14 or higher if a student hopes for a place at a subsidized Sixth Form. HKCEE scores are also used in the workforce for mid-level hiring. To get a civil service position as a clerical officer, for example, an applicant must have five grade Es, two of which must be in Chinese and English languages.
Annually, from 60 to 68 percent of the exams are scored E or above. In 2000, the four most popular subjects were Chinese language with 78,975 examinees (66.0 percent scored E or higher); mathematics with 78,658 (74.7 percent scored E or higher); additional math with 21,479 (84.6 percent scored E or higher); English language with 66,064 (64.6 percent scored E or higher); and economics with 38,494 examinees (68.4 percent scored E or higher).
To qualify for university level education, students must take the HKALE. Most students take the exam in the late spring during their second year of Sixth Form. To be eligible to take the HKALE, students must have a grade of E or above in six HKCEE subjects, two of which must be Chinese and English. Because more than 25 percent of those who take the HKALE annually are no longer students, they are classified as private candidates. To be eligible for the exam, private candidates must meet one of three criteria: (1) have taken the HKCEE 18 months before the HKALE examination; scored a grade of E or above in six subjects, including Chinese and English; have a C or above in at least one subject; and a point total from the exams of at least 10 (using the same A through F point system as the HKCEE); (2) have taken the HKALE before; or (3) be 21-years-old by January 1 of the year of the examination.
In 2000, some 35,549 students sat for the exams, 75.7 percent for the first time. Of this total, 16,868 (48.7 percent) scored high enough to qualify for admission to tertiary institutions: 7,586 males (47.1 percent) and 9,282 females (50 percent). Only about 14,500 government subsidized openings were available, however. This shortage of places leads many students to study overseas. The Hong Kong government estimated that in the late 1990s, a total of about 40,000 Hong Kong university students were studying overseas. The most popular countries were the United States (13,000 students), the United Kingdom (10,000), Australia (9,000), and Canada (6,500). Another 2,000 studied in other places such as Mainland China and Taiwan.
The HKALE tests subjects at two levels: 20 subjects at the A or advanced level and 20 subjects at the AS or advanced supplementary level. Both require two years of study, but the AS courses are half the classroom time as the A level courses. Universities consider two AS exams to be equal to one A-level exam when figuring scores on the HKALE. AS subjects were introduced in 1994 as a part of the government's attempt to encourage students to study outside the narrow course offerings in their majors.
Prior to 1994, the only mandatory language exam on the HKALE was English. Following the government's initiative, tertiary institutions began requiring a passing grade in both English and Chinese on the HKALE as prerequisite for acceptance. However, except for the AS-level English and Chinese exams, AS-level subjects have not become popular. In general, students take examinations that will enable them to meet entry requirements into specific university programs. As a result, more than 50 percent of the students never take AS level exams except in language.
To enter universities, candidates must score a grade of E or above in both "Use of English" and "Chinese Language and Culture," and a minimum of two more A-level or one A-level plus two AS-level subjects. Particular university programs might require additional requirements.
Instead of university study, thousands of students enter technical and prevocational secondary schools. The prevocational schools concentrate more on crafts for industry at the lower range of difficulty, while the technical schools offer three years of courses that also prepare students for possible senior secondary school. Therefore, the first three years in technical secondary schools include concentrations in academic subjects similar to grammar schools. A few technical schools offer S4 and S5 level courses that prepare students for the HKCEE. Technical openings go unfilled, however. In the late 1990s, only half of the 10 percent of subsidized openings were being filled.
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