Focus on Hong Kong

As we continue our series on ‘what works’ in education around the world, we focus on Hong Kong, and talk to Professor Bob Adamson, Head of Department of International Education & Lifelong Learning from the Hong Kong Institute of Education. He says it’s a country in which teachers often resort to using microphones to be heard, and where the textbook must be covered at all costs. In this interview he also discusses opportunities in Hong Kong for UK-based teachers at both international and state schools.

prof_bob_adamson Bob Adamson is a professor at the Hong Kong Institute of Education, having worked in UK, France, China and Australia at various stages of his career. He’s worked in Hong Kong for more than twenty years as secondary school teacher, teacher educator, textbook writer and academic, and worked on the team producing the ‘Junior English for China’ and ‘Senior English for China’ textbook series in the 1990s, which sold over 400 million copies – although he says alas he received no royalties!

He’s currently the Head of the Department of International Education and Lifelong Learning, and Director of the UNESCO-UNEVOC Centre (Hong Kong).


What do you think is the main factor in Hong Kong’s success in international education league tables?

There are a number of factors. Hong Kong was a refugee city after the Second World War and education has always been seen as the key to social mobility, to live the “Hong Kong Dream”. Parental expectations of their children’s academic performance are high, putting pressure on the kids and the schools. Many schoolchildren are sent to tutorial schools after hours (although the quality of the experience they receive there is questionable) and report cards are scrutinised closely by parents. As demand exceeds supply for higher levels of education, competition becomes intense, raising the stakes. “Core” subjects, such as Chinese, English and mathematics are prioritised, with Art and Design and PE slipping off the timetable as exams approach.

How is education generally viewed? Is it prioritised by the government and society?

It is given a high priority by the populace, but the government is rather tight-fisted when it comes to spending on schools – it is more generous with universities. The majority of schools in the mainstream system are sponsored by religious or community bodies.

There is also a whole sector of private schools, including international schools, which tend to be wealthier. Many of these schools operate outside of the local system, offering the International Baccalaureate or other overseas qualifications. Originally catering for the expatriate communities, these schools are increasingly popular with local people and mainlanders, who see them as stepping-stones to overseas universities and a good location for honing English skills.

Is there a strong culture of long hours and ‘cramming’ for examinations?

In the mainstream local system, yes, there is. “No pain no gain” is the watchword, as diligence rather than innate ability is viewed as the key to success. The government has attempted a number of reforms, such as school-based assessment and task-based learning, to alleviate the stress on students, but they have proved unpopular with teachers, parents and students.

What’s the atmosphere like in a typical Hong Kong school?

We need to differentiate between local schools and international schools. Local schools tend to focus on examinations. Classes are small in physical size, but often have 40+ students in each. Teachers commonly resort to using a microphone to battle against the noise of traffic and air-conditioners. The textbook has to be covered at all costs; homework is a contractual obligation. Teaching quality is closely monitored by parents. Staffrooms resemble offices rather than a refuge for relaxation; the hours can be long, with classes from 8am to 3:30pm, followed by extra-curricular activities and stacks of marking and paperwork. School management is usually top-down and hierarchical in terms of privileges.

What qualifications do teachers need?

Teachers are required to have Qualified Teacher Status (through a B.Ed or bachelor degree and postgraduate teaching qualification), although many also acquire a master’s degree. Most schools have at least one native-speaking teacher of English (with QTS), a long-standing scheme to promote language standards, which (according to local mythology) have been declining for the past 150 years or so.

International schools are often more democratic in organisation. They have smaller class sizes and generally better resources. Teaching can be more student-centred, with an emphasis on autonomous learning through project work.

Is there a significant emphasis on learning languages?

Yes, more than 50% of the local curriculum time is devoted to English, Cantonese and Putonghua. A number of schools have adopted English as the medium of instruction, with varying results. Since the handover of 1997, Putonghua has risen in status and is used in a growing number of schools as the medium of instruction. (There seems to be little awareness of the threats to Cantonese arising from the two other languages.)

The language environment outside of schools is almost exclusively Cantonese, although Putonghua is heard more and more as mainlanders settle or shop in Hong Kong. English is used in international areas and by Chinese who grew up overseas.

And finally, for UK teachers considering working in Hong Kong, are there many opportunities, either in the state, private or international school sectors?

A teacher with QTS (overseas qualifications are usually recognised) and a degree in a language-related area has a good chance of being appointed as a native-speaking English teacher in a local primary or secondary school. The salaries are reasonable, although insufficient in themselves to allow a parent to support kids through international schooling. High rents will take a chunk of salaries, but tax is low.

Unqualified teachers may have a chance to teach in a kindergarten or tutorial school, but wages are not great.

Teachers for international schools are recruited internationally. Appointees are often very well qualified and experienced – competition is keen. The salary is generally very good, and children of teachers can benefit from discounts on school fees.

Our thanks to Professor Adamson for taking part in this interview.

Don’t miss next month’s International Newsletter, when we’ll be talking to another international education specialist.

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