Young Javis Leung King-chung relates his nightmare.
“I was in school and my teacher said my class was too naughty, so although we started lessons at 7am, we had to stay on to work until 7pm,” the eight-year-old said.
“With our shocked looks and disgruntled sounds, the teacher then said we had to stay for 15 more hours. The more startled we became, the more the teacher kept increasing the hours. In the end, we had to stay for three days. I was so scared.”
He could not shake off the dread of going to school even after he woke.
Javis is not alone. Thousands of Hong Kong pupils are under tremendous pressure as they study under a competitive education system, face long school hours and deal with huge amounts of homework.
A survey of around 1,300 primary pupils by Baptist Oi Kwan Social Service last year found that 21.7 per cent complained of constant stress, with the most common sources of pressure being too much homework, preparing for secondary school and unsatisfactory academic performance.
The figure was up 5.5 percentage points from a similar poll in 2016 and a three-year high.
Just as worrying, international studies also pointed to Hong Kong students’ lack of interest, confidence and engagement in learning, with critics saying it was time authorities reviewed the curricula.
Javis, who attends a government-funded school in Central and Western District, said he hated going to school as it stressed him out.
He typically woke at 7am and got to school by 8am. The next seven hours were spent in classes with just three five-minute recesses and half an hour for lunch. He then had two hours of tuition for his homework – eight or nine assignments a day, but 12 on Fridays – and any other tasks from the tutors.
The Primary Three pupil had just 30 to 45 minutes for play on average during school days.
“I’m not happy and it’s pointless,” he said.
Javis said he did not get much time to see his family on weekdays.
An aspiring sportsman, Javis also complained about not having enough time for training, with just an hour of football lessons on Saturdays, and two hours of track and field after school on Tuesdays.
His other dream is to be an explorer or scientist. But his education is not helping him get there. “School is very boring, we only read textbooks and always have exams and tests and have to memorise things,” he said.
While his workload might seem excessive, it is not uncommon in Hong Kong.
A recent survey of 1,402 parents by the Hong Kong Parents League for Education Renovation found that 60 per cent said their children spent more than 1½ hours a day on assignments after class. Some 23 per cent said their children spent more than 2½ hours on homework.
Its other survey of 518 parents, covering 116 primary schools, showed that 68 per cent of the schools allocated under 40 minutes for recess while 74 per cent allowed less than 50 minutes for lunch.
Both were below the Education Bureau’s recommendations of two 20-minute recesses and an hour-long lunch daily.
Javis’ mother, Lena Tsang Ling-ling, said that sometimes she wanted to talk to her children about their lives or behaviour but there was insufficient time to do so on weekdays.
“By the time they come home, it’s already past six, and after showering and eating, it’s around 8pm. I make sure they sleep at 9pm to get enough rest,” she said.
Javis’ parents believe in keeping weekends homework-free, spending the time on family activities such as hiking or going to the beach or park.
“For me, education is about teaching children about confidence, responsibility, honesty and being courteous. Often, these are things that need to be taught at home, but they’re often neglected,” Tsang said.
Tsang was worried that it would be even tougher for Daniel, Javis’ five-year-old brother, when he entered primary school.
“Daniel attends the kindergarten his brother went to. It’s one known for being activity-based, but my younger son now brings home homework in K3, which his brother did not,” she said.
Roadblocks to children’s development
Besides workload issues, critics said the quality of education in Hong Kong in general was also hampering children from realising their full potential.
In the Progress in International Reading Literacy Study (PIRLS) 2016, which assessed the reading comprehension level of Primary Four pupils in 50 countries and regions, Hong Kong was overtaken by Russia and Singapore.
While Hong Kong still got a remarkable third place, experts said the city could do better in higher-level reading skills and its proportion of elite students.
High-level skills typically refer to processes such as interpreting, integrating and evaluating information, while low-level ones cover things like retrieving information and straightforward inference.
Hong Kong respondents scored an average of 568 for both high- and low-level reading skills.
Low-level skills improved from 562 in the 2011 assessment, however, high-level ones fell from 578. The number of students considered among the cream of the crop, with 625 points and above, was much lower in Hong Kong, at 18 per cent, than Singapore (29 per cent) and Russia (26 per cent).
Dr Elizabeth Loh Ka-yee, an assistant professor at the University of Hong Kong’s faculty of education, said it was partly related to teaching methods.
“According to the PIRLS study, what our teachers do most is to ask children to locate information in the text, with 97 per cent of students having teachers asking them to do so weekly,” she said.
Loh said this strategy produced lower skills such as retrieving information.
“But the percentage of students whose teachers ask them to, say, compare what they have read with experiences they have had or with other things they have read is a lot lower, at 78 per cent and 66 per cent, both lower than the international average of 83 per cent and 75 per cent respectively,” she said.
These methods would help produce higher skills, Loh said, adding that drilling or a rote learning approach, which focused on repetition and memorisation and was used in many schools, was only good for producing short-term results and did not help with higher-order thinking.
She also pointed to the lack of diversity in teaching materials with schools mostly focusing only on textbooks, with 95 per cent of schools using them almost daily.
“Textbook publishers need to adapt to the market, so they usually target the standard of the middle group of students,” she said.
“If you rely solely on textbooks, the result will be to produce students with average abilities, and you cannot inspire more gifted students to further pursue their abilities.”
Loh added that most textbooks do not depict situations with dilemmas to stimulate multi-perspective thinking.
“Usually, the father and mother love the family while the children are very filial. It is all perfect so there is nothing much to discuss,” she said.
“But in real life, there are a lot of dilemmas and you need to make decisions.”
Make learning interesting again
The large workload of students and lack of diversity in teaching have become such important issues that even Secretary for Education Kevin Yeung Yun-hung recently made an appeal to schools to ease the burden of homework over the Lunar New Year.
Yeung also said his bureau had been discussing with schools ways to improve homework policies, with a focus on making assignments more diverse and interesting.
Eleven legislators on the education panel also recently called on the bureau to consider imposing the maximum hours of homework for primary school pupils, restricting homework assigned on Fridays to the same amount as other days, and making at least one school break homework-free.
Tsang and Javis said having half-day schooling with classes ending at around 1pm would be good. That was the case in Hong Kong until the whole-day schooling policy was introduced progressively in 1993, turning most primary schools to whole-day schools.
The bureau said the policy provided a more diversified range of learning activities for the students, relieved the tight schedules of half-day schooling, and provided more opportunities for better communication between teachers and students.
But Javis and his mother believed a shorter school day would allow children to learn via other means, such as visiting museums, taking sports classes or getting home education.
They also expressed hopes for more hands-on learning in school, such as learning maths through a cooking class, writing a sports diary, going on excursions or doing experiments.
To make lessons more interesting, Loh proposed using a drama-in-education approach, such as having students and teachers role play different characters in Chinese classical literature or in tackling textbook topics such as working holidays.
She said teachers using the approach had told her that it increased students’ interests in learning Chinese including one class with non-Chinese speaking students.
As part of Chief Executive Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor’s policy address last year, a task force was set up to review school curricula, such as how to better cater for students’ diverse abilities and aspirations.
With the task force taking some time before recommendations could be made, all eyes were now on whether Lam’s administration would continue the Basic Competency Assessment.
Widely regarded as a rebranded version of the Primary Three Territory-wide System Assessment – which gauged pupils’ English, Chinese and maths standards – it became notoriously associated with teachers drilling pupils amid a widespread belief that the bureau used data to rank schools.
The bureau has denied such claims.
The government also said a revised and simpler version of the assessment in the last two years has reduced the motivation to drill, but some parents and educators disagreed.
Educators have warned that the assessment has distorted curricula with teachers teaching to test.
Parents and lawmakers recently pressed the government again to scrap the test and warned of escalating actions if their demands were not met.
The government was set to announce its decision on the matter in coming weeks.
Although Tsang knew her children were stressed, the only thing she could do was to encourage them to press on. She said the issue was not the school but society.
“I cannot tell my children not to study as I need to teach them to be responsible, but the problem is the system.”