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Annual General Meeting of the Association of the English Medium Secondary Schools

Annual General Meeting of the Association of the English Medium Secondary Schools Speech by Professor Arthur K C Li, GBS, JP Secretary for Education and Manpower
17 December 2003

Thank you Mrs Chan, and good morning to you, ladies and gentlemen,

It gives me much pleasure to join you at your annual gathering near the festive season and I wish you all a very happy Christmas. With the approach of Christmas and the New Year, and then the Lunar New Year, those of you teaching secondary 5 and 7 classes will be increasingly aware of the decreasing time left for covering the syllabus. In no time students will leave school to prepare for their public examinations. The pressure of examination is mounting in both students and teachers alike, I'm afraid.

Existing System

For many years, people have criticized the examination-oriented curriculum at the senior-secondary level, pointing out that two major public examinations within two years are far too many, as they allow little space for the all-round development of students. Indeed, the current system has a long history in Hong Kong and is largely based on the British model, which prepares elite students for specialist education at the university. I myself have gone through such a system, and so have many of you. We are used to it; we are familiar with it; we are comfortable with it. But is such a system adequate for the age of globalization, when we emphasize creativity, flexibility, cooperation, a broad knowledge base, and life-long learning? Is it conducive to the holistic development of our students? Can it cater to the interests and learning needs of a much larger student population with extremely varied aptitudes and abilities?

EC Recommendation and Response

The Education Commission recommended earlier this year that a three-year academic structure should be adopted at the senior-secondary level, to provide a more coherent and diversified curriculum and a richer learning experience for our students. They also proposed the extension of the normative duration of undergraduate studies for 1 year from 3 to 4, to make room for quality university education. Members of the Commission are of the view that a 3+3+4 system is beneficial to the ecology of local education, and will articulate better with mainstream systems outside Hong Kong. Even in Britain, the change to a 4-year system is now being seriously contemplated.

By and large these proposals are welcomed by the education sector and the public. But while there is a general consensus that 3+3+4 is the preferred model and will be a major milestone of our education reform, opinions differ as to how quickly things should and could proceed. Some at the universities want to move fast and expedite the process by introducing a 5+1+4 model in the interim. Some suggest the expansion of the Early Admissions Scheme for Secondary 6 students. Others worry about the heavy workload imposed by existing reforms and call for prudence. Yet others are concerned about the resource implications and query the affordability of such a change at times of fiscal stringency.

We in the government see the need to proceed with caution. We see the need to seek views from different quarters before working out the actual time-table and implementation details. And I am here this morning to throw out some major issues that need to be addressed. I welcome questions and I invite feedback from you as to how we should go about ensuring a smooth transition to 3+3+4, and achieving the quality improvement that we want so much to achieve.


First let us look at the issue of overstretching.

Are we being overstretched at the moment by the many reform initiatives launched since 1997? By “we”, I mean not only the Education and Manpower Bureau, but all the schools, all the key implementation agencies such as the Curriculum Development Institute and the Hong Kong Examinations and Assessment Authority.

We have introduced, for example, the Medium of Instruction Policy, which is awaiting review results before a long-term mechanism can be devised for implementation.

We have launched the Secondary School Places Allocation System, which is to be reviewed in tandem with the medium of instruction policy.

We have introduced the Direct Subsidy Scheme for schools and encouraged associated primary and secondary schools to form through-trains.

We have started curriculum reform and will evaluate its effectiveness in 2006.

We are working on new formats and contents of examinations; we are designing new methods of assessment to gauge student performance.

We are preparing school principals and teachers for a culture change; we are helping them acquire new skills and qualifications as part of their continuing professional development.

We are also pushing for school-based management in our schools.

I am sure hard-working school principals and teachers in the front-line are already feeling the stress exerted by these and other reforms that are progressively being rolled out. We have to ask: Is our plate full? Is there room for new initiatives? How do we set our priorities? How do we assess the urgency of the 3+3+4 structure against the large background of education reform? How can we avoid excessive pressure on schools and teachers, which is likely to be counter-productive?

Magnitude of Change

To answer these questions, it may be useful to take a look at what the proposed restructuring actually entails. We may then judge if anything is beyond our current capacity. We may also get a better feel of the lead time required and work out a realistic time-frame accordingly.

The change, of course, involves much more than simply cutting out one year of secondary education and adding one year to the university.

What we'll need to do includes developing a new, diversified curriculum that can cater to the needs of differently-inclined students, a curriculum that can also interface with the programmes of diverse post-secondary educational institutions.

We'll also need to design a new public examination that is widely recognized locally and overseas, to replace the current Certificate of Education Examination and the Advanced Level Examination.

We'll need to prepare schools and teachers for the new curriculum and the new public examination, and all the associated assessment and grading mechanisms.

We'll need to reorganize the asymmetrical class structure in our schools in order to accommodate the much larger proportion of Secondary 3 students gaining access to senior secondary education.

We'll need to conceive the best mode of switching over to 3+3+4 and to solve the problems arising from the double cohort of students during the transitional period.

We'll need to build more secondary schools and train more teachers to staff these schools.

We'll need to secure sites for the construction of new schools and ask our universities to revamp their curriculum, reform their admission systems, and expand their facilities for a four-year undergraduate programme.

And the list does not end here. What is already very apparent is that the 3+3+4 structure depends on many pre-conditions, all of which take time to secure. Or put it this way: desirable as they are, the full benefits of the new system can't be realized until sufficient groundwork has been laid and all parties concerned are thoroughly briefed and fully prepared.

What is even more apparent, ladies and gentlemen, is that the implementation of this system requires huge sums of money. Let us now look at the resource implications.

Resource Implications

An initial assessment of the costs involved gives the ballpark figure of HK$6.4 billion as non-recurrent expenditure and roughly $3.2 billion as recurrent expenditure.

Non-recurrent expenditure is to be spent on the development of the new curriculum and the new public examination, the training of additional and serving teachers, and the construction of more schools and teaching facilities. Recurrent expenditure is primarily for operating these schools and sustaining the new curriculum.

We have never doubted that any money pledged for this reform will be well-spent and worth the while. The Education and Manpower Bureau is as anxious as anybody else to see this implemented as soon as practicable. The question is: can we afford it? Committing additional spending of this magnitude over the next five years seems unrealistic in view of the government's fiscal constraints. But if we do not start preparing for it now, many of the flaws of the existing system will continue to haunt our schools, and the effects of other on-going education reforms will be diluted. So what are the alternatives? Can we tap other sources of funding? Can existing resources be redeployed for better utilization? We feel it our responsibility to listen to all stakeholders before we make any financial commitment and finalize the time-table.

As far as the 3+3+4 structure is concerned, this is where we now stand. Where do we go from here? It is up to us, you and I, to explore together the best route to follow, the right pace to adopt.

Last revision date: 17 December 2003
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