Allan Walker is Chair Professor of International Educational Leadership and Co-Director of the Asia Pacific Centre for Leadership and Change at The Education University of Hong Kong. He is author of Deciphering Chinese School Leadership: Conceptualisation, Context and Complexities.
I guess it depends on what you mean by educational quality. I think that what the question probably refers to is PISA, the international assessment. I don’t think there’s a specific event. It is probably a combination of a number of things. Number one, I think it has to do with the way the Hong Kong’s education system is structured, which is quite elitist. In Hong Kong, schools are grouped into three bands. Each band has a certain percentage of the students. In the top band, named “one,” there is the cream of the students. When you finish primary school, you are streamed into either an elite school or a more average one. Undoubtedly, the performance of the top end of a system like that is going to be pretty good. Number two, although Hong Kong was a British colony for a long time, it always retained a very strong Chinese culture, and education is very, very important in Chinese culture. I know education is important in all countries, but in Chinese culture, academic achievement is viewed as one of the hallmarks of Chinese civilisation. Students tend to be very disciplined in terms of their studying. They will do hours and hours of homework. Most students in Hong Kong also go to tutorial schools, which have come to be known as the shadow education system. But in general terms, I don’t think there is a specific event. Around 2000, there were some reforms that tried to update and put a little more creative thinking into the education system, but I would not see that as a reason for the performance in PISA.
The history of education in Hong Kong is quite interesting. In colonial times, the British weren’t really interested in providing education for local students —education was provided only for the colonial elite (the kids of the British expatriate). Very few people went to school, and those who were able to go did so thanks to religious groups —the Catholics, the Protestants. In the 1960s there were mass riots fuelled by a ferry-ticket hike. The British tried to put up the fare on the Star Ferry, a famous ferry that goes from Kowloon to the island, and the whole city exploded. After those riots, came a demand from the Hong Kong population for more social services and more education and a realisation by the colonial rulers that they had to provide them. So the British agreed that they would start to provide education. But you can’t build a school system for four-five million people overnight. So what they did was to tell all the people who already were running schools —the Catholics had probably over a hundred schools in Hong Kong at the time, for example— that they will pay for them provided that they will keep running them. They will pay for the buildings, the teaching staff, the regular staff, and so on. So the system they have has grown in a very fragmented fashion. Schools were run by different sponsoring religious groups, industrial groups, political groups. And as the system grew, they started to group the schools into bands. Today, it is very stressful for parents to try to get their children into the highest band.