Flexibility -- key to Hong Kong's educational success

This British colony off the coast of southern China has a population of some 5 million. The land area consists of the island of Hong Kong, the urban area of Kowloon on the mainland, the vast New Territories, at present on lease from the People's Republic of China, and scores of outer islands, only a few of which are heavily inhabited.

Compulsory education was raised to the age of 15 in September 1980. Schooling begins at age 6. A wide range of programs is offered to Hong Kong's more than 1 million students, with their vastly varying educational needs.

Life styles range from the apartment dwellers of Mongkok, a section of Kowloon which is the most densely populated area in the world, to farmers of the rural New Territories, and the fisherfolk who sail the south China Seas, returning to Hong Kong to market their catch. Only 57 percent of the population is of Hong Kong birth.

The fact that 43 percent of its people were born outside the colony is the source of many of its problems, but it also makes Hong Kong a very special place. Its ready acceptance of refugees and other outsiders is a rare phenomenon in today's Asia.

While other regional nations refused to deal with the Vietnamese boat people or sent them back to sea, Hong Kong took them into its already overcrowded camps. The colony continuously becomes the home of another type of refugee, who come in even greater numbers and who stay permanently.

In 1979 more than 180,000 legal and illegal refugees crossed the border of mainland China into Hong Kong. A yet-to-be-determined number came in 1980.

The rapid population growth due to an influx of outsiders has been a source of strain to the government's social programs, one of the most important of which is its educational system. But the flexibility of both the government and the residents of the colony have made it possible to accomplish an almost impossible task.

At present only 15 percent of the colony's primary and secondary schools are government schools. Some 50 percent are private and 35 percent are what are known as "aided schools."

Aided schools are established by benevolent associations, which build and run the schools and receive money from the government.

If an organization sees the need for a school and the government agrees, the government will donate the land and 80 percent of the building costs. It will continue to give aid after the school is established.

Few of these aided schools charge any fees, but needy students attending those that do may receive financial aid from the government. Aided schools are an essential part of Hong Kong's educational program, since the government's emphasis is on building housing estates rather than schools.

The only new schools the government is building these days are in the "new towns." These are vast groups of housing estates being built in the New Territories, Hong Kong's frontier.

To visit one of these new towns, with their identical buildings marching in even rows, is like stepping into the space age. In every one of these housing estates, an entire building or the ground floor of a building is reserved for a school. These schools are run by the government or by a charity organization.

Another type of government school that has been around for a while is the one under the education department and which is run by other government agencies.

An example is the group of schools run by the Fish Marketing Organization, established in fishing villages and boat shelter areas, and aimed at the children of fishing families. These children live on "junks" and are often absent from school for weeks at a time as they accompany their parents on fishing expeditions.

Many Hong Kong youth work in factories and family businesses, either because of their family's financial need or because they prefer work to school. Night schools are an integral part of Hong Kong's educational system and are geared to those who wish to continue their education while working or to those 15 years old or younger for whom education is compulsory.

The government runs four full-course secondary schools at night, while many others are run by religious organizations and as profitmaking businesses.

A very special type of night school was established last April by a group of social workers and religious leaders for the boat people who live in boats anchored in the Yaumatei typhoon shelter in Kowloon. These boat people are not Vietnamese refugees but the descendants of fishing families, most of whom prefer to work in other jobs.

Because of an acute housing shortage, these people cannot settle on land as they would prefer but must live on the "junks" which were the source of their parents' livelihood. The Yaumatei shelter has a population of about 7,000.

Because most boat-dwelling families have financial difficulties, their children are often sent off to work in factories at an early age, after only a few years of schooling, if any. It is for teens and young adults from this type of background that this unique community night school was established.

The government night schools require fourth- or fifth-grade level to enter, which these youth don't have, and so an alternative, offering basic education, was established for them.

The students range in age from 16 to 25. Although reading and writing (Mandarin or Cantonese), math, and English are the most important subjects, natural science, social science, and history are also taught.

The purpose of this school is not only to teach basic skills but to encourage the students to reflect upon their society and to work to make it better, to teach them how to solve their own problems and those of the boat people in the community.

All teachers in this school are volunteers and include an engineer, social worker, doctor, and day-school teacher. Pupils pay only $1 per month for supplies.

To recruit students, a leaflet printed in simple Chinese is distributed to the boat dwellers. Classes meet in a primary school on land. It was originally planned to use a boat for class meetings, but the boat sank before the school was opened.

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