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Speech by the Permanent Secretary for Education and Manpower


The following is the speech by the Permanent Secretary for Education and Manpower, Mrs Fanny Law, at the PISA International Conference: "What Do the PISA Results Tell Us about the Education Quality & Equality in the Pacific Rim?" today (November 21) (English only):

Professor Lo, Mr Schleicher, Professor Willms, Distinguished Guests, Ladies and Gentlemen,

It is both my honour and pleasure to join this PISA International Conference, which brings together investigators from the Pacific Rim to reflect on the findings of the respective regions, and to share good practices and insight, for we hold the common vision of making quality education a universal reality.

In a knowledge economy, education holds the key to the future of a society. How we nurture our next generation determines our social, cultural and economic capital; and by extension, whether the society can sustain and flourish as a balanced, cohesive and stable community where personal interest and collective well-being are equally valued. In an era where, as Alvin Toffler predicted more than a decade ago, "change is the constant"; and where "standing still means lagging behind", we have to prepare our young people to be self-initiating lifelong learners who are alert to change, willing to embrace change and can manage change. This requires a major re-think of the role of schools, what students should learn, and how to go about it.

Waves of education reform swept across nations in the latter part of the 20th century with myriads of school reform programmes. Branding some of the initiatives as "moving the chairs on the Titanic", Phil Gang, the co-founder of the Global Alliance for Transforming Education, reminded us to go back to the basics, that education should draw out the gift that children come into the world with, and that schools should touch the innate spirit of children, fire their imagination and enthuse them to want to learn.

Following the global trend, Hong Kong is likewise engulfed in a wave of education reform beginning at the turn of the century. Amidst the reform frenzy, it is useful to remind ourselves from time to time, the purposes of what we do and how they can benefit students. At the heart of the reform initiatives, there are two over-arching objectives, i.e. "to motivate students to learn" and help them "learn how to learn". The focus is clearly on the learner and learning. The desired outcome is to see a new generation of "lifelong learners" who enjoy learning, and are equipped with the generic skills and a positive attitude to cope with change.

It has been more than three years since education reform was officially launched in Hong Kong. We have seen very positive results, in particular, in the nine years of basic education that matter most in a child's development. Anecdotal evidence suggests that our children are now happier at school with more diverse learning activities. They are also learning better and with deeper understanding through project work and experiential learning activities. We see professional learning communities within schools and among teachers to share good practices and the knowledge generated through action research. We find parents being more involved in their children's learning and volunteering their services to support the school. All these could not have been achieved without a dedicated and hardworking teaching force which is the key success factor for any education system. I take this opportunity to thank our principals and teachers who deserve the highest respect for their efforts and contributions to promoting the well-being of our young people and the community.

To sustain continuous improvement, we need more scientifically based evaluation of educational outcome to benchmark Hong Kong's performance against the international norm and chart the progress over time. In this regard, international studies provide valuable cross-cultural and longitudinal comparisons that can inject new perspectives, inspire innovations, and identify strengths and weaknesses. With these objectives in mind, Hong Kong joined PISA+ in 2002. We are keen to know how well our 15-year-olds are equipped to meet the challenges of the future. Can they analyse, reason and communicate their ideas effectively? Can they continue learning through their lives? These are the key research questions of PISA 2000.

We are very pleased with the performance of Hong Kong students in PISA, ranking first in mathematics, third in science, and sixth in reading among some 40 participating countries. Furthermore, socio-economic and cultural variance seems to have less effect on the performance of Hong Kong students compared with other economies. These results reaffirm the quality of our education system. They are a dose of confidence booster to re-invigorate educators who are working under the pressure of rising community expectations. They provide comfort to the community that there are strengths in our education system, which we must not lose sight of while we strive for continuous improvement. They are also a timely reminder that, in the education reform, we must build on strengths and not throw the baby out with the bathwater.

Education is a developmental process. We are continuously catching up with public expectations. This is only natural for improvements open up new possibilities, which in turn generate higher expectations. Indeed, there is no place for complacency in the 21st century in every walk of life. Constant reflection, lifelong learning and continuous improvement are the guiding principles for success. Let me share with you some of my reflections on the findings of PISA 2000 from a policy perspective.

We take pride in the equity in our education system as reflected in the relatively small disparities between high (95th percentile) and low achievers (5th percentile). However, equity is not the same as equality or uniformity; it has to be fit for purpose. We believe that a system built on meritocracy, which provides ample opportunities and accessibility for all, will tap the best talents in the community. Many of our leaders today have moved up the social ladder through education. Many of our university students have a humble background and are the first in their family to receive tertiary education. The government is fully committed to ensuring that no one is deprived of education for lack of means, and will continue to provide more and multifarious education opportunities to suit diverse interests and aptitude, so that everyone, if they so wish, can develop their potential to the full.

Since the beginning of this school year, we have provided senior secondary education for all 15-year-olds, who are able and willing to continue education. We also offer a second chance to adults, who dropped out before completing secondary education, through the Project Yi Jin which offers a qualification equivalent to the secondary school leaving certificate. At a time of financial stringency, we do expect individual learners to contribute more and invest in their own future while the government continues to provide a safety net for those who lack the means. However, we must also beware of the inadvertent consequence of people with lesser means being deterred from taking advantage of the increasing education opportunities. Finding the right balance is a challenge.

Despite the small achievement gap between high and low achievers in Hong Kong, the PISA results show a strong student effect on reading, mathematical and scientific literacy. This suggests a high degree of academic segregation between schools, which is the inevitable result of the secondary school places allocation system that existed prior to 2000. The situation should have improved somewhat with a reduction in the number of student banding from five to three. However, there is much room for improvement in meeting the diverse needs of student through diversification of the curriculum and qualifications at the system level and in catering for individual differences in heterogeneous classrooms.

This involves both support for weaker students and stretching the potential of high ability students. The PISA reading literacy shows that educators in Hong Kong are doing well in supporting low achievers but not as well in promoting excellence at the top end of the scale. Only 10% of our students achieve Level 5 compared to 19% in Australia, 18% in Finland and New Zealand, and 17% in Canada. This is perhaps a reflection of the traditionally skewed emphasis on science and mathematics in our gifted education programmes. A more broad-based approach, and close cooperation between the school and parents will ensure maximum stimulation and development of gifted potential.

The family has a crucial role to play in a person's upbringing, in particular, in the development of early childhood literacy. Literacy is the foundation for learning and provides a framework for thinking. Reading opens up a child's understanding of the world, develops the ability to construct meaning from text, and integrates experience with learning. The analysis of reading habit in the PISA study indicates that students who spend time on reading for enjoyment and who are engaged in reading have higher scores in reading literacy. Here in Hong Kong, "reading to learn" is one of the top priorities on our education agenda. We train parents to be reading partners; provide resources for schools to acquire quality reading materials; and build an electronic library on the HK Education City, a portal which also offers a platform for professional exchanges among educators. I am glad to note that more and more schools have adopted the DEAR strategy - drop everything and read - and more parents are taking their children to public libraries on holidays. However, the reading achievement of boys remains a concern and will require more effort and attention.

The PISA study also reveals that students who communicate more often with their parents perform better in reading, mathematics and science. However, contrary to common intuition, family homework supervision is found to be negatively associated with literacy performance. Students whose parents invest more on educational resources such as a desk, a calculator, books and a quiet place to study perform better. But investment in cellular phones, TV sets, computers and motorcars, however, have negative effects on student achievements. These findings provide food for thought for parents on how they should invest their time and money to bring most benefit to their children.

As regards the use of learning strategies, there is a heavy reliance on competitive learning among Hong Kong students. This is a reflection of the examination orientation that prevails the education system. Assessment is probably the weakest link in our education system. We have to re-orient teachers and parents to use assessment more as a feedback process to improve learning. Cooperative or peer learning should be encouraged to approximate the reality in the workplace where collaboration and teamwork are the norm in dealing with the highly complex issues of the contemporary society. We have to equip our students with a repertoire of learning and study skills to meet varying demands and in different circumstances.

It goes without saying that the delivery of quality education requires the dedication and cooperation of the triumvirate - government, school and parents. The role of the Government is to set the direction, provide resources and develop a broad regulatory framework to safeguard quality and ensure equity. Increasingly, schools are empowered to operate within the overall framework and enjoy greater flexibility over the deployment of resources. They also have the professional autonomy to decide, within broad curriculum guidelines, on what and how their students should learn, working hand in hand with parents who have the most intimate knowledge of their children.

The PISA+ with data collected in 2002 has provided us with baseline information on where we were in the initial phase of the reform. Another round of assessment, Hong Kong PISA 2003, has just been completed and the data are now being processed. The longitudinal and multilevel data generated by successive PISA studies will shed light on the effectiveness of our reform initiatives and identify areas where modifications and improvements may be necessary.

I wish to take this opportunity to thank the schools, teachers, students and parents for their full co-operation in PISA. Without their cooperation, Hong Kong cannot participate meaningfully in the study. I also wish to thank the Hong Kong Institute of Educational Research of the Faculty of Education of the Chinese University of Hong Kong for providing the professional leadership to steer the study.

Based on the PISA results, this Conference provides a platform for reflection and professional discussion and international exchanges. I thank the Chinese University of Hong Kong for hosting the Conference and wish all of you will find the Conference intellectually stimulating and a rewarding experience. To our overseas visitors, I wish you an enjoyable time in Hong Kong. I also hope that, despite the packed schedule of this Conference, you will find time to tour and shop around in Hong Kong and bring home pleasant memories and souvenirs from this vibrant city.

With these remarks, I declare the Conference open.

Ends/Friday, November 21, 2003


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