Why are Hong Kong’s education minister and his deputy getting away with treating themselves as outsiders in the citywide debate over an exam that practically every Primary 3 student must take?
Parents who have long suffered from poor leadership in the Education Bureau are wondering why the taxes they pay are fattening the wallets of do-nothing bureaucrats who would rather travel abroad than deal with an issue that affects hundreds of thousands of schoolchildren.
The debate on the controversial Territory-wide System Assessment has cooled down after the Legislative Council held a public hearing at the end of November.
But parents and the government are doing their best to keep the pot boiling.
One parents’ group sent an ultimatum Wednesday to the bureau.
If the government does not cancel by Christmas the TSA exam scheduled for June, the parents said, they will not encourage their children to do extra exercises during the Christmas holiday to prepare them for it, nor will they allow their children to take the exam in June.
In the face of the pressure from parents, Secretary for Education Eddie Ng Hak-kim again chose to sidestep the crisis.
Ng, who recently returned from a personal trip to Japan, decided not to attend a TSA task force meeting Thursday afternoon.
Instead, he went to a farewell party for a group of Hong Kong secondary school students who will be visiting Japan.
He regaled them with his travel experiences in that country, telling them how much he enjoyed seeing the autumn leaves in Tokyo at the same time Legco was holding its public hearing on the TSA last month.
Ng was quite happy to chat with the students about their experience with the TSA.
When some students said they didn’t know the real purpose of the TSA — which is intended to assess the teaching performance of schools and not individual students — Ng said it is a test of the students’ basic ability to learn.
It’s all about their ability, and massive training — to which many schools subject their students before the exam — is useless, he said.
He said students should attend school to learn but not to be trained for the TSA.
Later, responding to questions as to why he skipped the TSA task force meeting, Ng said he wanted to “just let the professionals discuss the issue”.
“It’s an event for the professionals to have a wide-ranging exchange of ideas,” he said. “So I did not attend the meeting.”
Hong Kong taxpayers and parents, what do you think of Ng’s response?
The minister preferred to chat with students and discuss the TSA with them but refused to attend the Legco public hearing and the TSA committee meeting.
If the secretary for education is not “professional” enough to attend such meetings, who, then, ought to attend them?
How are those in charge ‘outsiders’?
Hongkongers will recall that during the Legco hearing, Ng’s deputy, veteran administrative officer Kevin Yeung Yun-hung, called himself an “outsider” as regards the debate over whether the TSA should continue in its existing form.
Yeung insisted that the government sincerely wants to settle the crisis provided local schools agree to stop their intensive training for the TSA.
However, our education chiefs have yet to deliver a proposal on dealing with the TSA, and schools are continuing their training for Primary 3 students scheduled to take the exam in June.
Ng and Yeung have punted the hot potato to the task force, which is charged with working out a comprehensive plan for the assessment mechanism.
It is a transparent attempt to buy time and wait for the issue to cool down and slide out of the public agenda.
The TSA is far from being merely a matter for schools and their teachers to worry about.
It highlights how the government deals with one of its most important responsibilities, education.
Chief Executive Leung Chun-Ying and his government are maintaining a tough stance on retaining the TSA, despite the willingness of some officials to consider skipping the exam for this year’s Primary 3 cohort or randomly selecting students for the TSA to avoid mass training by schools.
Parents do not understand why our government is bent on refusing to allow their children to enjoy the precious time remaining to them after schoolwork and extra-curricular activities are done.
The hidden agenda
Leung’s tough stance is an attempt to show the government’s strength in refusing to bow to parents’ demands to abolish the TSA for Primary 3 students.
But more importantly, the government’s hidden agenda is to use the TSA to tighten its grip on the education sector, which has long been a breeding ground of opposition to the authorities, even in the colonial era.
The TSA — ostensibly a means to collect macro data to improve teaching quality – is a tool to interfere with the autonomy of schools.
While officials deny it is related to any ranking of schools, the fact is that the government uses the TSA results to appraise the schools’ performance and to allocate resources and funding.
Incidentally, publishing booklets of training exercises for the TSA happens to be a key revenue source for Beijing-controlled Joint Publishing Group.
Traditionally, the performance of schools is mostly based on their students’ results in public examinations and their assignment to places in good schools.
The more students who secure 5* grades or who are assigned to Band 1 schools, the higher the ranking of their school.
The teachers’ professional judgment, experience and ability are what can boost the performance of students.
But the TSA is not related to the academic future of individual students but only to the appraisal of schools.
Teachers, who need to keep their jobs, can only provide massive training to students in an attempt to ensure their schools pass the government appraisal.
The hidden agenda is that while teachers are busy training students for the TSA, they will have no time to think about current affairs.
If teachers, parents and students are kept busy, they will have no time to take part in any anti-government campaigns.
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