24 October 2016
HHCKLA Buddhist Po Kwong School in Fanling is among the institutions that are seeking to employ native English teachers for pupils with intellectual disabilities. Photo: Google Maps
HHCKLA Buddhist Po Kwong School in Fanling is among the institutions that are seeking to employ native English teachers for pupils with intellectual disabilities. Photo: Google Maps

Govt urged to allow native English tutors in special schools

Special schools that cater to pupils with intellectual disabilities must be allowed to employ native English teachers (NET) under a government assistance program, a former school chief said on Monday.

Ho Hau-Sim, former headmistress of the HHCKLA Buddhist Po Kwong School, stressed that intellectually challenged students do have the ability to learn English and that they can benefit with lessons from native speakers.

The Education Bureau (EDB) should give the students a fair chance and include special schools under a government funding program related to NET, she said in a joint news conference with Legislative Council member Fernando Cheung.

The comments came as HHCKLA Buddhist Po Kwong School, an institution in Fanling which offers special education to kids with intellectual disabilities, has been battling for NET since 2011. 

Hitting a roadblock with the EDB, the school has seen a parent of one of its pupils file for judicial review of the government scheme related to native English tutors. 

Last Friday, the school won a significant victory as the High Court ruled that the EDB’s decision to not fund foreign teachers in special schools was unconstitutional. 

A judge remarked that denying special needs students an opportunity to study English under native speakers constitutes “direct discrimination” and a violation of the Bill of Rights and Basic Law.

The EDB was advised to reconsider its decision.

Following the court ruling, educators and parents held a press conference to urge the government to act quickly and allow special schools to recruit foreign English teachers.

The EDB had said that full-time NET in special schools doesn’t make sense in economic terms, given the special curriculum at the institutions.  

At the press conference Monday, organizers sought to prove that students with intellectual disabilities can pick up English just like other pupils, reports.

Lee Sai-ho, who has mild to moderate intellectual disability and now works as a teacher in sand arts, drew an impromptu sketch of the press conference scene in a mere 45 minutes, to the amazement of those in the room.

His mother, a woman surnamed Lee, pointed out that Sai-ho can recite a lot of English songs, such as “Raindrops keep falling on my head” which he sang live at the press conference. However, he was unable to make conversation in English.

Lee said that if her son had been provided more resources with regard to English lessons, he would have had better skills in the language.

Another parent, a person who identified herself as Lau, proudly showed off clips of her son singing English songs.

Lau said her eight-year-old son has mild intellectual disability, but shows great interest in English. She said that most of the songs were taught by herself and that she felt her son becomes more confident when he sings, contrary to his usual shy self.

Ho said that the cases cited by the two parents are proof that even mentally challenged children can learn English, which will allow them to become more confident and help them in finding jobs.

The EDB, meanwhile, said it is seeking advice from the Department of Justice on the court ruling. It insisted that it has been very concerned about special needs schools and that it had provided the students with extra resources.

Wong Yuen-ping, a scholar from the University of Hong Kong’s Centre for Advancement in Inclusive and Special Education, pointed out that for autistic students, it is easier to learn English as the words are like “puzzles”, unlike Chinese, Ming Pao Daily News reported.

Both Ho and Wong believe the EDB should allocate more resources for mentally challenged and special needs schools, as well as approving the employment of NET teachers at these schools.

The EDB said it has limited the class size of special needs schools to only eight to fifteen students, which is much smaller than their mainstream counterparts.

Despite the assurances that it taking care of special needs students, the EDB, through discriminatory policies with regard to NET, is sending out a message that it feels that it would be a waste of time and resources to focus on English education for the pupils, lawmaker Cheung said.

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