Why one social worker for every secondary school is not enough

October 11, 2018 14:23
In 2000, the government increased the ratio to one social worker per secondary school. Photo: HKEJ

The development of school social work service in Hong Kong has been a long, bumpy ride.

Back in the early 1970s, social work services in primary and secondary schools were predominantly provided by non-profit organizations such as Caritas–Hong Kong and St. James’ Settlement, with the government only playing a relatively minimal role.

Amid mounting calls for bigger government commitment, the Social Welfare Department launched a pilot scheme of providing social workers for local schools in 1974.

Acknowledging the importance of having social workers in schools, the government in 1977 formulated a policy of providing one social worker for every four secondary schools.

It wasn’t until 1991 that the government agreed to raise the social worker-to-student ratio to 1:2000 between 1995 and 1996.

Then in 2000, the administration increased the ratio to one social worker per secondary school.

Eighteen years on, Hong Kong is now witnessing a surge in the demand for school social workers as issues such as school dropouts, self-injury, teenage gangs, drug abuse, compensated dating and cyberbullying are becoming rampant, not to mention the growing demand for help for students with special education needs or SEN students.

Despite the new challenges posed by our changing social environment, however, the government’s policy on school social work service has virtually ground to a standstill.

Consequently, school social workers in the city have been overwhelmed by unbearable workloads and pressure.

A recent survey conducted by the Hong Kong Council of Social Service (HKCSS) found that nearly 10 percent of secondary school students in the city face the potential risk of suicide.

Worse still, the study found that many school social workers are unable to provide support for these students because of their enormous workloads.

In theory, it takes an average of 19 working hours per year for a school social worker to handle a single case, and 33 hours for a case with mental health issues, the HKCSS said.

Yet in reality, school social workers in the city can only spend an average of 14.2 hours on each case, suggesting that they are running way short of meeting the rapidly growing demand for help among students.

As a result, our school social workers have to play the role of “firefighters”, i.e., paying home visits in the morning, making time to meet students in the afternoon, and then taking care of student growth-related activities after school, not to mention the need for them to cope with mountains of paperwork outside school hours.

And that begs the question: how can we possibly expect our school social workers, who are exhausted and overwhelmed by their workloads, to provide adequate service to students in dire need of help and guidance as they go through tough times?

Social workers must listen to the students' problems, talk to them, provide them company, and help them cope with emotional issues: all that requires enormous amounts of time. The problem is, most of our school social workers find themselves short of this precious resource.

The government appears to understand the problems facing our school social workers.

However, the support it has been giving to our social workers is on-and-off and piecemeal, such as allocating an additional “0.2” or “0.6” social worker to every school.

Such minimal support can still help our school social workers to organize a few more activities but is unlikely to offer much help in handling student cases.

I and my colleagues in the social work sector have been urging the government to come up with a long-term plan to enhance our school social work service program.

In particular, the government should implement the “two school social workers for each secondary school” policy as soon as possible in order to re-establish a complete emotional safety net for our schoolchildren.

This is our responsibility not only for students and youngsters but also for our future.

This article appeared in the Hong Kong Economic Journal on Oct 8

Translation by Alan Lee

[Chinese version 中文版]

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Legislative Council member