Spotlight on education in Hong Kong

24 May 2012

The following article by Ann Puntis, Chief Executive of our exam board Cambridge International Examinations, appeared in SecEd - the UK’s only weekly publication that is dedicated exclusively to secondary education - on 24 May 2012.

UK reflections on A Levels and their role in equipping students for university show just how complex the relationship is between an end-of-school qualification and its many stakeholders.

Discussions raise questions of purpose – do A Levels exist to enable student selection, to prepare for employment, or to provide the essential skills for university study? And if we are talking about the needs of universities, do we mean the universities that make up the Russell Group or others? And what role should employers play in the reform of A Levels? Do students have a voice in determining the shape of the courses they take?

If all of that sounds complex, it is worth remembering that what’s at stake is simply a revision, a repositioning of an established and successful qualification. 

Hong Kong, on the other hand, has for almost a decade been going through such a massive system change that any UK A Level review pales in comparison. 

Students in Hong Kong will, for the first time this June, sit the new Hong Kong Diploma in Secondary Education and mark the culmination of a long and complex educational change. So what’s different? Well, pretty much everything. The new Diploma represents a complete redesign of the interface between school and university. 

Hong Kong’s qualification system used to be similar to the UK’s with an examination linked to IGCSE (the Hong Kong Certificate of Education Examination – HKCEE) taken after five years of secondary education, and an AS and A Level structure taken after two more years.

The HKCEE has been discontinued entirely and the Hong Kong A Level examination was offered for the last time earlier this year. Both qualifications have been replaced by a single, new examination taken at 17.

Degree courses in Hong Kong universities have been extended by one year in consequence – and the school leaving age has been raised by an additional year, from 16 to 17, so that all students will be entered for the new examination. That is almost a doubling of candidates when compared with the former A Level examination. 

In part, the new system aligns Hong Kong more closely with the structures of mainland China but the development should not be seen as a formulaic adoption of an existing model. The educational changes introduced in the new examination go much further than that. 

Hong Kong – the Education Bureau and the Hong Kong Examinations and Assessment Authority (HKEAA), working with educational consultants from all over the world – has sought to ensure that the new examination represents education and assessment best practice. 

It has been designed to encourage greater authenticity of assessment with more opportunities for school-based assessment, applied learning options, an emphasis on cross-curriculum thinking and the development of skills. There is a lot that is impressive. The Diploma rewards a broad curriculum – most candidates will take four core subjects plus two or three elective subjects. Criteria-reference reporting has been introduced providing a detailed transcript of a student’s achievement. Performance at the top is finely differentiated – with a 5** and 5* reporting structure where a Grade 5 is the Grade A equivalent.

The curriculum itself has been redesigned. There is an assessment framework of 24 new subjects, including a cross-curriculum liberal studies curriculum and assessment which is compulsory within the four core subjects.

The nearest equivalent to liberal studies in the UK might be A Level general studies, critical-thinking or the Cambridge Pre-U global perspectives suite. Liberal studies reflects “an issue-enquiry approach in curriculum development” and has “taken into account overseas experiences in cross-disciplinary studies, pertaining in particular to critical-thinking, life education, values education and civic education, with due consideration given to their relevance in the Hong Kong content”.

The time given to liberal studies is significant – approximately 10 per cent of total lesson time in the senior secondary curriculum, slightly less if schools combine its teaching with language learning, for example, or with moral and civic education.

There are Applied Learning Subjects which recognise that students taking the new Diploma require a wider range of subjects than was previously available at A Level. And yes, there are media studies options, creative studies (including a catchily titled option “Taking a chance on dance”), service sector options, and a range of industry-approved engineering courses.

It is hard not to be impressed by the design coherence of the HK Diploma of Secondary Education. Its developers have taken every opportunity to introduce a new and exciting curriculum.

The sheer wave of initiatives that the development embodies is breath-taking when seen from a UK perspective. There is every indication that the HKEAA is determined to remain responsive to feedback from those engaged in teaching and learning.

For example, the inclusion of school-based assessment scores in the final Diploma grading has caused teachers some anxiety and HKEAA has been quick to defer its introduction for a couple of years rather than to push through against teacher concerns.

Hong Kong will watch with great interest as the first Diploma students take their examinations this June. There is a lot at stake. As an exam board colleague I wish them well in this auspicious Dragon year. I am not sure whether to envy the breadth of their educational vision or sympathise with the extent of system change required to make it work!