• jeremiahbull

Education (Part 1) : It's just NOT happening!

Updated: Apr 25, 2020

There’s an important discussion that needs to take place right now and it’s just not happening. Education in every country of the world is in turmoil thanks to Covid-19, and the discussion that should be happening in Hong Kong (HK) about the direction of teaching and learning as we look ahead is not taking place.

Education is a major engine and vehicle of economic and social development for HK and other cities of the world. Places like HK have accumulated investments in human capital and infrastructure over the years, particularly in health and education sectors, that bring important economic benefits for the whole society. The expansion and development of educational systems remains a high priority for many governments and is therefore an issue of national security. These investments are especially important in enabling people to reach their full potential and exercise other rights.

Education is universal and an inalienable human right (see Article 26 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights). Since 1989 the rights of children have been accorded special attention through the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, and within this we note: that adults should listen to children's opinions and take children seriously, that children have a right to privacy, that governments have a responsibility to help parents and guardians to do what is best for the children, that every child has the right to an education, and that children’s education should help them fully develop their personalities, talents and abilities. The HK government and the HK Education Bureau (EDB) cannot keep on doing the same old same old - if they ignore the UNCRC it will be at the peril of the SAR and themselves.

In the October 2013 periodic report on UNCRC “Committee on the Rights of the Child”, it was written in their Concluding Observations that:

"77. In Hong Kong, China, the Committee is concerned about:

(a) Bullying in schools and the competitive nature of the school system, resulting in anxiety or depression among children and infringing their right to play and rest;

(b) The de facto discrimination against ethnic minority children and racial segregation in the public school system, due to the availability of teaching only in Chinese and the system of government-subsidized “designated schools” for these children;

(c) “Cross-border children” who have no access to local schools and are commuting daily to and from mainland China.

78. The Committee recommends that Hong Kong, China:

(a) Take measures to address bullying in schools, including with the participation of students themselves, and to reduce the competitiveness of the education system and promote active learning capacities and the right of the child to play and leisure, including by training teachers and providing more social workers and psychologists in schools, and through the sensitization of parents and guardians;

(b) Urgently abolish the system of “designated schools” for children of ethnic minorities and reallocate resources to promote their access to education in mainstream schools, including through scholarships or lower entry qualifications;

(c) Intensify its efforts to implement legislation and policies on bilingual education at all levels of education, ensuring high-quality education in Chinese as a second language;

(d) Ensure access to local schools for all children living in Hong Kong, China."

When education is interrupted or limited, students drop out, with negative and permanent economic and social impacts for students, their families, and their communities.

Right now, education across the world is being interrupted and limited by the caronavirus pandemic. According to UNESCO, by 13 April 2020 it was estimated that 192 countries had closed their schools nationwide due to the Covid-19 outbreak, disrupting the learning and education of about 1,576,615,423 students or 91.4% of all enrolled learners. Since schools provide structure and support for families, communities and entire economies this is yet another serious consequence of the pandemic.

Every year, education systems in many countries are disrupted because of climate-change-related natural hazards and armed conflicts. But the world has not seen the current level of disruption of education spread so uniformly since the Second World War. Most governments have opted to close schools for the legitimate public health aim of containing the spread of virus. But governments are still obligated to respect the right to education.

Schools in HK have been shut since they began a holiday for Chinese New Year at the end of January 2020. The effect of closing schools for weeks and or even months could have untold repercussions for children and societies at large.

Police, civil defence, hospitals and medical professionals in most countries are likely to have some kind of emergency plan, or backup response for a national emergency. However, it seems most community organisations including schools and universities, have generally been caught unprepared for anything the scale of the current global pandemic. In the U.S. for example, where it is mandated that schools have plans in place for dealing with infectious outbreaks, a 2012 report found that less than half of U.S. schools address pandemic preparedness in their school plan. It further found that only 40 percent of schools had updated their school plan since the 2009 H1N1 Swine Flu pandemic.


Governments are currently pre-occupied with the tensions between preventing infections through social distancing, the serious short term and long term economic impacts of lockdowns, and the burden being placed on hospitals and medical professionals. Gradually each country has found its own way to deal with the pandemic, and similarly this has meant the use of educational technology to facilitate learning has also varied widely.

The HK government has the added burden of its unresolved crisis of trust and confidence (see our blog on the missing trust in the HK Government), that there remains an undercurrent of anti-government sentiment looking to express itself. Lately cadres of both the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) and local lawmakers have been making pronouncements about what they feel is a strong need for revamping of national security laws in HK (Article 23). This is sending the wrong message, that authorities are less concerned about the threats to national security posed by human rights infringements, the pandemic itself and the ensuing impacts on education and the HK economy (see our blog about the CCP pre-occupation with national security).

Here, it is important to note that in “The Basic Law”, what is generally referred to HK's mini constitution, it states:  

Article 136 (quote) On the basis of the previous educational system, the Government of the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region shall, on its own, formulate policies on the development and improvement of education, including policies regarding the educational system and its administration, the language of instruction, the allocation of funds, the examination system, the system of academic awards and the recognition of educational qualifications.” 

Article 137 (quote) Educational institutions of all kinds may retain their autonomy and enjoy academic freedom.”

Thus, the Education Bureau (EDB) in HK has to somehow keep their finger on the pulse of what is happening in schools and other places of learning across the territory, provide reassuring guidance to schools, parents and students, and set some expectations. As an agency of government the EDB 'vision and mission' statements are about providing quality school education for students, developing their students' potential to the full and preparing them for life challenges. Strangely, there is NO mention whatsoever of the HKSAR meeting all UN obligations for education, including those in UNCRC 29 (a-e). The EDB say they deliver professional services and ensure effective use of resources, while forging partnerships to promote excellence in school education.

At the onset of the pandemic the EDB website that gives some ideas about which students might be able to adapt to online learning, announced that although classes were suspended, learning was not!

Still, the EDB must not forget that parents are part of the educational equation. Under the Universal Declaration of Human Rights Article 26 (quote): “3. Parents have a prior right to choose the kind of education that shall be given to their children.”

The EDB needs to formulate a sensible plan to deal with both the new circumstances that are known, and as far as possible the prevailing, perplexing unknowns. That has been very difficult in such a fast-changing context. Unfortunately, we can see that there are some officials who are possibly distracted or at least pre-occupied with censuring teachers for their expressed political opinions on the social unrest that wracked the Special Administrative Region (SAR) through the latter half of 2019 (see our blog on Education and the frontline).


Parents are dealing with life at home and managing their school-age kids, their employment matters (if they still have a job), the financial worries, plus the health of their family. They are facing multiple challenges.

A poll was conducted in HK by the charity Oxfam between March 16 and March 22 of 364 low-income families, who lived in a subdivided flat or earned a household income lower than 70 per cent of the city’s median. They found a fourfold rise in unemployment among the city’s poorest families during the health crisis.

Few parents have experience of learning online, and many struggle with the notion and practice of home schooling their kid/s. Not every parent has the level of digital literacy necessary to help their kids shift to online learning.

For parents in HK being confined at home in small or cramped living quarters is burden enough, without trying to juggle the imposed demands and routines expected of them by school authorities, or the Education Bureau. Though many parents feel the EDB and the government are uncaring and have not offered an entirely practical and effective response to the health crisis, they are not used to advocating what is best for their children. Many HK parents, like those elsewhere, have generally allowed (or expected) schools to assume responsibility for their children's education. It's difficult for them to speak up or speak out to authorities about the welfare of their children or about how learning is being sacrificed.

It's clear that some families struggle to provide a good home environment for their child or children, let alone provide the type of hardware and internet connection needed for online learning. Maybe those parents that can afford to hire a domestic helper are able to manage their children’s education much better, with lower levels of anxiety, stress, frustration and exhaustion setting in, but we shouldn’t take anything for granted during a pandemic.


As adults, teachers are experiencing a horrific time for society that is filled with all kinds of uncertainty, just as their students are, in a similar but different way.

Teachers would like to have a discussion, but right now they are just swinging from day to day and week to week. Answers and solutions have not been forthcoming from the EDB or government, just as medical experts don't have all the answers to all the questions about the coronavirus health threat we are faced with. That does not mean that silence or indecisiveness is an appropriate response from those entrusted with a leadership role.

During the school closures it has been so hard for teachers to be physically removed from their students and from each other because teaching is such a human endeavour. They don’t know if their senior students will be able to sit the final Diploma of Secondary Education (DSE) exam that is key to university admission or not. Teachers are adapting and juggling the switch to an online mode of teaching, trying to show that they’re professionals and that they’re up to anything, when effectively the world that they and their students once knew has been turned upside down!

The normal every day interaction amongst teaching professionals has dissipated or switched focus. We shouldn't forget that teachers are parents too, and that they are as vulnerable to Covid-19 infection as anyone else.

Given HK's exam-driven education system, the pandemic provides a unique challenge.

It is difficult for schools and universities to assess their students' progress and achievements in ways that are fair amidst this pandemic.

Referring to UNESCO’s recent rapid global analysis, Mr Gwang-Chol Chang, Chief of Section of Education Policy with the organisation, indicated that 58 out of 84 surveyed countries had postponed or rescheduled exams, 23 had introduced alternative methods such as online or home-based testing, 22 maintained their exams while in 11 countries, they were cancelled altogether. Mr Chang pointed to common challenges emerging, including issues of fairness and the feasibility of alternative assessments. Noting a distinct trend towards online testing, he noted that “not all subjects and competencies can be assessed online or by phone.” Looking beyond school closures, he advised that “we need to assess learners’ progress to identify learning gaps, and offer remedial and accelerated learning and assessment when schools reopen.”

There's going to be even more work for teachers and academics to do in the months ahead!


It's clear that students should have some say in their education. They may be young, but they are stakeholders just as much – maybe even more – than their parents, the school management teams, teacher unions and the HK Education Bureau. Has there been any dialogue between these stakeholders about how to best respond to the crisis while respecting one another's needs and rights, and the practicalities of the situation? The students are the ones who have to study the lessons, take the tests, and sit the exams, with the end game of gaining some useful qualification, meaningful employment and becoming useful citizens.

Students in the U.S.A. submitted their views online about how the coronavirus outbreak was affecting their lives. Some said their schoolwork seemed pointless, that they feel pessimistic and bored. Students are not so stupid that they cannot recognise the 'busywork' tasks set by their teachers, that don't provide nearly enough to challenge or inspire them. Others say that working from home is less than ideal because their work habits are not the best, that they too easily procrastinate at home and that having class in bed is not the best idea. There are students who complain about having poor wi-fi connections and being nerve-wracked about tests and exams they have to take.

Students are not homogeneous creatures - they each have different learning styles, learning preferences, learning speeds and motivations. Under the current educational structures it's been a consistent challenge for schools with rigid organisational structures to accommodate learner differences, even when teachers overloaded with busy schedules, administrative work and large classes are in tune with some of their learners' individual needs.

During the pandemic students in HK and elsewhere are taking ownership over their learning, understanding more about how they learn, what they like, and what support they need. They have tended to personalise their learning, even if the systems around them haven’t met their needs or accommodated their interests and preferences.

In February 2020 some students were so upset that the dependence on e-learning was compromising their preparation for end of year examinations that they started up a petition calling for the resumption of normal classes.

Then, on 14 April 2020, a group of students calling themselves The Hong Kong Secondary Schools Student Strike Platform announced it was planning a 'non-cooperation movement' over the widespread use of the Zoom app for online learning in local schools. The group has strong security concerns arising from the technology's links to the Chinese mainland. It said questions have been raised over how secure the service is, following reports that some users may have had their data transferred to third parties. A recent report by The Citizen Lab found that meeting data was being routed through servers in [mainland] China.

At the group's press briefing they said it had surveyed 12,000 secondary school students who are obliged to follow classes via Zoom, and found that 80 percent are opposed to using the software. About 87 percent of those against the use of the app said they are worried about personal information being leaked.

The group's spokesperson Isaac Cheng said: "We see a lot of great concerns about Zoom, especially as it is launched by people from [mainland] China and maybe there's private information that can be sent to the Chinese government. Since a lot of students took part in the protests we are afraid that those information will be sent to the Chinese government."

The group said it is planning a non-cooperation movement among students, that will involve those taking part turning off their web cameras during the Zoom classes, as a form of protest.

It also urged schools to use alternative video conferencing services such as Google Meet, YouTube live or Facebook live for online learning, instead of Zoom.

The group also urged the government to postpone Diploma of Secondary Education (DSE) exams due to start in 10 days' time, saying that a majority of students don't feel they can take the exams unless the coronavirus epidemic is under control.

In a separate poll involving 10,000 students -- about one-fifth of all form six students due to take the DSE exams -- 90 percent said they opposed the [EDB's current] plan for the exams to go ahead from April 24.

So, these are two major concerns for HK high school students right now: privacy, and the ongoing indecision of the EDB concerning arrangements for the DSE examinations.

On 7 April 2020 HK's privacy commissioner urged users of video-conference platform Zoom to step up security measures as Taiwan has banned government departments from using the app. The Privacy Commissioner for Personal Data, Stephen Wong Kai-yi - who acknowledged his office uses Zoom to conduct meetings - advised users to stop using the app if they are uncertain about security risks.

Wong said he had noticed cases of "zoombombing" - a term used when a hacker hijacks a Zoom meeting - in HK. News reports have cited cases of "zoombombing" incidents in secondary schools in which hackers posted explicit pictures at online class meetings.

Victims include St Stephen's Girls' College in early February and Christian Alliance International School on March 30. The Privacy Commissioner has provided guidelines to parents and schools for the use of Zoom, including the setting up passwords and using the virtual waiting room function, which was upgraded by Zoom recently following criticism. Wong hoped to communicate more closely with the EDB on recent concerns.

On 30 March the United States' Federal Bureau of Investigation issued a warning about the rising number of cases of video hijacking on Zoom, and in response the Department of Education in New York directed schools not to use the app for online learning.

Secretary for Education Kevin Yeung Yun-hung announced on 9 April that the government would continue to hold talks with schools over the issue. “If there are security risks, after discussing with schools, [the EDB] would then seek opinions from experts and decide on a next step,” Yeung told lawmakers during a Legislative Council (LegCo) meeting.

It seems the decision to use Zoom widely in HK schools was not a matter of free choice: while students may have been familiar with the app, generally school authorities establish either a recommendation or a policy decision. How this evolves is not always transparent: within a school it's not always clear who decides what educational apps teachers can use and why. Admittedly, there are often monetary considerations, and technical limitations to consider, and perhaps the teacher knows what is best for the aims of a lesson, but the thought that student privacy may have been deliberately compromised by the EDB is a scary thing to contemplate.

At any rate, with ZOOM data being transmitted across the border to servers in Shenzhen (mainland China) the potential damage - a possible breach of privacy - has already occurred. The fear is that with massive data-crunching facilities there, and things like facial recognition technology it would be possible for authorities to identify and track users. Teachers and students known to have participated in pro-democracy and anti-government protests could be targeted by authorities in the SAR for further action.

An interesting side-note on the ZOOM saga is that well-known former property magnate and investor Li Ka-shing built Hong Kong’s biggest fortune on old-fashioned real estate and infrastructure. It’s his bet on technology that’s paying off in the current crisis.

Li was an early investor in Zoom Video Communications Inc. and now owns about 8.6% of the San Jose-based company, according to U.S. regulatory filings. The value of Li’s stake has surged 80% this year to US$2.9 billion—the only public holding of his tracked by the Bloomberg Billionaires Index to record a gain. His overall fortune is down about US$5 billion to US$26 billion this year after HK was hit by protests and the coronavirus pandemic.

It is well-known that some important examinations held in HK and elsewhere have been cancelled: Cambridge International General Certificate of Secondary Education (IGCSE) examinations will not be held in May and June where ever schools have been closed, and the International Baccalaureate also scrapped its scheduled May exams because of the coronavirus risk. In HK the EDB and the HK Examinations and Assessment Authority seem to be reluctant to cancel the DSE and use the students' achievements in course work and internal school examinations instead to assess candidates readiness for university.

With the knowledge that students attending an exam may be asymptomatic carriers of the Coronavirus, and that even wearing face masks is not a guarantee that transmission will not occur, authorities appear willing to play roulette!

Further, schools that act as examination centres for the DSE exams have to somehow accommodate exam candidates while maintaining social distance guidelines. It seems that arrangements in some schools will be less than ideal.

Even teenagers recognise the health risk they could be exposed to during the DSE. Louis Campion, 15, from South Island School, believed it was right to scrap the IGCSE exams because of the health risks. “With the Education Bureau having officially announced that schools are not set to resume on April 20, I can’t see how 200 students can be seated together in an exam hall when the government is advocating social distancing,” Campion said.

Some students complain that whatever arrangements are made by schools, taking an exam during the current health crisis is never going to be optimal. Their study preparation, contact with teachers and normal routines have been impacted by the pandemic.


HK has obligations under UNCRC Articles 3 & 5, in that it ought to recognise minorities parents are the “PRIMARY” decision makers for our minorities children’s “education”, and also to meet UN obligations under UNCRC Article (29 a-e). Many of these parents rights are currently denied.

Though officials would deny it, HK's current education system reinforces educational inequalities. Minorities and less-privileged learners are disadvantaged, while children of wealthy parents are advantaged with more learning opportunities, greater resources and access to a network of elite educational institutions.

Publicly funded education in HK is intended for ALL children (majority & minority), but they are NOT currently being“educated” according to UNCRC Article 29.1 a-e including (quote):

1. States Parties agree that the education of the child shall be directed to:

(a) The development of the child's personality, talents and mental and physical abilities to their fullest potential;

(b) The development of respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms, and for the principles enshrined in the Charter of the United Nations;

(c) The development of respect for the child's parents, his or her own cultural identity, language and values, for the national values of the country in which the child is living, the country from which he or she may originate, and for civilizations different from his or her own;

(d) The preparation of the child for responsible life in a free society, in the spirit of understanding, peace, tolerance, equality of sexes, and friendship among all peoples, ethnic, national and religious groups and persons of indigenous origin;

(e) The development of respect for the natural environment.”

While many people want life to "return to normal", others are seeing that the pandemic is really signalling the need for lasting educational change. Many enlightened people consider the pandemic is bringing about a global paradigm shift, and that we therefore should not just revert to how things were (see our blog on the paradigm shift). Teachers and students are currently riding the wave of change. In HK we ought to seize this opportunity to shape a better educational future for ALL students.

Many educational experts have suggested that education as we know it has already experienced a very significant nudge, or something of a jolt, thanks to the pandemic.

Looking ahead three ongoing significant changes have been posited:

1. Further educational change will lead to surprising innovations

2. Public-private educational partnerships could grow in importance

3. The digital divide is likely to widen with educational progress dependent on the level and quality of digital access

In HK at this point it's not at all clear what is being discussed, at what levels and with whom.

Of course, there is an expectation that government officials do their supervisory and policy-setting work. The problem is, that they are most likely just treading water, understandably focussed on the here and now, without much foresight or view of education beyond the current pandemic. Further, the current HK government has been seen to favour its elite, with policies that favour business and property owners, while doing little to effectively address the needs of minorities and the under-privileged.

The pandemic is an opportunity to remind ourselves of the kinds of skills students need in this unpredictable world such as informed decision making, creative problem solving, and perhaps above all, adaptability. To ensure those skills remain a priority for all students, resilience must be built into our educational systems to withstand what the old Alvin Toffler used to call the 'Future Shock' - the psychological impact of rapid change.

Now, under the pandemic, a lot of official school time has been lost as education systems have scrambled to respond as best they could. Although online learning is being used to mitigate the immediate impact of school closures, governments must ensure that all children recover missed in-person class time once schools reopen. Governments should already be working with ministry officials, teachers’ unions and associations, organisations for people with disabilities, and other relevant groups to design and adopt mitigation strategies.

If places of learning, the HK government and the EDB fail in mitigating the lost learning, it will be to the detriment of our students' educational achievement and HK's competitiveness.

Students and teachers will most likely tell you that the coronavirus has offered a strong reminder of the very human nature of schools. Though some schools, teachers and learners have leapt into online learning, it is not a panacea. Technology is not yet able to give teachers a true sense of a student's engagement and depth of understanding. There is much about the relationships between curriculum, teacher and learner that technology hasn’t yet solved. Schools and classrooms are most likely to remain the best platforms for social interaction for the students, and for teachers to engage with learners.”

The HK government should learn from this pandemic experience, and strengthen the education system to withstand future crises, whether from disease, armed conflict, or climate change. There is an important structural change that needs to happen in the governance of HK so that agencies like the EDB are more responsive to children and parents as stakeholders, and mindful of obligations the SAR has to UN conventions.

This pandemic has shown that few governments have invested in their education emergency response, or have tested their capacity to manage disasters’ knock-on effects on education. Given the expectation of further shocks, this is not just desirable, but an imperative to protect children and youth’s right to education in HK during unstable times. 

Jeremiah B.

(You may also be interested to read our blog about Education and the HK Protest movement)

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