The goal of special education in Hong Kong is to provide education for children with special education needs so that they can develop their potential and become independent members of the society. Implemented at primary and secondary schools, regular class and learning support class at mainstream schools accept children with mild and moderate learning difficulties.*1 For children with severe learning difficulties, they study at special schools so that their education needs can be met. The Education Bureau is put in charge of making policies and allocating resource for special education. They also supervise and support schools for implementation. It is staffed with specialists in special education who provide professional advice to regular schools, special schools, NGOs and government sectors.
Integrated Education in Mainstream Schools
Special education was launched in Hong Kong in the 1970s, providing learning support for a small number of SEN students in a mainstream classroom environment at primary and secondary schools. They studied with regular students in the mainstream classroom with learning support. Special education was given momentum in the 1990s, in particular, after the encouragement of UNESCO to promote integrated education . The government provided financial initiatives for primary and secondary schools to launch special education as well as training, seminars and professional advice for teachers. It also set up a Special Education Resource Centre to provide multi-media tools and computer software for teachers to prepare teaching materials.*2
In accordance with the 2007 guidelines issued by the Education Bureau, at least 10% of teachers at each of government primary and secondary schools must receive no less than 30 hours of basic training in special education and at least three teachers at each school must complete a 90-hour advanced training course. In addition, at least one Chinese language teacher and one English language teacher at each school have to finish a course on learning difficulties.
On top of providing resources for schools and training for teachers, the Education Bureau also encourages senior students to participate as big brothers or big sisters to interact with SEN students in a small group setting.
Learning support class (LSC) is another form of integrated education. Some mainstream schools offer learning support class for SEN students. LSC students shuttle between mainstream classroom and LSC to meet their individual needs. The most successful example of LSC education is perhaps the one launched by the English Schools Foundation (ESF), a government subsidised group of English-speaking schools that run LSC in nine of its primary schools and one secondary school. Currently, there are 190 students in LSC at the ESF schools.*3
Segregated Education at Special Schools
As for students with severe learning difficulties, they cannot fit in mainstream schools and thus will be assigned to study at special schools. Teachers of special schools are professional in related fields who can offer various training and therapies for students. Hong Kong has 60 primary and secondary Chinese-speaking special schools. ESF runs the only English-speaking special school in Hong Kong, offering a comprehensive curriculum from primary to junior high school. 12 special schools are working with 13 local schools which are actively engaged in special education, sharing professional knowledge and experiences.
Problems and Challenges for Special Education
Hong Kong has shown a considerable progress in special education in recent years, but it has a long way to go. It cannot compare with other nations or regions with similar economic strength. There are the main issues to be addressed.
First, the support for SEN students and their parents are far from being adequate. Improvements should be made in the areas of diagnoses, treatment and provision. Parents of SEN children are under tremendous stress and financial burden. In an interview, a parent told me that she informed the school about the learning difficulties of her son. Instead of receiving more support, her son was asked to withdraw on the ground that the school did not have the resource to support.
Second, the society does not have an appropriate understanding of special education. Misunderstanding and discrimination are common. Parents of children who attend the mainstream tend to blame SEN students for making a lot of noises at school. One parent told me that her ADHD son was victimized by parents of his classmates. They complained to school and did not allow their children to play with her son. Eventually her son withdrew in face of discrimination and bullying from parents of his class.
Third, the schools do not have the resource and expertise to implement special education. Since most classes at primary and secondary schools have more than thirty students, class teachers do not have the time, energy and expertise to take care of SEN students who are put in the mainstream classroom in the name of integrated education. A primary school teacher told me that although she has attended seminars and workshops, she was not confident to take care of SEN students.
There are several areas in special education in Hong Kong that require special attention. First, Hong Kong should learn from Europe, the USA and Japan in implementing special education. Second, the Hong Kong government should increase the budget for special education. More support should be given to schools and parents of SEN students. Third, the society should be better educated about autism, ADHD, mental retardation, and dyslexia so that there will be no more misunderstanding and discrimination.
The author wants to acknowledge the support from Sumitomo Life Insurance Company on "Cultivating Child-rearing Program for Female Researchers".
- *1 The school system in Hong Kong includes a six-year primary education, six-year secondary education (three-year junior and three-year senior) and four-year university education. The Hong Kong government offers 12-year free education for primary and secondary schools. However, students studying at direct subsidy scheme schools, private schools and international schools have to pay tuition. Currently, Hong Kong has 34 government primary schools, 421 aided primary schools, 21 direct subsidy scheme schools and 31 private primary schools. As for the secondary education, Hong Kong has 31 government schools, 455 aided schools, 59 direct subsidy scheme schools and one private school.
- *2 For the changes of special education before and after the handover in 1997, see Poon-McBrayer, K.F, Meeting Special Needs in Mainstream Classroom (Hong Kong: Longman, 2002).
- *3 See "Overview: Special Education Needs," in English Schools Foundation