The Recent Development of Gifted Education in Hong Kong

This is the first part of a two-part examination of gifted education in Hong Kong. It looks at how gifted education policy and delivery has developed since 1990, so bringing about the system in place today.

It provides a context for Part Two, which considers the emerging role of the Hong Kong Academy for Gifted Education (HKAGE) and its performance to date.

A Seminal Report

Most studies trace the recent development of gifted education in Hong Kong to Education Commission Report No 4 concerning The Curriculum and Behavioural Problems in Schools, published in 1990.

This includes ‘academically gifted’ learners amongst a list of those needing special educational provision. The wider definition of this group owes much to the 1972 Marland Report:

‘Gifted children are those who show exceptional achievement or potential in one or more of the following:

  • a high level of measured intelligence;
  • specific academic aptitude in a subject area;
  • creative thinking – high ability to invent novel, elaborate and numerous ideas;
  • superior talent in visual and performing arts such as painting, drama, dance, music etc;
  • natural leadership of peers – high ability to move others to achieve common goals; and
  • psychomotor ability – outstanding performance or ingenuity in athletics, mechanical skills or other areas requiring gross or fine motor coordination’

but the report defines the ‘academically gifted’ as those presenting one or more of the first three characteristics, noting that there is no specific provision for them in Hong Kong’s mainstream schools.

It adopts a 2% cohort assumption, based on an IQ of 130+, to estimate that 20,000 learners fall within this category and deploys now familiar equal opportunities arguments to justify supporting them.

It proposes school-based programmes rather than special schools for gifted learners, recommending that initial screening should be via teacher nomination. Nominated learners should then be individually assessed through ‘intelligence and achievement tests’ undertaken in the course of primary schooling.

This long-standing recommendation clearly influenced the practice of Hong Kong’s Academy (HKAGE) as we shall see.

It argues that schools should enjoy some flexibility to develop appropriate school-based programmes drawing on a mixture of grouping strategies, accelerative models, curricular enrichment and extension and extra-curricular programmes.

This marks the origin of a core strand of school-based gifted education that has also continued to this day, though now existing alongside the Academy.

Given the lack of information about current provision, the Report recommends further research and a four-year pilot to develop and evaluate school-based programmes in primary and secondary schools, these to be conducted by a professional team and resource centre.

courtesy of cblee

Follow-up Work

In the event, two research studies were conducted in 1992 and 1993. The latter, on the distribution of academically gifted children within Hong Kong schools, informed the shape of the pilot programme. The pilot ran from 1994 to 1997. It was initially confined to 19 primary schools but followed pupils into secondary school in the final year of the study.

The pilot explored the use of curriculum enrichment materials with all learners as well as pull-out options exclusively for gifted learners.

In 1996, the Report of the Sub-Committee on Special Education reviewed progress to date, recommending a more universal approach:

  • ‘There should be comprehensive provisions to support gifted students’ involving teachers at all levels and provision should be extended into secondary schools;
  • All teachers should be aware of gifted learners’ needs. Gifted education should be included in initial teacher education and professional development programmes and tertiary institutions should consider offering a postgraduate course’.

The Executive Summary of the pilot evaluation report records a positive influence on participating students, teachers and schools but, strangely, there is no assessment of the impact on learning outcomes because this was deemed not to be a project objective!

It recommends a staged identification procedure, arguing that it should include highly-creative learners, support for learners’ emotional needs and be renamed the ‘School-based Programme for High Ability Students’.

It reinforces the Sub-Committee’s case gifted education to be included in initial teacher training and subsequent professional development, including school-based training for all schools implementing gifted education programmes.

It continues to advocate flexibility at school level. Schools should be free to decide between within-class and pull-out provision. The former can develop:

‘thinking skills as well as introducing creative activities, self-learning strategies and [a] student-centred approach in the existing subjects, so as to lay the foundation for educating gifted children’.

While the latter can:

‘enable a group of students with similar ability to learn and to stimulate each other. Findings on the pilot project showed that teachers preferred to have about 15 students in each group. The students can be chosen from different classes’.

Meanwhile, the Fung Hon Chu Gifted Education Centre (FHCGEC) had been established as a curriculum and professional development centre in 1995. The evaluation recommends that it should continue, extending its remit to the development of new enrichment activities, and it has done so to this day.

A Policy Framework Emerges

A second phase of development began in 2000, with the publication of a significant Education Department policy paper on ‘The Development of Gifted Education in Hong Kong’.

It offered additional justification for gifted education, referencing Hong Kong’s performance on international benchmarking studies:

‘The Third International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS) 1997 revealed that the top 10% students in Hong Kong were ranked the lowest amongst the academically brilliant students in other Asian countries’.

The Policy Paper sets out a series of principles derived from the pilot project:

  • Gifted education should be seen as part of quality education; gifted students’ needs should be met in their own school;
  • Hong Kong should adopt a broad definition based on multiple intelligences; nurturing multiple intelligences should be the mission of all schools;
  • Special provision is necessary for exceptionally gifted students whose learning needs cannot be met in school and for gifted students with emotional, behavioural or learning difficulties;
  • Teachers should identify and select students for extension and enrichment activities; such activities are one way of meeting individual learning differences at the upper end of the ability range. But the label ‘gifted’ should not be used to define those taking part;
  • Stakeholder resources should be drawn together to support schools in stretching gifted students;
  • A ‘more generic approach’ (which is not further defined) is recommended for primary schools.

Four basic conditions need to be satisfied before gifted education based on these principles can be implemented: a strengthening of existing curriculum and school activities; training for teachers and headteachers; the networking of stakeholders; and development of assessment tools for teachers. Progress is also subject to resource constraints.

Future provision in Hong Kong will:

  • embed three core elements – higher order thinking skills, creativity and personal-social competence – in the curriculum for all students ‘as the basis for nurturing talents and giftedness’;
  • provide enrichment and extension activities across all subjects and differentiated teaching strategies inside the classroom, relying on teachers to match programmes with students’ needs;
  • offer additional pull-out programmes so students can receive ‘systematic training as a homogeneous group, in which they are exposed to mutual challenges, cross-discipline exploration, in-depth studies and co-operative work’;
  • provide for those with special needs via psychological assessment, counselling and special arrangements including individualised education plans;
  • network and mobilise stakeholders to provide competitions, scholarships, mentoring and summer schools; and reposition the Fung Hon Chu centre as a ‘multi-functional resource centre’.

An implementation plan is appended that features this significant diagram.

At level 1:

A involves embedding the core elements of higher order thinking skills, creativity and personal-social competence in the curriculum for all students in regular classrooms.

B (applying to 10% of students in each school) involves differentiated teaching through grouping practice, meeting needs through curriculum enrichment and extension across all subjects in regular classrooms.

At level 2:

C (for 2-4% of students in each school) involves generic pull-out programmes training homogeneous student groups.

D, also for 2-4% of students in each school involves subject-specific pullout programmes for students with outstanding performance in specific areas.

At level 3:

E (just 0.1% of students – so around 1,000 students in all) involves individualised provision for these exceptionally gifted learners.

The paper’s insistence that students accessing school-based programmes (A-D) will not be labelled gifted has not survived. Nor has the assumption that students accessing E-type provision are ‘a highly selected group of exceptionally gifted students’, as we shall see.

Continuing Support for Level 1 and Level 2 Projects

A Cluster School Gifted Project was launched in 2000, under the aegis of the Quality Education Fund, to pilot this structure in 30 schools up to March 2003. (The QEF was established in 1998 with capital of HKD 5 billion to support community initiatives that promote quality education. By the end of 2010, the balance of the Fund was some HKD 6.69 billion.)

The Chinese language website related to this project contains little information but the final project reportis still available. It describes the objectives as:

  • developing schools’ capacity to meet the needs of their gifted learners, including through mutually supportive ‘regional cluster schools’ which specialise in key areas so creating a Hong Kong-wide network of expertise;
  • providing a curriculum development framework and creating a resource base;
  • developing school-based training packages and provide training for the full range of education professionals engaged in gifted education.

The 30 participating schools formed four primary clusters and two secondary clusters, each comprising one key school and four or five associates. The clusters were supported by a School Consultation Service which developed curriculum and training materials.

There were plans to invite tertiary institutions to tender for the provision of teacher development programmes but no satisfactory bids were received. There were also problems with staff turnover in the Consultation Service and significant implications for participating teachers’ time and workload.

Nevertheless, the project was judged to have met its objectives. Teachers and students reported a positive impact on students’ learning (but again there seems to have been no attempt to measure this properly).

In parallel a series of collaborative research and development ‘Seed’ projects were supported by the Curriculum Development Institute (CDI) of the Education and Manpower Bureau (EMB) – essentially Hong Kong’s Ministry of Education.

These were supported from 2001-2006 with the aim of developing knowledge and expertise, creating ‘a critical mass of curriculum change agents’, providing further impetus to school-based development and modelling the change process in schools.

The 30 schools in the cluster project were invited to continue as Seed projects and 25 did so in 2002-03. (The 5 remaining schools opted to develop their expertise independently). Details of the projects are available in Chinese.

The impact of these projects is evident from an article published in 2008 by the staff of Queen Maud Secondary School one of two ‘leading schools’ in the cluster project and an active participant in several subsequent ‘Seed’ activities.

But it also notes that school-based education is difficult and unpopular, openly acknowledging the downside:

‘Actually, a lot of problems needed to be addressed. For instance, time constraints faced by the teachers act as one of the major barriers…Secondly, shortage of recognized tools for identifying gifted students makes assessing giftedness of a student difficult…Ultimately, difficulty in assessing students’ performance before and after the program often exists…we also lack adequate tools to make accurate measurement of the performance on participants’ creativity and critical thinking [sic]’

The cumulative experience from these two projects captured in EMB’s extensive online Guidelines on School-Based Development Programmes produced in 2007.

Meanwhile, school-based networks have continued to develop. The reply to a Legislative Council Question asked in 2007 noted that:

‘There are currently over 130 schools in the gifted education networks. These networks consist of 57 schools participating in the Gifted Education Partner School Network organised by the EDB since 2004, and 73 schools participating in the Quality Education Fund Thematic Network (Gifted Education). Moreover, about 290 schools participate in various EDB schemes since 2004 for promoting school-based gifted education programmes, and encourage their teachers to study the professional (practical) training programmes run by EDB. The school-based programmes and activities organised by schools are generally offered free to students as part of the education programme of the school’.

Deatails of provision in these Partner Schools is accessible through the Partner School Web which showcases their gifted education programmes for the benefit of other schools in the network and beyond.

The QEF Thematic Network was developed in 2006-07. In the initial phase, 8 primary schools developed school-based pull-out programmes and shared their experiences. Sixteen further schools joined the project in phase 2 and a further 48 in phase three.

A fourth phase, launched in 2010-11 with 84 schools involved also has its own website which describes its purpose as to:

  • develop a Networking Schools Model in Gifted Education so as to include as many schools in Hong Kong as possible to implement thematic gifted education pull-out programmes and whole-class programmes;
  • ‘immerse the core elements advocated in gifted education in the curriculum for the gifted students in the networking schools so as to cultivate their potential’ [sic];
  • deploy teaching materials and grouping arrangements within an ‘enrichment and acceleration curriculum’ in the thematic pull-out programmes; and
  • support the sharing of experience between teachers and schools in the network and, through collaboration, with schools overseas.

The bulk of this activity has been overseen by the Gifted Education Section (GES) of the EMB, first established as a separate entity in 2003, with an office located in the Fung Hon Chu Centre. In broad terms, the role of the GES is to oversee all aspects of school-based gifted education (though this is not quite as clear-cut in reality). The GES website says that it:

  • promotes school-based gifted education by developing curriculum resources and providing support to schools, including guidelines, web-based curriculum resources and teacher training packages for school-based gifted programmes;
  • manages the Fung Hon Chu Gifted Education Centre;
  • disseminates curriculum resources by organising regular briefings and experience sharing sessions; and organises teacher development events;
  • recruits mentors for experimental enrichment programmes, monitors their implementation and selects and refines suitable materials for use as web-based curriculum resources;
  • compile exemplars for uploading into the curriculum bank of the Curriculum Development Institute;
  • implements pilot projects to promote school-based gifted programmes;
  • liaises with related organisations and bodies; and answers enquiries on gifted education and related issues.

Note that, both through its name and its responsibilities, the GES has set aside the original edict that the ‘gifted’ label should not be applied at Levels 1 and 2 of the HK gifted education framework.

The GES provides updates via this resource bank, this list of about professional development programmes and this ‘What’s New’ page.

The GES has to date commissioned six year-long web-based learning courses on Earth Science, Astronomy, Mathematics, China’s Reform & Opening-up, The Rise of Contemporary China and Palaeontology from various universities and professional bodies . There is a separate website giving access to these courses.

courtesy of stuckincustoms

The Antecedents of the Hong Kong Academy

As early as 2001, a project called Support Measures for Exceptionally Gifted Students was introduced. Its website is no longer functioning, but background information can be found elsewhere. The answer to the previously cited Legislative Council Question explains that this scheme provides:

‘off-site support to exceptionally gifted students in need for [sic] advanced enrichment and extension. The students are selected through annual territory-wide school nomination and accepted as members of the Scheme. Since 2001, 6 000 students have been admitted…over 200 secondary schools nominate their students…..An evaluation… was completed in January 2006 through survey, case studies and interviews. The results demonstrated that the Scheme was able to enhance students’ academic knowledge, self-confidence, learning ability and widened their perspectives.’

Even allowing for movement out of the cohort, we can already see that this group has many times exceeded its original specification as 0.1% of the school population.

A Finance Committee document from 2007-08 updates the position, explaining the relationship with the nascent Academy:

‘In 2006-07, the Support Measures for Exceptionally Gifted Students included 51 enhancement programmes and 36 related activities for gifted students, their teachers and parents, costing about [HKD] 3.8 million in total. The total number of participants (including students, parents and teachers) was about 8 000’.

In 2007-08, 25 enhancement programmes will be conducted by the Education and Manpower Bureau (EMB) with an estimated expenditure of about HKD 1.9 million, while the newly established Hong Kong Academy for Gifted Education (the Academy) will gradually take over and further develop around 25 enhancement programmes in the various domains, in addition to offering new programmes for senior primary students and junior secondary students with its own funding. The total estimated number of participants of the programmes by EMB and the Academy would be about 10 000 (increased by 25%) in 2007-08.

The enhancement programmes for gifted students organised under the Scheme include university-based credit-bearing courses, research projects, study camps, Olympiad training, leadership training cum social services etc. Since 2006-07, mentoring programmes have been launched to further stretch the potential of award winners in open competitions. There will be new domains of languages and arts in 2007-08.’ (p. 305)

Since there were approximately 480,000 secondary students in the Hong Kong education system at this time, this ‘level 3’ provision seems to have become associated with a 2% cohort before the Academy was launched.

An Academy is Proposed

The first references to the Academy can be found at least a year earlier, in a description of Policy Initiatives on Education in 2006-07 published by the Legislative Council:

‘The mission of the proposed Academy for Gifted Education (the Academy) is to expand the pool of talents in terms of both numbers and diversity by providing learning opportunities and specialist services. To achieve this, it aims to catalyse and galvanise the efforts of teachers, parents and different sectors of the community to create a supportive, sustainable and enriching learning community for students. The Academy will also network with overseas institutions on gifted education to pool international expertise and to share experience with local practitioners and experts. While the Academy will cater primarily for the needs of local gifted students, it has the potential to be developed into a knowledge hub to serve gifted students in the Mainland and the Asia-Pacific region as well.

The direct services of the Academy will cover the following –

  • for students – the direct service mainly comprises off-site service for the exceptionally gifted students whose needs cannot be met by school-based programmes. Learning opportunities aim for ‘enrichment’ (i.e. knowledge not normally encountered in schools such as film, art, astronomy, marine science) and ‘acceleration’ (such as programmes set at the undergraduate level or beyond);
  • for teachers – it provides an arena for teachers and specialists to exchange experiences, collaborate and enhance the overall capacity in supporting gifted education;
  • for parents – it provides advice on parenting the gifted at home to better cater for their cognitive and emotional needs; and
  • for academics and professionals – building on strengths and local experience, it should aspire to tap into and contribute to the development of gifted education both locally and worldwide as a long-term goal.

While EMB will continue our efforts in gifted education to serve schools and teachers at Levels 1 and 2, we will support the Academy in widening the range of services to the above stakeholders at Level 3.’

The Finance Committee considered the projected costs of this plan in January 2007. It was invited to approve a one-off grant of HKD 100 million (equivalent to £8.3m) to match a donation given by a philanthropist, Sir Joseph Hotung (see below) giving a total start-up budget of HKD 200 million (so £16.6m).

This budget constituted an endowment, allowing the Academy to draw down funds while continuing to earn income from investment of the capital.

The previous annual budget for gifted education of HKD 29 million (£2.4 million) was therefore increased significantly, though with the rider that this funding was predominantly targeted at the relatively small ‘level 3’ cohort, who were now much more generously supported than the much bigger group benefiting from school-based gifted education

In making the case for this investment, the EMB quantifies the service to be provided, so giving us a set of benchmarks against which we can assess the Academy’s progress. It will:

  • provide services to10,000-12,000 students during the period from 2007 to 2010 (about 3,000 students per year);
  • serve about 600 teachers and 5,000 parents per year; and, more qualitatively:
  • partner closely with local and overseas universities in offering programmes and to set up a network of mentors comprising different expertise to support the development of gifted students in Hong Kong; and
  • initiate and conduct research to provide evidence-based advice on services for the gifted and effective pedagogy, and offer recommendations on government policy which are conducive to the sustainable growth and advancement of knowledge in gifted education in Hong Kong’.

It states that the Academy will be operated independently of Government ‘for greater operational effectiveness’ (this assertion is not justified and one can imagine the EMB authors not being entirely convinced).

It is not clear where this insistence on independence originated. It may have been imposed as a funding condition by Sir Joseph Hotung or, more probably, there were legal obstacles to the acceptance of such largesse by an arm of Government.

Whatever the source, the Academy:

‘should have a high degree of independence and flexibility in planning and operating its services as well as in managing its human and financial resources. We therefore propose to set up the Academy as a limited company under the Companies Ordinance (Cap. 32). The objectives of the Academy will be clearly set out in the Memorandum and Articles of Association. As a non-profit-making entity, the Academy will not be allowed to distribute dividends’

Since ‘various stakeholders interested in the development of gifted education in Hong Kong should be involved in the management of the Academy’ it should have a Board of eight to ten directors appointed by the Government.

The next section is oddly worded:

‘The Academy is expected to assume the role of a central co-ordinator and lead collaborator to develop and monitor the scope and quality of the services, partly to be conducted by its staff, and partly to be contracted out to potential course providers…This mode of operation without a purpose-built premises for the academy itself is being implemented elsewhere (e.g. in the United Kingdom)’.

A negative interpretation would be that the Ministry is creating an expensive middle-man, in the form of an arm’s-length body that will handle relationships with third parties that were previously handled through the GES.

The notion of an Academy on the original NAGTY model – a community that serves students and to which student members belong – seems not to be central to this thinking.

The Academy will ‘start with a strategic and core team of about 15 staff, to be headed by an Executive Director…supported by a small team of professional officers and other technical and administrative staff.’

Annual operating costs are estimated at about HKD 19 million (staff costs HKD 6.5m, student services HKD 7.0m). The endowment might be supplemented over time through the addition of ‘donations, sponsorships and course fees’ but the initial sum ‘should have provided sufficient financial certainty for not less than ten years for the Academy to develop the best financing model to suit its operation’.

…which is not quite the same as voicing an aspiration that the Academy should become as far as possible self-funding within a 10-year period.

The Hotung Donation, the Board and Director

Sir Joseph Hotung issued a general statement in the form of an EDB press release in October 2006 but it says very little of significance.

Hotung is a Hong Kong based philanthropist and art collector. He was born in Shanghai, attending a Catholic school run by the Marist Brothers, St Louis College in Tsientsin. He then briefly attended university in Hong Kong before moving to the Catholic University of America. He was also subsequently an external law student of the University of London.

He worked initially as a security analyst with the Marine Midland Bank, returning to Hong Kong on the deaths of his father and grandfather. He launched a property business and subsequently became a Director and Board Member for HSBC Holdings plc, the Hong Kong and Shanghai Banking Corporation, Hong Kong Electric Holdings, Guinness Investment Ltd. and Ho Hung Hing Estates. He was knighted in 1993.

The Academy’s Board of Directors was constituted and met for the first time in November 2007 under the Chairmanship of Mr Irving Koo, another Hong Kong businessman who has served as Chair of the Quality Education Fund (1998-2003) and the Hong Kong Examination and Assessment Authority (to 2009), as well as being a member of the University Grants Committee and the Education Commission.

Other original members were:

  • Professor Shiu-yuen Cheng, Professor of Maths at Hong Kong University of Science and Technology
  • Mrs Julia Fung, Trustee of the Fung Hon Chu Trust Fund
  • Mrs Lisa Hotung, representative of Sir Joseph Hotung (and presumably his wife)
  • Mr Frederick Lam, Chairman of the Hong Kong Association for Parents of Gifted Children
  • Mrs Stella Lau, Headmistress of the Diocesan Girls’ School
  • Dr Eric K C Li, a senior partner in an accountancy firm and former member of the Legislative Council
  • Dr Philip Wu, a bank director and former Chairman of the Council of the Open University of Hong Kong.

Messrs Koo, Cheng, Fung, Hotung and Lam had been part of a Preparatory Committee established by January 2007 to assist in the selection of an Executive Director, ‘prepare the ground and…ensure a smooth transition to setting up the governing body’.

Messrs Koo, Cheng, Fung, Hotung, Lam, Lau, Li and Wu continue to serve on the Board, but there are two other very important members:

  • Mrs Cherry Tse Ling Kit-ching, the Permanent Secretary for Education at EMB
  • Dr Catherine Chan Ka-ki, her Deputy Secretary for Education.

These are the two most senior civil servants for education in Hong Kong. This almost unparalleled show of strength – for they appear to be full participants, not alternatives and not observers – must signal the potentially huge significance of HKAGE within Hong Kong’s educational system

But it probably also suggests that the EMB, on behalf of the Hong Kong Government, is absolutely determined to exert some control over what might otherwise be a potentially loose cannon.

The Executive Director, Stephen Tommis, formerly Chief Executive of the National Association for Gifted Children (NAGC) in the UK, was appointed in February 2008 and continues to provide strong leadership. His experience in working closely with central Government while simultaneously maintaining an independent organisation will have commended him to the Preparatory Committee.

The Academy’s first press release, dated July 2008, confirms the figures in the previous documents referenced above, adding, for clarity:

‘The target student population is those who are exceptionally gifted as defined by those who consistently perform in the top 2% of their age cohort. Initially, the Academy will concentrate its provision on the 10-18 ages with the Support Programmes for the Exceptionally Gifted but hopes to extend the age range in time…

…apart from the frontline Student Division, Parent Division and Teacher Division to cater for these three types of stakeholders, the Academy also has a research division to partner closely with local and overseas universities as well as to initiate and conduct research to provide evidence-based advice on services for the gifted, effective pedagogy and government policy.’

The ‘Level 3’ population has been expanded significantly – it would not make sense to establish an Academy of this size to cater for the 1,000 students deemed exceptionally gifted, so the target group is now expanded to something nearer 20,000 and confined in the first instance to the 10,000 or so aged 10-18.

Hong Kong’s gifted education programme clearly made enormous strides over this period of less than twenty years but, with the advent of the Academy, expectations were raised significantly higher.

In Part Two we will review the rapid development of the Academy to date and consider whether it is yet meeting the targets it has been set.


October 2011

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