Ask the children what they want

By Thomas Tang

“Children need more fun.” This is the headline that came out of the South China Morning Post seminar, The Face of HK’s Future Workforce. The audience of businesspeople, education specialists, academics and human-resources experts was overwhelmingly in support of that idea. But some in the community would take an opposing view.

It is no accident that reformists have tried to reconfigure Hong Kong’s education system to nurture creativity and originality in our children. Their attempt to veer away from the much-criticised rote-learning methods is commendable but they will face resistence to change from teachers, parents and others who have been brought up, trained in and are practising these same methods.

It is time to break away from the strictures of education models. The proper, rounded development of our children comes not just from reading books and studying hard. Outlets like sport and culture -- and the development of interests other than school, television and computer games -- are vital in instilling and reinforcing the merits of discipline, self-confidence, courage and respect for others. Our younger generation generations must realise that these social skills are part of a full life.

Who decides what is best for our children? There are many who claim to know, each with something to contribute: child psychologists, paediatricians, education specialists, family workers, teachers and parents. The Government has three separate bureaus that split among them the health and welfare, education and protection of Hong Kong’s children.

Candidates for the job of principal at an English Schools Foundation school were recently interviewed by the very students they would administer. By all accounts, the children asked probing, intelligent and wholly relevant questions. This exercise sends an unequivocal message: children can think, articulate, and make key decisions if given the opportunity.

As a signatory to the United Nations Convention of the Rights of the Child, Hong Kong is committed to promoting, advancing and ensuring children's rights. Last year, delegates reported to a UN conference on Hong Kong’s progress. A school-style report on our performance would have read: “Johnny tries hard, but could do better”.

Johnny could and should do better. The alarming results of a recent survey on children carried out by the New Century Forum, an NGO, reveal an underlying and deep-rooted malaise in our young -- highlighted by bullying, shoplifting, and taking drugs. This month, children from poor families asked the chief executive to institute 15 years of free education and better child welfare. Some 289,000 local children under the age of 15 are living in poverty.

Many countries have set up child commissions. Hong Kong has long toyed with this notion but the current wisdom is to divide this important task among various organisations. In truth we could do better by learning from the lessons of Norway, Sweden, Northern Ireland, Australia, New Zealand and the United States, where children’s commissions are responsible for after youngsters' needs -- be they education, health care or abuse and family issues.

Such a body for Hong Kong’s children would bring the many complex issues concerning children under one roof. It might not have all the answers, but it would bring together all those who care and who have the credentials to make a difference. Sure, let the children play. But don’t forget to ask them what they really think.

Dr Thomas Tang is the managing director of the Global Institute For Tomorrow.