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Monday, April 13, 2015, 09:33

Falling through the gap

By Jeff Li

Many non-Chinese-speaking students are in need of special help at school, but the demand is far higher than supply in HK. Jeff Li reports.

Falling through the gap
 

When it was time to find a school for her son, Amy Fernando found there was no smooth-sailing.

Fernando moved to Hong Kong from Britain 12 years ago. Her 5-year-old son Zephaniah was born in Hong Kong.

She wants her son to be educated in English. Trouble is Zephaniah has a cognitive disorder and a physical disability. He’s in a wheelchair. That doesn’t leave him much choice of where to go.

Fernando put Zephaniah on a waiting list at a child development center that offers classes in English. That was way back in February 2011. June 2013 came and she was still waiting. And then she gave up and enrolled her son at a center teaching classes in Cantonese. The center provides some language support.

“If I insisted on enrolling my son in an English-speaking child development center, the waiting time would have been longer,” she says. “I decided it would be better for him to get the help he needed first. That was the priority. Acquiring language skills came second.”

Zephaniah is one of 2,659 non-Chinese speaking students under the age of 15 in Hong Kong who need special help at school because they have some physical or mental disability. The figures were disclosed by Southern District councilor Paul Zimmerman at a council meeting last September.

The government calls these kids “students with special educational needs”.

Custom-made courses

Under the Education Bureau’s inclusive education plan, students with mild learning disabilities are enrolled in mainstream schools, not specialized schools. The bureau provides guidelines to mainstream school teachers to help them identify handicapped students. Students who need help get extra funding depending on the level of their mental disability. This way schools are able to allocate more resources to students with special needs to be able to monitor their progress.

Unlike their counterparts in specialized schools, handicapped students in mainstream schools do not necessarily receive individual help with their studies — they receive  a kind of support known as an individualized educational plan.

Kenneth Sin, director of the Centre for Special Educational Needs and Inclusive Education at the Hong Kong Institute of Education, believes the absence of one-to-one help leads to “more severe” problems for non-Chinese speaking students with disabilities.

“The individualized educational plan is a concept whereby each student is given a personalized learning profile, with a team appraising his progress and deciding on the next step,” he says. “The problem is even more severe for ethnic-minority students because they can’t keep up with peers in mainstream schools.”

“In Hong Kong these students with special education needs enrolled in mainstream schools are provided with an individualized educational plan only when it’s seen to be necessary. Otherwise, they attend classes under the same terms as other students,” he says.

To ensure their children receive personalized help, parents often enroll them in special schools. However, in Hong Kong, there are only 400 such school places for non-Chinese speaking students.

The Jockey Club’s Sarah Roe School is one of the few institutions in Hong Kong providing classes in English for students with special needs. According to the school’s operator, the English Schools Foundation, over 100 students had expressed interest in enrolling in the school by March this year.

Many students face a long wait. The school has a capacity of only 70 students.

The school’s principal, Karin Wetselaar, says it is “heart-breaking” to have to turn away students.

“You want to do everything for all the students who have these needs, but you can’t. Not because you don’t want to, but because of the limitations,” she says.

A concern group representing parents of non-Chinese-speaking students with special education needs has been lobbying the Education Bureau to remedy the shortage. It said it has submitted 2,300 signatures collected from concerned parents to the bureau.

The group’s convener, Trisha Tran, highlights that it is necessary to provide classes in English to these students, as forcing them to learn Chinese will be a “big burden”.

“These kids have a lot of burdens,” she says. “They have to go through psychotherapy, speech therapy — they have all these other therapies they have to work on.”

“In Hong Kong English is an official language,” she adds. “These kids should have access to English education.”

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