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Do Hong Kong’s gifted children get enough resources to fulfil their potential?

Reporters: Dora Chiu Wai Yan and Lotus Lau Hiu Yan

When Tommy Chau Chun-wang was three, he showed talent that differentiated him from his peers. Looking out of the bus window, he could read all the words on the signs outside even though no one had taught him to read. His father, Chau Hoi-yip, discovered Tommy had a passion for science and maths. He took Tommy to take an IQ test when he was in primary one, and found his son has an IQ of 135 or above.

After the good news, came bad news. Chau called the Hong Kong Academy of Gifted Education (HKAGE) for help. He was upset by the response. “The academy said that there were no suitable programmes for kids as young as my son. It asked me to wait until my son went to secondary school,” Chau recalls, shaking his head, “His primary school could do nothing more than encourage him to join maths drilling class.”

Instead of waiting for the HKAGE, Chau sought help from other organisations. Tommy, now eight, attends fee-paying programmes in maths and science at the Chinese University of Hong Kong (CUHK). “I love taking this kind of course as I like studying about DNA,” says Tommy, “It is more interesting than lessons in my school!”

Chau wants Tommy to switch to a school with better gifted education facilities but even more than that, he wants the government to establish a school for the gifted.

The term “gifted education” was first mentioned in Hong Kong in an Education Commission Report in 1990. The Fung Hon Chu Gifted Education Centre and the  Hong Kong Academy for Gifted Education (HKAGE) were set up in 1995 and 2007 respectively. But formal programmes for gifted children were not introduced to the public at the HKAGE until September 2008.

Giftedness is notoriously difficult to define and it is hard to identify the gifted children who need extra training. Traditionally, it has been defined as a score of 130 or above in the Wechsler Intelligence Scale for Children (WISC) IQ tests. However, the Education Bureau now encourages defining giftedness more broadly. Children who demonstrate exceptional achievement or potential in areas such as creativity, art, sports and leadership, are also considered gifted.

The Education Bureau aims high. It believes that nurturing multiple intelligences should be the mission of all schools. Gifted education should be made available to all students.

“Hong Kong is actually quite ambitious, but we have to refer to the resources we have available when we decide how large a student population we can serve,” says Chan Pui-tin, the chief curriculum development officer of gifted education under the Education Bureau.

The number of students in Hong Kong with an IQ of 130 or above is about two per cent of the student population. HKAGE, a partner of the Education Bureau, aims to serve that top two per cent, or about 20,000 students. But given the broader definition of giftedness adopted by the Education Bureau, the number of gifted learners should be much higher.

Stephen Tommis, the executive director of HKAGE, says that a gifted learner can waste up to 90 per cent of their learning time in conventional schools as they do not find the lessons challenging. “They are just bored and frustrated. They are not engaged and just stare out the window all day.”

The HKAGE is attempting to handle the surging need for gifted education. It offers 120 free off-site programmes for the best young brains in Hong Kong, as well as supporting services for teachers and parents. The HKAGE will spend about HK$3.5m on direct programme costs in the academic year 2010-11, which may increase to nearly HK$5 million in 2011-12.

It offers programmes like public speaking workshops and a mathematics Olympiad for students. Introductory courses on basic concepts of giftedness and skills for nurturing the gifted are offered to parents and teachers.

In the last round of tests and interviews, held in October last year, 1,200 students were admitted to membership of HKAGE. To date, nearly 4,000 students, amounting to only 20 per cent of the estimated number of gifted kids, have benefited from its free programmes.

To get onto a programme, a child must be nominated by their school. Lam Tai Fai College nominates 10 students to attend courses in every round. So the ability of teachers to identify gifted children is crucial.

First, class teachers observe children, and then they pick the brighter students for screening. But while teachers who do the screening have been trained in gifted education, those who select the students for screening, have not.

Donald Tsui Ming Kin, one of the class teachers responsible for referring students for screening, says he had heard about gifted education when he took courses for other things, but he has not undergone any specific training on it. Tsui worries about the workload, “There are many special educational needs and the gifted is only one of them. The workload of teachers could be really heavy if every teacher had to attend courses in all areas.”

Apart from the extra workload, teachers are also concerned about the lack of variety in the  courses offered. Eric Tse Kwok-ho, the academic guidance master at Lam Tai Fai College says the school is looking for gifted programme providers other than HKAGE. He says the school has more students who excel in arts and sports, yet the academy ignores these areas.

Also, as the school is only allowed to make three nominations for the leadership and humanities streams, some students had to shift to other areas. Last year, 12 year-old Kenny Lo Kwan-ho, who has an IQ score of above 130, was persuaded to accept a nomination to the maths and science domain because the humanities, in which he excels, was full.

Kenny’s mother Chiu Fung-yee, says the quota of 10 nominations that each school gets is not enough. She says schools tend to only nominate those who have outstanding academic performance. Those who are gifted in other aspects may be neglected.

Chiu is also unhappy with the application criteria of HKAGE. She says the academy puts too much emphasis on children’s academic attainments rather than on their potential. She herself had a hard time figuring out that her son was gifted.

When Kenny was eight, Chiu suspected he might have learning disabilities in reading and writing, because he was always impatient and skipped lines when reading. She talked to teachers and social workers but they said she was worrying too much. None of them suspected Kenny could be gifted. “Teachers sometimes think that I am naughty,” Kenny says, “But I know I can absorb knowledge faster than my classmates.”

Eventually, the penny dropped after Chiu took her son to a psychologist. Since discovering her son was gifted, Chiu has applied for different kinds of programmes run by CUHK and the University of Science and Technology, among others. She also joined the Hong Kong Association for Parents of Gifted Children, which she thinks has been more helpful than the government.

Fred Lam Yun-fu, chairman of The association and the father of a gifted child, agrees with Tommy and Kenny’s parents that there is a lack of resources, especially when compared to those available for special education. “Kids with other special education needs like hyperactivity disorder are under the protection of Hong Kong’s social welfare system. Schools that execute special education can receive abundant funding. However, the gifted fall outside the net,” he says.

Lam complains that Hong Kong lags behind other Asian regions. Taiwan started to develop gifted education in 1973, while Singapore began in 1984. “Supernormal Education” in the mainland has a 30-year history. Taiwan, Singapore and Korea have all enacted  gifted education laws to secure the interests of gifted students and school teachers are trained in gifted education.

“There is no relevant law requesting schools to provide and promote gifted education, all participation is just voluntary,” Lam says. “In Hong Kong, students and parents have to mostly count on themselves.”

Lam points out that top schools rarely nominate students as they have their own ways and points of view on training students, whereas, “band three schools do not nominate because they do not think they have any gifted students.” Lam believes there are actually many gifted students in band three schools.

As things stand, around 70 per cent of nominees are accepted onto the HKAGE programmes. For parents and teachers, places for capable kids are insufficient.

The government and HKAGE, however, see it differently. Stephen Tommis, the executive director of HKAGE, thinks that Hong Kong is different from places like Britain, which can nurture the top 10 per cent of students. “We have to be practical due to the limited resources. That’s why we drew the line and decided to serve the top two per cent of Hong Kong students.”

He believes the surge in demand for gifted programmes is due to rising parental expectation. “The number of gifted children is not increasing, but our ability to recognize them is better,” Tommis says. He says the academy has to limit its nomination process to schools instead of opening it up to parents.

“This is Hong Kong. The floodgate would open. We would have thousands and thousands of parents nominating their child,” Tommis says. “It’s about managing expectation. We haven’t the resources to deal with the additional thousands.” Tommis agrees that Hong Kong is still in the early stage of gifted education. He thinks it will take time to deal with even the top 20,000 students.

Yet, he warns: “If gifted children are not properly nurtured, their talent or abilities could possibly vanish. Students could become underachievers.” Tommis estimates that at least 15 per cent of the population is underachieved.

Hopefully, that will not happen to little Tommy Chau despite the fact that his father is less than optimistic about the future. Although Tommy is already attending the gifted programme at  CUHK with a partial scholarship, his dad is still not satisfied with the little support available to his son.

“He will definitely do better if he gets more resources. Maybe earlier gifted education or a larger variety of courses,” says Chau Hoi-yip. “But now, I am afraid that he will lose his talents or his interest in learning after such a long wait for suitable nurturing. What can I do when that time comes?”