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Besides middle-aged learners, those repeating their school-leaving public examinations form a major part of the student body. Poon Ki-lam studied at MKMCF Ma Chan Duen Hey Memorial Evening College last year. He repeated Form Six while working part-time, in order to improve his grades and enroll in a nursing degree programme.

The 23-year-old, who is now studying nursing at the Open University of Hong Kong, says there are constraints and advantages in studying at evening schools. On the downside, students are limited to a three-hour class each weekday so teachers have to be exam-oriented. They prioritise examination content and skills but students might not be able to absorb the knowledge.

Poon studied biology. Sometimes, teachers could not finish the syllabus, let alone arrange laboratory work. Often he would have to read about processes in books rather than see them work in action through laboratory demonstrations and experiments.

He understood the time constraints so he did not just rely on his teachers. “You cannot demand that evening schools provide good services for you. You have to work hard on your own,” he says.

Despite the limitations, Poon thinks he was better off studying at evening school than by himself at home. “It is very important to have teachers to guide you, and friends with the same goal to accompany you along the way to public examination,” he says.

Teachers at the Holy Cross Lutheran Evening College acknowledge the difficulties of teaching in evening schools. Those teaching different subjects adopt different strategies to maximise the learning outcomes.

Wan Cheuk-yin teaches liberal studies. He emphasises in-class discussions and improving students’ exam-taking skills. He leaves the concepts for students to revise by themselves.

“Students’ work experience and background contribute to down-to-earth discussions, which are not possible in day schools,” says Wan, citing the example of a student who works in a hospital. He says the student could share stories about the actual difficulties medical practitioners are facing in a class on public health.

On the other hand, Wan’s colleague Yim Chun-leung, who has taught maths for 36 years, spends most of the time explaining mathematical concepts. Yim relies on students to do the exercises on their own because of the tight class schedule.

Apart from the inherent constraints, evening schools also face external challenges. Ken Cheung Luk-kin, the principal of the Lutheran Church Evening Colleges, has witnessed the changing fortunes of evening schools over the years.

During its heyday in the 1990s, the Lutheran Church’s evening schools held 16 to 20 secondary Form 5 classes at the same time. The schools could earn HK$1 million profit from tuition fees annually without receiving government support.

Since 2003, the Education Bureau has stopped giving any financial support to evening schools and they now operate on a self-financing basis. The Lutheran Church’s evening schools only have two classes for each form and charge low tuition fees of HK$60 for three hours, so they can only break even.

Ken Cheung Luk-kin, the principal of the Lutheran Church Evening Colleges

“The profit-making era of evening schools has ended,” the 57-year-old principal says. The school has re-positioned itself as a social service provider which offers students a chance to repeat or to complete their high school education.

Cheung is struggling to find ways to sustain the schools. He explored different options, such as starting children’s playgroups and offering courses on workplace English or International English Language Testing System (IELTS) preparation. However, he abandoned these plans because it is hard to compete with established providers such as the British Council or the big tutorial schools.

Instead, he is thinking of providing insurance and real estate management courses next year to attract more students. “We will not just sit still and wait for ‘death’, but every idea is challenging,” he sighs.