Liberal no more: subject renamed, revamped

Top News | Staff reporters 27 Nov 2020

Senior secondary subject liberal studies will be renamed and revamped - including changing to a pass-or-fail grading system and having its teaching hours halved - as early as next school year.

Secretary for Education Kevin Yeung Yun-hung announced the changes yesterday, a day after Chief Executive Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor said in her policy address that the subject will be reformed and serve as a platform for youngsters to learn about the country's development, the Basic Law and the rule of law.

While liberal studies will remain a core subject for those taking the Diploma of Secondary Education exam, students will only be graded "pass" or "fail" instead of the existing seven-point grading system, Yeung said.

"We think it is adequate for a student to possess basic abilities that the subject aims to train them for, and there's no need to distinguish the level of their abilities too closely," he said.

Yeung said having a pass-or-fail system could free students from the pressure of getting high scores, allowing them to focus on developing analytical and thinking skills instead of drilling for exams.

The subject's existing 250 teaching hours and curriculum will be halved, but Yeung said content about the city's development, national development and Hong Kong-mainland relationship "will definitely stay."

One thing to be scrapped is the independent inquiry study under the subject's school-based assessment, which now accounts for 20 percent of a DSE candidate's liberal studies score. It requires each student to do an individual project on a social issue of their choice.

"We decided to cancel independent inquiry study because it's a huge burden to the entire curriculum and some teachers find it difficult to handle it," Yeung said.

Liberal studies will be added to the textbook review mechanism, meaning its textbooks will need to undergo Education Bureau's screening. Students will also have a chance to visit the mainland on field trips.

And finally, Yeung said, liberal studies will have a new name, which is still under consideration, so as to "give the subject a new start."

He denied that officials did not like the word "liberal" in the name: "We just think there are many bad impressions associated with its name."

Yeung said the changes will happen "as soon as possible - September next year if we can make it." But the reform will not affect students who are already studying the subject.

Asked why the revamp, Yeung said it is largely based on suggestions from the Task Force on Review of School Curriculum, which submitted its final report last September after its establishment in 2017.

In the report, the task force actually suggested keeping its seven-point grading system. But experts recommended making the independent inquiry study optional for students and reducing the curriculum.

"The last thing you should think is that everything has changed about the subject. Liberal studies' status as a core subject, and its importance, will not change due to the reform," Yeung said. "We have no intention to change it into a 'national education subject.' "

But his announcement triggered a storm.

Education sector lawmaker Ip Kin-yuen said the government has "murdered" the subject and the reform is "clearly out of political consideration rather than professional education opinions."

Ip criticized the Education Bureau for weakening students' critical and independent thinking to pursue political correctness.

Veteran liberal studies teacher Colin Lai Tak-chung said it is "unacceptable" and would affect staffing arrangements in schools after lesson hours are halved.

He said the new arrangements have destroyed the objectives of the subject, and some of his teacher friends have either decided not to teach this subject or quit.

Victor Kwok Hoi-kit, head of education and youth at think tank Our Hong Kong Foundation which suggested changing to the pass-fail system, welcomed the move and suggested a new name "integrated studies".

Likewise, lawmaker Priscilla Leung Mei-fun said she has been waiting for the reform for a long time, but "it is better late than never."

Students should not be forced to study for marks or exams, Leung said, adding she hopes the government would "act as gatekeeper and ensure that teachers are teaching the right materials."

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