Cultural Education in Hong Kong

12 July 2013

The CEO of AFTEC, a Hong Kong-based theatre production company, shares her perspective on arts education and the involvement & participation of young people in arts and culture in Hong Kong.

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(Image credit: AFTEC website)

I subscribed to the A New Direction newsletter and read with great interest all of your marvelous work of drawing the arts and education together.

I am even more intrigued to read the UK government's July Cultural Education report. Important as I believe a much closer tie culture and education should have, I am writing to share a few thoughts from this side of the world.

A key argument in the report is that the UK is lagging behind in PISA tests worldwide for maths, sciences and reading. Well, Hong Kong has been consistently in the top 5 over a number of years because the whole society is geared towards pragmaticism, practicality and high achievers.

Arts education in Hong Kong

As a small city, we have no natural resources but our people. They are hard-working, persevering and resourceful. Economically we are strong and solid but we are losing our competitive edge for a number of reasons, not least of which is a lack of creativity.

The irony is that at least from the 1950s, music and visual arts have been part of the core curriculum for 6-15 year olds.

Arts education is a key learning area with curricula fully fledged in those two arts domains. All schools, primary and secondary, rich or otherwise, have these two subjects with (supposedly) fixed hours weekly in schools.

Drama is not a subject but in the past decade, it is being provided with increasing frequency by both commercial and third sector organisations as part of curriculum teaching and learning approaches. Dance is still very much Cinderella and stuffed into physical education, if at all.

In this city, festivals follow festivals and the cultural scene is vibrant. Anyone who still labels Hong Kong as a cultural desert is in for a rude shock.

Young people are heavily involved in extra curricula activities in the arts in schools and outside and in competitions year round. Moving slower but growing is the involvement of young people in activities organised by professional arts organisations.

AFTEC (which stands for The Absolutely Fabulous Theatre Connection) the company I run is one such example although what we do content and process-wise is not always the norm here.

Since the Education Bureau's curriculum reform in 2012, the new senior secondary scheme leading to the Diploma in Secondary Education has regressed making music and visual electives only. Now fewer students are taking them as a result.

I'd like to comment on two of the three questions posed from our perspective here and which you may feel is of some use to the UK scenario:

1. Who might be willing to collaborate differently?

We have 100% local schools involvement in the arts here in Hong Kong. Some schools do great work. However for a lot of schools doing the arts is all about winning trophies at competitions. This sends a signal to arts companies and practitioners that involvement is based on prizes only with little understanding of the arts beyond that for most teachers, students and particularly parents. As a result of such market demand, and the need for arts organisations to consistently locate extra funding to survive, supply is very often geared towards solely meeting schools' requirements.

While I support the extrinsic values of the arts (helping students understand biology through dance), I am always looking for partners who would want to collaborate differently and also focus on the intrinsic values of arts for arts' sake. This is tough here especially where reflective (critical/aesthetic) thinking is concerned. I think artists in the UK have much to offer schools but will need to be cautious about only playing to some tunes.

2. Are we sure that our practice is good enough in a learning context?

This is a question that I have grappled with constantly for the past decade. I took an additional degree in education some years ago as I realised that thinking from the education and cultural sides of the fence is dissimilar, the key differences being the view on time, results and teacher/tutor training and mindset. Being conscious of the needs of culture and education has really kept me on my toes. Balance clearly is crucial and that is easier said than done. Negotiating with schools is not always easy: they do not always want available expertise from cultural educators and vice versa. I have read reports from Europe on artists giving up in/on schools and vice versa.

A final point, the Hong Kong government spends an inordinate amount on arts. Official figures for 2012-13 stand at a goal of $3.09 billion (excluding the Arts and Sports Development Fund (Arts Portion) and the Cantonese Opera Development Fund).

Arts education comes from an entirely different pocket from the Education Bureau. Everyone is doing a lot yet there seems to be little overview and concerted coordination. In other words, doing a lot as in Gove's report is not always constructive and certainly not a panacea. I would ask at the end of the day, what is being achieved and at what levels?