Case study of Hong Kongs education reform and policy implementation

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Hong Kong is one of the many countries in the world that has attempted to institute policies to reform the education system and improve its quality. The education system, like the political administration, borrows a lot from the high levels of bureaucracy that characterized the colonial era. For example, in order to solve the issue of which modes of teaching and learning to use in schools, the government decided to form organizations and assigned the task to them. As Morris & Scott (2003) note, it created the "Institute of Language Education (ILE) and the Standing Committee on Language and Research (SCOLAR)" (p.77). This way, the government would remain in control of the implementation process and the education system.

The Education Commission set up in 1997 attempted to bring the community on board discussions of educational policies, by seeking to make accords with them. These would then form the basis of the educational policies. However, it was not as successful as the government anticipated. The community suggested the values they wanted the educational policies to promote but since they were not part of the implementation, process the desired change was not achieved. In addition, teachers have opposed the government's efforts to repeatedly change educational reforms. They claim that this causes a lot of instability in the teaching and learning process and therefore much frustration for them and the students.

Consequently, the teaching staff has been aloof in most of the reform agendas of the government, contributing to their failure because they do not follow through with their implementation. For example, the teachers opposed the bridging programs that would enable students who only spoke Chinese learn English and pursue other courses. They believed that these were only temporary programs and would soon give way to other new ones, once the political regime changed.

Moreover, the reforms in education in Hong Kong borrow largely from the West. For instance, "Target Oriented Curriculum initiative (TOC), the Activity Approach (AA) of teaching and learning in primary schools and the School-Based Management initiative (SBM)" (The Board of Education, 1997, p. 29), are some of the programs that have curriculum content borrowed from other countries. The process of policymaking and implementation therefore appears to face many challenges and reforms in education have failed to an extent. According to Morris & Scott (2003),

The post-1997 government has shown more intent to bring about change but has been hampered both by an inherited culture of inertia and cynicism towards reform and by the dysfunctions of a disarticulated political system which have led to problems of co-ordination and a loss of capacity. The article analyses the relationship between educational reform and the changing political system and concludes that reform remains an elusive objective (p.1).

Morris and Scott add that though there have been administrative and organizational changes in Hong Kong's schools and learning environment, these have not conformed to the policy goals of the government in relation to educational reforms. They note that the greatest disparity has been evident in the policies formulated in order to reform the teaching and learning experiences in the classroom setup. The general reasons for this situation have been a lack of political will on the part of the government to follow through with reforms, financial and material constraints and lack of cooperation from the schools' administrative, academic and non-academic staff.

However, the main problem has been conservatism, in that, the government has focused on how well the school administrative and academic staff have been implementing educational policies while neglecting the potential weaknesses of the policies themselves. Consequently, the government and policy makers on education matters view the administrative and academic staff as obstacles to the reforms they are trying to institute. This in turn has been a great misconception of the policy implementation process.

A myriad of situational factors affect educational policies and their effect in the school environment. Among these are the potential demerits of the approaches of policy implementation. In the case of Hong Kong, the government and other educational policy makers have mainly used the top-down model to implement reforms in this sector. This has not come without some problems, as this model alone is not sufficient to implement policies and realize the intended goals (Sabatier 1986, p.25).

One problem is that the school is a social institution where the procedures follow a hierarchical structure from the board of directors down to the teachers and students. The school's management therefore prefers to use the top-down model. Consequently, issues arise in the communication of policies and goals from the top to the least level. At the same time, the policies may not be clear to those implementing them, a situation which makes it difficult to proceed with the process, or leads to mistakes in its execution. Moreover, the implementers of the policies may choose to alter the directives from the top management. In addition, the process of policy implementation faces hurdles such as insufficient finances or lack of qualified human capital, which delay its progress and hamper its successful completion.

Amidst these challenges, the government of Hong Kong has not considered using a different approach in implementing educational policies and reforms. This is because the government has maintained absolute control over all kinds of policies and their implementation, including those affecting the education sector. This is because of the fear of losing its position and influence and at the same time, lack of political will to invest material and financial resources in the education system. At the same time, the people of Hong Kong have not challenged the government's total power in relation to formulation and implementation of policies. Competing interests in the education sector is another factor that has hampered reforms. As Morris & Scott (2003) note,

In summary, we believe that the major factors have been historically ambivalent attitudes towards state involvement in educational provision; the fear that opening forums and engaging in dialogue with active constituencies might compromise the government's position and lead to political confrontation; the concern that actively monitoring programs might consume too many organizational resources; and the fragmentation of educational interest groups which makes it difficult for the government to deal with authoritative bodies on specific issues (p.73).

This also explains why the government of Hong Kong considers the schools' administrative and academic staff solely as implementers of the policies it designs. In other words, the work of the government is to make the policies while the schools should make efforts to implement them. The government therefore blames the policy implementers once the reforms do not work, because they place the entire responsibility of the success of the process on the schools' staff. In addition, it is possible that the implementers of the educational policies and reforms do not wholly understand them and are therefore incapable of executing them successfully. All these issues contribute to the failure of the intended reforms. Another consequence of this is that there has been very little input into the educational reforms from other stakeholders such as parents, teachers, students, private firms and non-governmental organizations. In addition, these stakeholders are unlikely to participate in the process of instituting educational reforms because they believe the government will not consider their contributions. It is important to note that, by not changing its approach, the government of Hong Kong ignores the contributions of other stakeholders who make up a significant part of the social institution, which is the school. These stakeholders are the people who are in constant interaction with the school environment and are therefore aware of the problems and challenges that exist therein. Evidently, they are in a better position to advise the government on what policies and reforms to institute.

However, when the government ignores their contribution it is likely to overlook most of the issues on the ground, which would influence the nature and content of the educational policies and reforms they want to institute. Consequently, the policies and potential reforms will not be relevant to the situation on the ground and will not be of use to the target population, especially the school's administration, teachers and students. Irrelevance of policies and intended reforms is evidently one of the causes of their failure. There is therefore need for the Hong Kong government to approach the implementation process as a transaction between them and the other stakeholders. Evidently, this will involve an approach that focuses on bargaining or negotiations as well as compromises when making policy decisions and identifying the resources and methodology to use in their implementation.

According to Dyer (2000), "Effective implementation requires transactions between policy proponents, implementers and others whose support is necessary for action to happen." (p.56). Policy analysts advocate the use of negotiations, a strategy that is evident in nations such as Mexico and the United States. It involves the use of round-table discussions where though participants are not necessarily equal, they come together to find common ground on an issue. Since the education sector has a variety of stakeholders other than the government, such negotiations would go a long way in obtaining a myriad of views and ideas to improve the implementation process. This would help the government come up with relevant and enriched policies and reforms because of integration of multiple perspectives.

In Mexico, for instance, the year 2008 saw the OECD enter into a two-year partnership with the government, through the Ministry of Education to help in the formulation and application of reforms in education. Some of the issues that the OECD with the help of the ministry was going to address were policies on school administration and teacher evaluation (OECD 2009, p1). In the United States, the process of policy implementation requires the participation of all levels of government.

Odden (1991) notes that "Implementation of policies stretches across levels of government - from Washington to state capitals to local communities - and across agents of government - from legislative to executive to administrative units."(p185). This helps to bring to the table a wide range of perspectives on the issues of concern in the process of policy implementation and makes it possible for brainstorming of appropriate solutions. He observes that in the United States, the Tennessee Valley Authority Initative, for example, was fruitful because of the cooperation between the state and federal governments and the fact that they were in agreement over the objectives of the program.

However, the 1965 educational reforms at the elementary and secondary level were not very successful because teachers and school heads were ambivalent towards the involvement of parents. He adds that most developed nations have established policies at local and national levels to deal with distance education programs and courses. This ensures their efficacy and contributes to large numbers of students from the country and outside joining the programs. It is therefore evident that the success of education programs depends on the policies that are running them and at the same time, the involvement of all stakeholders in a reform program increases its viability.

However, in Hong Kong, this has not been the case. The government has been reluctant to use the transactional strategy in instituting reforms in the education system. Though the government seeks the views of the public, there is very little of this input in the policies they design. The will of the government always overrides the contributions by other stakeholders.

In addition, the government has left the responsibility of policy implementation to the schools and while it is content with merely making directives, designing curricula, and providing the resources required. The government expects that the administrative and academic staff obey its directives during the implementation process (Morris &Scott 2003, p73).

Consequently, the government is not only absent from the actual implementation of the educational policies but also separates the process of policy formulation from its implementation. This should not be the case as the two are interrelated and interdependent. Moreover, the government neglects the input of other stakeholders in the education sector, yet they are the ones on the ground and are aware of the existing challenges. It is therefore evident that the government has not fully succeeded in the implementation of reforms and this has led to their failure. If the government changed their approach, this would increase the chances of success of the intended educational reforms.

According to Andersen (2007), the country operates on the principle of "Hong Kong people running Hong Kong" (p.3). In addition, the nation has a constitution that defines the rights as well as the responsibilities of the citizens. This implies that the government considers the citizens as an integral part of the political administration of the country. In addition, it has given power to the citizens to question and make the holders of political positions accountable for their actions and decisions. This includes the social policies they make since the people in power are the ones vested with such responsibility. The citizens therefore have power to criticize the actions of the political regime and to demand that they ensure the successful implementation of policies. At the same time, it means that the people have power to demand for reforms in all sectors, including the resignation of non-performing political leaders and those who are corrupt.

The government of Hong Kong should therefore consider changing its approach in order to improve the chances of success of policies and reforms in the education and other sectors. It should increase participation of other stakeholders but at the same time, change its attitude of not being active in the actual implementation of the policies and leaving this to the schools' administrative and academic staff. This way, the government would reverse the past and current situations of failure of the intended reforms and instead achieve the milestones it has always wanted to obtain in the education sector.