Macau Matters | Local primary & secondary education

Richard Whitfield

The education system in Macau is unusual in that there is no standard national curriculum and most schools are non-government. Moreover, the government is happy to subsidize a substantial share of school building costs and schools can get a significant per student operating subsidy. Finally, the government is largely non-interventionist in controlling school operating practices. This lays an excellent foundation for an innovative and vibrant education system. It gives schools flexibility and permits them to focus on “niche markets” and proactively respond to changing community needs and try out new approaches and technologies for learning and teaching. I strongly believe that the stifling constraints that schools often operate under is a major contributor in keeping many national education systems in the “dark ages”.

Unfortunately, I believe that the enviable education system that we could have here is currently being crippled in several important ways by poor government oversight and planning.

Firstly, the requirements for teaching qualifications are low or non-existent and only a few local universities offer degrees in teaching. This means that the typical Macau school teacher, especially at the primary level, is very poorly trained and has had little exposure to modern teaching ideas and technologies. They typically follow the practices they experienced in their own primary and secondary education, which strongly emphasized rote learning of facts that were not related to “real life”, and they do not know any better and have few incentives to learn. The government itself seems to recognize this problem and subsidizes secondary school teachers to upgrade their qualifications, but not primary school teachers, which is where you can have the greatest impact.

If you want to improve schools you should initially focus on primary education and then move on to secondary education as the student cohort grows up. Focusing improvements on secondary schooling means fixing damage that has already been done – it is much easier to prevent problems from occurring than to correct damage after it has been done.

Secondly, while the subsidies given to schools are excellent they are tied to restrictions on other tuition so that if schools accept government subsidies they are severely hamstrung in their total available income. This forces schools to focus on reducing costs, which they typically do by having very large classes taught by very poorly paid and lowly qualified teachers. All the available literature indicates that a good education system must start with well paid, highly qualified teachers that are well supported and teach relatively small classes. It is simple common sense that good people are attracted to well paid and fulfilling careers and that students benefit from individual attention, which is impossible in a class of 50.

Thirdly, the Macau education department monitors relatively meaningless measures of school performance such as student and teacher attendance records. Having a flexible education environment that encourages innovation is great, but only if the performance of schools is properly monitored and improvements are facilitated. Around the world there are several good systems of school accreditation where inspectors come in to evaluate school missions and visions, the quality of the learning and teaching and the subsequent life success of school graduates. Only third world countries where schools are corrupt and teachers are not regularly paid have problems with students and teachers absenting themselves from school, which should not be a focus of concern in Macau!

Schools have a huge potential in Macau but I believe that improvements will not be realized until schools are given much more freedom to raise tuition and other sources of income, much better teaching qualifications are required, school certification and assessment becomes much more sophisticated and the focus shifts to improving primary education first.

Categories Opinion