Critical discussions about Hong Kong’s education system have always focused on its high-stress culture. This is clearer than ever with the recent furore over the Primary 3 Territory-wide System Assessment (TSA). Parents and young students alike have publicly voiced their frustration with the endless drilling imposed by schools who are incentivized to use any means possible to ensure good results. In the latest development, the EDB has even instructed schools to stop imposing excessive TSA preparation on students.

In the public hearing over the TSA in the Legislative Council on November 29, it was notable that both the parties against the assessment and those in support of it used one common point for their opposing arguments – that the results of the TSA “do no matter” in terms of students’ progression within the education system. That is to say, the grades that students attain in this particular standardized test do not directly have an impact on the quality of the educational opportunities they will access as they advance.

Parents and students who have been arguing against TSA think that the high stress they face is “useless”, as good results on the test do not directly confer any educational advantages within the school system, while their opponents say that, precisely because the TSA does not “count” in the grand scheme of Hong Kong’s hierarchical education system, the test cannot generate stress serious enough to warrant any drastic action.

child studying

This idea that what TSA drilling represents is either unnecessary or easily dismissed stress belies a mutual understanding in our society of a type of school stress which is regarded as necessary, the type derived from examinations, interviews, and admissions processes that do have an immense impact on children’s educational opportunities and the trajectory of their careers and lives.

“Necessary” stress – which pushes secondary school students to engage in a tutoring arms race to prepare for the all-important DSE and makes it necessary for even kindergarteners to attend rigorous interview workshops – would not make it to a hearing in the Legislative Council because it is fundamentally linked to the operation of our education ecosystem, whose core premise is a rarely examined meritocracy marked by a rigid, hierarchical pathway that culminates in a high-stakes public examination. This examination, in turn, solely determines admissions to an already inadequate number of local university places.

All along this pathway, students are streamed, ranked, and then selected for highly unequal educational opportunities as a result of their performance. As the process compounds upon itself in an unforgiving feedback cycle that leads to diverging prospects, high levels of stress every step of the way – down to pressures to “win on the starting line” – are entirely inevitable.

Celebrity tutors

There is no lack of prominent voices criticizing this “necessary” stress – one only needs to have Facebook friends who are parents to see this – but these voices are almost always coloured by a fatalistic tone that stops short at lamenting symptoms such as the ridiculous amount of homework and studying young students have to do each day. The core premise of the system that drives these symptoms is widely considered beyond reproach.

As long as we continue to believe that it is right to uphold a hierarchy of bad schools, mediocre schools, good schools, better schools, the best schools, and international schools with their completely different set of rules, then saying that our children face too much stress is beside the point. If parents or society as a whole continue to believe that certain children deserve—for meritocratic reasons or otherwise—to have an edge over their peers by going to a more elite or well-endowed school, then their criticisms of the absurd weight of five-year-olds’ schoolbags are inconsequential. They are, in fact, active promoters of this stress as a necessary evil in a fundamentally unequal system.

Why do our critiques of education in Hong Kong never address the core inequality that drives the surface symptoms we lament? Why do we criticize the stress but never question whether the basic premise of our system is healthy and fair?

Because of our society’s assumptions about education, when we view the education system in a country like Finland – which has been widely accepted as a leading global model – the focus is also on observable characteristics, such as how Finnish students do markedly less homework than our students but still perform well on international assessments. We make superficial comparisons between the two systems, then ask why another country can let children learn in low-stress environments and still gain the concrete examination results that we strive for (as far as Hong Kong commentators are concerned, any other measure of educational success is irrelevant).

Hong Kong schoolchildren

What we rarely discuss is the underlying equality of the Finnish education system that enables this enviable learning environment. There are no private, fee-charging schools in Finland, meaning that all Finnish students go to free public comprehensive schools near their homes and are ensured an education of comparable quality whatever their abilities (and whoever their parents are). As Finnish schools do not select and stream students to receive differentiated opportunities, rigorously drilling to gain access to a better education is completely out of the question.

Even if it might never be politically possible for Hong Kong, with our ingrained social inequality, to adopt an egalitarian education system similar to the Finnish model, we should at least connect the dots between our education hierarchy and the high stress culture it drives. Only in this context would any criticism of the latter be worthwhile.

If we really think that our children deserve to learn in less stressful environments, we should discuss ways to make education in Hong Kong more equal and less high-stakes, at least in the early years. We must begin to measure educational success by more than a few rigid, differentiating parameters, be they examination scores or family support. Instead of criticizing children’s homework load, we should talk about the underlying issues that drive such symptoms and which penalize students who fail to cope with the pressure – whether because of ability, disposition or background – with worse educational prospects every step along the way.

Charlotte Chang is a U.S.-born writer and teacher raised in Hong Kong. After graduating from Harvard University, she taught in a secondary school before becoming a freelance writer, translator, and English and German teacher. She covers topics in art and education for publications such as Artomity and SCMP and runs the linguistics-based English-teaching channel "Ms. Charlotte" on YouTube. Read more about her work on