By Odilon Couzin

Last week, in response to criticism from parents, teachers and many others, the chairman of the EDB’s Committee on Prevention of Student Suicide, Professor Paul Yip, wrote a column in SCMP defending the committee’s recent report.

In it, he wrote that those who testified in Legco last week were “misinterpreting” the report’s message, that they were trying to “only blame the school system” rather than recognizing the “complexity of the suicide situation.”

This couldn’t be further from the truth. All serious research on suicide recognizes that there are usually multiple factors, nobody is suggesting otherwise, and this is a crude attempt to discredit anyone who dares to criticize the report.

student suicide
A student suicide protest. Photo: Albert Chan.

True, many of those who spoke up in Legco focused on the intense pressure that students experience in Hong Kong schools, but their testimony was largely a response to the clear attempt by the EDB and its hand-picked committee members to downplay or even deny a link between schoolwork and tests and the sort of psychological pressures that can lead to self-harm and suicide among students.

This is not a misinterpretation. The report goes to great pains to avoid saying that academic pressure is an important factor in student suicide. It ignores much academic research and even Hong Kong government reports that contradict this conclusion.

The wording of the report’s denial is chosen carefully, as if written by a lawyer or politician trying to squirm out of a tight corner. For instance, it claims “there is no substantial direct link between student suicides and the education system.”

But there are plenty of links, and  a mountain of clear evidence linking school and test pressure to student suicide. The Social Welfare Department issued four “Child Mortality Review” papers covering the years 2006 – 2011 that showed schoolwork pressures were linked to between 29% and 42% of youth suicides.

According to the Committee’s report, the EDB’s own data showed that 24% of Primary and Secondary school students who committed suicide were known to be worried about their academic performance, but this is somehow ignored in the report’s conclusion.

Surveys conducted among Hong Kong students show an alarmingly high percentage consider suicide, and that the biggest sources of pressure in their lives are tests and homework. Finally, many works of academic research have shown there is a strong link between school pressure and student suicide.

Those who spoke up last week were not misinterpreting the report. For parents, teachers, and so many others who care deeply about the well-being of Hong Kong’s children, this sort of blatant doublespeak is simply not acceptable.

student suicide

While the report makes a number of useful recommendations about increasing budgets for psychological support to students and parents, expanding service referral via the schools, and educating society about the risk of suicide, it fails to make any serious recommendations on how to reduce pressure on students.

Like a 2011 EDB guide on preventing student suicide, the report focuses on measures to help students learn how to deal with extreme pressure rather than trying to address the source of the pressure itself.

In fact, the solution is there for all to see.  In 2000, the Education Commission issued a comprehensive Education Reform proposal. That proposal called for a “paradigm shift” away from high-pressure tests, cramming, and rote memorization, and said that less testing and a “flexible and open curriculum framework” would produce better long-term educational outcomes.

While EDB officials say this is still their blueprint for education reform and pay lip service to the goals of a balanced and flexible education, they seem to have moved in the opposite direction.

Eddie Ng Hak-kim, Paul Yip Siu-fai
Eddie Ng Hak-kim (left) and Paul Yip Siu-fai (right). Photo: GovHK.

Yip writes that we should “look for evidence-based measures to make our work more effective and to ensure the school system helps those in need.”

We couldn’t agree more, and we believe the evidence in this case is strong and clear: excessive testing, homework, and academic pressure may produce high test results, but they are overwhelming  Hong Kong’s children and this must be faced head-on.

A frank and honest public discussion, followed by comprehensive reform of the education system is urgently required, because all Hong Kong students are at risk.

Odilon Couzin, parent and member of the Citizens’ Alliance for the Prevention of Youth Suicide

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