25 April 2018 BY SHIRLEY ZHAO
A third of children found to have learning difficulties for the first time were about eight years old or older – past the ideal age to begin extra support
One in three Hong Kong pupils identified as having learning difficulties for the first time last school year were around the age of eight or older, the government watchdog has found, raising concerns that they might have missed the best time to get support.
According to the latest report by the Audit Commission, some 6,000 pupils were identified found to have special education needs or low academic ability for the first time during the 2016-2017 year.
Among them, some 1,000 pupils – or 16 per cent – were already between Primary Three (around age eight) and Primary Six.
Another 1,000 were between Secondary One (around age 11) and Secondary Six.
The report said first-time identification in Primary Three or later was not ideal.
“Early identification of possible learning difficulties can enable parents and teachers to provide the appropriate support to the students as soon as possible,” the report read. “All efforts should be made to ensure that students with [special education needs] are identified at the earliest.”
In a response to the commission, the Education Bureau said some parents might have refused to allow assessment of their children at early ages, before the pupils’ difficulties had worsened.
The bureau added that not all pupils show learning or adjustment issues at early ages, adding to the difficulties in early identification.
Some pupils with special education needs might only arrive in Hong Kong after Primary Three, the bureau said.
Professor Sin Kuen-fung, director of the Education University of Hong Kong’s centre for special educational needs and inclusive education, said kindergarten would be the ideal stage for identification of special education needs. After kindergarten, assessment should be made as early as possible in primary school, he said.
He said there was a shortage of school psychologists, who were in charge of making assessments in primary and secondary schools, and one psychologist needed to take care of seven schools, which might have slowed down the assessments.
Sin said the government needed to raise this ratio to one psychologist for four schools.
“Although any child could be identified with learning issues at any stage, the guiding principle should be that there are enough resources to make sure the assessment service is sufficient,” Sin said.
The audit report found that some schools had not received the required number of visits by psychologists.
Last academic year, 330 out of 844 publicly funded mainstream primary and secondary schools received regular educational psychology services provided by the bureau. Among these schools, 27 received fewer than the required 18 visits a year, with one school receiving only 10.
Another 484 schools received the services from school sponsoring bodies, and 11 of these schools received fewer than the required 14 visits, with one school receiving only four.
The remaining 30 schools received enhanced services, which raises the required number of visits to 30. However, four of them received fewer than the 30 visits.
About 42,890 pupils with special education needs studied at those 844 schools last school year.
The bureau told lawmakers earlier this month that it had been “progressively improving” the ratio to one educational psychologist to four priority schools, meaning those with a large number or proportion of pupils with special education needs. It added that some 120 schools would receive this enhanced provision next year.
The bureau said major reasons for insufficient visits were sick leave and maternity or paternity leave. It added that it would step up efforts to monitor school visits.