PTU News Reporter
In view of the increasing number of student suicide cases last year, the Government set up the Committee on Prevention of Student Suicides (the Committee) in March this year. The Committee set up five research working groups to focus on mental health, schools, families, media and youth/post-secondary institutions. The final report is expected to be ready by the end of this month. The Committee submitted a progress report to the Secretary for Education in July claiming to have covered mental health and school issues in depth, and stated that the next phase of the research would cover family, media and post-secondary institutions. However, the actual content of the progress report only covers pathological analysis of mental health but not the school factor, not to mention educational policies.
HKPTU believes that without a thorough investigation into the education system and resources, any recommendations provided by the Committee would hardly be convincing. For front-line teachers, recommendations like gatekeeper trainings to ensure early identification of and intervention for at-risk students, or the development or enhancement of screening tools and materials are not addressing the core problem. For teachers who play the role of gatekeeper, what they need is not more screening tools, but the time and space to talk to students and build trust.
Why not Looking into the Failure of the Mechanism?
In the discussion paper of LegCo Panel on Education in March 2016, the Education Bureau (the EDB) listed existing measures that are similar to what the Committee recommended, including a hree-tier support model?to provide different levels of identification and support by teachers, guidance personnel and professional staff respectively. The discussion paper also mentioned different training programs, professional guidance and support for the front-line teachers. In the written reply given to the LegCo, the Secretary for Education stated that he EDB has a mechanism in place to identify and support students with mental health needs?and he EDB encourages schools to step up their preventive measures to reduce the number of student suicide incidents.? Why did the Committee only repeat, after a whole new round of research, what the EDB claimed they have been doing, but not to look into the reasons for the failure?
In April this year, HKPTU and Civil Alliance for Student Suicide Prevention submitted a report to the Committee. We highlighted the difficulties that frontline teachers and social workers have been facing in identifying the at-risk students and adopting early interventions. We also looked into the failure of the hree-tier support model? Moreover, in terms of school curriculum, examination and career guidance, we also provided suggestions to reduce students?pressure and minimize the risks of student suicides.
System Failure – Student Suicides Ring the Alarm
We stress that school is the best place to protect students. However the key problem is that the teachers?workload is overwhelming and teachers have very limited time and energy to talk to the students. The situation is worse due to teacher job cuts. In recent years, the Government tends to give subsidize to schools to hire contract teachers to fulfill routine but not temporary tasks. These teachers generally suffer from a high turnover rate due to short-term contracts, and it is harder for them to build long-term relationships with students. This is the key factor why the gatekeeper role is failing. What more, the tension facing students are attributed to the education system including the drilling for TSA, the pressure from public examinations, the narrowness of the mainstream school curriculum and the shortage of UGC-funded places, to which the EDB should not turn a blind eye.
The Committee progress report stated that some members think the EDB should consider reviewing the education system as a long-term measure. To our disappointment, this is not included as one of the recommendations in the report. The media stated that the final report would not include detailed recommendations on the education system. They only recommended EDB to review manpower resources to strengthen mental health education, but not to reduce the teacher-to-student ratio. Series of incidents of student suicide have happened. They are not standalone ersonal?cases, but examples to show that our society and education system is in trouble. The Committee should listen to the people and the final report should include concrete measures and directions to review the system as a whole. The EDB should provide front-line teachers and counselling workers with more tangible resources so that no more tragedy will happen in the future.