Hong Kong as a source for education policy in England: Rhetoric and reality

Robert Damian ADAMSON

Research output: Contribution to conferencePapers


Since the creation of systems of mass education, national governments have looked beyond their borders to identify how to develop and improve their education systems. For many decades, the developing world looked to the education systems of the affluent and industrialized West. Since the mid-1980s, however, the source of models of best practice has shifted following the introduction of international tests of pupil achievement, e.g., the studies carried out by the International Association for the Evaluation of Educational Achievement (IEA), as well as the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA), and Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS). Such studies are seen as providing objective evidence of the effectiveness of school systems, and a common feature has been the consistently strong performance of pupils from a number of East Asian contexts (including Hong Kong), and some Scandinavian countries (especially Finland) (Grek 2009, Alexander 2010, Morris 2012). The education policies and practices of these “high performing” education systems and economies have emerged as models of best practices for policy makers around the world (Steiner-Khamsi 2004). Thus what was predominantly a West-East policy flow has become multidirectional. Historically, Hong Kong appropriated British education models as part of its colonial heritage. Significant reforms, tailored to the local context, were proposed by visiting experts from the UK. The process of decolonization began in 1984 with the Joint Declaration, stipulating the retrocession of the territory in 1997. Education policies in Hong Kong since the mid-1980s reflect the parting of ways in the political sense, as Hong Kong distances itself from its colonial past and draws increasingly on other sources to reform the educational system. As one of the “high performing” countries on both PISA and TIMSS, Hong Kong has been used as a model of good practice in many countries, especially in the West. Following the perception of poor performance in tests of pupil achievement, England has increasingly drawn lessons for educational policy and practice from high performing East Asian countries, especially Hong Kong, Singapore, and Taiwan (Morris 2012) to support and legitimize various reform agendas. This paper analyzes the two sides of external policy referencing, with England utilizing Hong Kong as a “point of reference.” By comparing the patterns in a “high performing” economy such as Hong Kong’s, with those of an established but “less dynamic economy” such as England’s, and with reference to practices in similar societies, the study provides an insight into the broader patterns of external policy referencing between the West and East Asia. Using documentary analysis and semi-structured interviews with policy makers and other key stakeholders in England and Hong Kong, the study explores two research questions: (1) What have been the critical features of the patterns of external policy referencing in England since the 1990s? The answers to this research question will reflect how England has drawn on external sources over time, and highlight the influence and impact of local contextual factors on referenced policies. The study will also include an analysis of the most recent major reforms in England, e.g., the 2010 “Schools White Paper” in England. This will allow a comparison of what is referenced, from whom, and how the features borrowed are used to initiate or justify policy. (2) To what extent do the specific interpretations and portrayals of the features of Hong Kong’s education system in the policy making process in England reflect the ‘reality’ in Hong Kong? To answer this question, the paper examines the congruence between the portrayals of the education features across two societies, and the reality within Hong Kong. The focus will be the aspects of Hong Kong education that have been referenced by England’s policy makers. For example, extensive claims have recently been made in policy documents in England to the effect that Hong Kong’s success is largely attributable to its high levels of school autonomy, and the quality of teachers recruited. In answering the two research questions above, the paper will identify the ways in which education features and systems are reconstructed, used, and manipulated in policy making. The findings will be of significance for researchers studying external policy referencing and the connections between education and globalization, as well as for those in government and civil society involved in making and critiquing policy.
Original languageEnglish
Publication statusPublished - Mar 2015
EventThe 59th Annual Conference of the Comparative and International Education Society: "Ubuntu! Imagining a Humanist Education Globally!" - Washington, D.C., United States
Duration: 08 Mar 201513 Mar 2015


ConferenceThe 59th Annual Conference of the Comparative and International Education Society: "Ubuntu! Imagining a Humanist Education Globally!"
Abbreviated titleCIES 2015
Country/TerritoryUnited States
CityWashington, D.C.
Internet address


Adamson, B. (2015, March). Hong Kong as a source for education policy in England: Rhetoric and reality. Paper presented at the 59th Annual Conference of the Comparative and International Education Society: “Ubuntu! Imagining a Humanist Education Globally”, Washington Hilton, USA.


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