Designing a practical and flexible curriculum for Hong Kong's many thousands of schoolchildren is a task that requires dedication, experience and great research skills. The teams of curriculum development officers working for the Education and Manpower Bureau possess all of that, but also realise the importance of giving students the kind of learning that will stand them in good stead in a fast changing society.
"Whatever we do, the aim is to benefit students," says Sarah Ngai, chief curriculum development officer (kindergarten and primary). "We work to arouse, strengthen and sustain their interest in learning." This mission, of course, must also take account of trends in education to ensure that young people in Hong Kong reach international standards and learn what society needs.
As a lecturer in home economics, Ms Ngai originally joined the Hong Kong Institute of Education (formerly Colleges of Education) 18 years ago. She subsequently worked as an inspector of schools, studied for a Master's degree in education, and was transferred to the Curriculum Development Institute as a chief curriculum development officer.
"There were many job rotations and transfers," she says. "The government is good at taking note of career aspirations and preferences." In her current role, she looks after the whole spectrum of curriculum development for children in kindergarten, primary and special education.
Her colleague Chi-hung Lee, chief curriculum development officer (personal, social and humanities education) took a somewhat different route. He taught history at secondary school level for 17 years before joining the Education Department in 1996 and later applying for his present job. "When I was teaching, I was always involved in designing course materials and assessment items to make the subject interesting for students," he says. "Back then, I did it to help a few colleagues, now I'm doing it for everyone."
In order to plan, design and implement curriculum changes, Mr Lee and Ms Ngai are constantly on the move. "We need to understand actual needs in real-life situations, so we can't just work behind closed doors," says Ms Ngai. "We visit schools to advise on curriculum practices and keep in touch with frontline personnel, because that's the only way to achieve results."
For example, in developing the current "seed project", which involves an innovative approach to learning, Mr Lee has to collaborate closely with teachers and get their feedback. "If planning or modifying a curriculum, we also get the reaction of students during school visits," he explains. "The work is an ongoing process."
Ms Ngai adds that it is essential to test details of the framework in an actual environment. In addition, different stakeholders including parents, universities, employers, school heads and teachers are asked for their views.
For a professional educator like Ms Ngai, the move into curriculum development seemed a natural career progression. "Since I am a civil servant, a possible alternative would have been to switch to become a school principal," she says.
Mr Lee is on a fixed-term contract and could opt to go back to full-time teaching. "The department designed this position as part of an interflow scheme, so that contract staff with up-to-date teaching experience and practical opinions can be brought in from different schools," he says. "We are still in touch with 'the outside world', so have the chance to go back to teaching if we want to."
A curriculum officer's contract is usually for 30 months. There is direct entry for external applicants and promotion does not follow the civil servant system.
Since the introduction of new government efficiency measures, both Ms Ngai and Mr Lee have had to deal with a heavier workload and adapt to changing expectations. It has been necessary to acquire new skills in areas such as IT, leading teams and coaching colleagues.
Anyone hoping to become a curriculum officer requires good communication skills in English and Chinese, as well as excellent interpersonal skills. "We must be able to 'sell' our ideas to stakeholders and be persuasive in building consensus," says Ms Ngai. "Professional sensitivity is needed to understand other people's needs and viewpoints and, for this, theoretical thinking, common sense and a liking for detail certainly help."