web stats
Selected Research Project
Project Title Alternative Policy Instruments for Enhancing Citizenship Education
Principal Investigator

Dr Gregory Fairbrother

Area of Research Project Public Policy Studies
Project Period
From 4/2007 To 3/2010

The purpose of this study is to determine the suitability and desirability, capacity, and potential obstacles to the implementation of an independent compulsory course on citizenship education at the junior secondary level of Hong Kong's education system.

Accordingly, the objectives of the research are to answer 3 specific questions:

  • With regard to international practice, is there a relationship between desired citizenship outcomes and the use of particular policy instruments to implement citizenship education?
  • What do Hong Kong's education policymakers and relevant interest groups view as the most appropriate and effective form of citizenship education for Hong Kong in terms of aims, content, and delivery?
  • What do Hong Kong's principals and teachers view as the most appropriate and effective form of citizenship education in terms of aims, content, and delivery?
Methods Used

Phase 1: International Comparison of Citizenship Education Approaches and Outcomes

  • Are there significant differences in citizenship outcomes between compulsory and/or independent subject approaches to citizenship education?

Phase 2 & 3: Interviews with Hong Kong Education Leaders, Principals, and Teachers

  • What are the strengths and weaknesses of Hong Kong's citizenship education practice?
  • Can mandating an independent, compulsory subject of citizenship education improve citizenship education practice and outcomes?
  • What are the obstacles to such move?
Summary of Findings

Objective 1: Before controlling other factors, students in societies where civic education is compulsory tend on average to score varying degrees higher in the measures of civic knowledge, knowledge of democracy, and patriotism compared with those in societies where it is not required. Those who participate in an independent subject of civic education also tend on average to score higher on civic knowledge and patriotism but not on knowledge of democracy. However, in controlling a variety of learning, classroom, participation, and political action factors, a compulsory approach to civic education has a positive but relatively low or no association with students’ civic knowledge. It also has a positive but relatively low or no effect on students’ knowledge of democracy. By contrast, a compulsory approach has a positive and relatively strong effect on students’ patriotism.  An independent subject of civic education similarly seems to have a positive but relatively low or no effect on students’ civic knowledge. It also has a positive but relatively low effect on students’ patriotism. Importantly, the independent subject approach has a relatively low but negative effect on students’ knowledge of democracy. 

Objective 2: The answers to several questions are summarized as follows: (1) Can a mandate of a compulsory, independent subject significantly enhance the current strengths of civic education? Many of the strengths identified in interviews exist, regardless of the curricular approach. School autonomy and the permeation and integrated subject approaches were explicitly identified by some interviewees as strengths in themselves. (2) Can a mandated compulsory, independent subject resolve the major weaknesses of the current civic education? From the specific weaknesses identified, a mandate of compulsory citizenship education (accompanied by clear direction and firm guidance) can improve the ineffective practices. However, an independent subject alone cannot do so. (3) Can a mandated compulsory, independent subject better achieve improvement in civic education than do other approaches? Many of the suggestions offered for improvement are peripheral to the curricular approach. Most amounts to stronger organization, direction, balance, support, and resourcing. A mandate of compulsory citizenship education contributes to these, but, again, an independent subject alone cannot necessarily do so. In summary, the findings suggest some benefits for making civic education compulsory, but they do not offer support for the mandate of an independent school subject of civic education.

Objective 3: Interviews with school principals and teachers focused on and identified several benefits as well as drawbacks of the independent subject approach to civic education. The benefits include the fact that civic education is more systematic and that there is a targeted amount of time allocated to it, resulting in students paying closer attention. Moreover, it is systematically assessed, as there is more human and financial resources allocated to it. It also benefits from a specialized curriculum. The drawbacks include an independent subject that focuses heavily on knowledge but overlooks values and morals, leading to a repetition of content in existing subjects suffering from examination pressure, failure to fit well in a tight timetable, lessened flexibility, lack of human resources, and difficulties in designing curriculum and materials. Approaches other than an independent subject are more effective. 


The main aim of this project is to gather evidence related to the question of whether the Hong Kong government should mandate an independent, compulsory subject of civic education for junior secondary schools. On the one hand, qualitative interview data suggest the advisability of mandating that civic education be made compulsory for all schools, but an independent subject may not be necessary. Looking at the potential benefits of a hypothetical reform, certain improvements to civic education might not take place without a government mandate of some form of compulsory citizenship education. However, improvements can actually come from varying curricular approaches and an independent subject is not necessarily required. Furthermore, a potential mandate that all schools be required to offer an independent civic education subject is met with the obstacle of strong sentiment for school autonomy in making decisions on the delivery of citizenship education. Overcoming this and other potential obstacles to a shift of government policy and curriculum approach requires concerted effort, determination, and resources. In sum, given the numerous considerations at the levels of society, government policy, education system, schools, curriculum, pedagogy, teachers, and students' interview data offer insufficient support for the idea of the Hong Kong government mandating an independent secondary school subject of citizenship education. Improvement in citizenship practices and outcomes can be mandated, and some form of citizenship education can be compulsory. However, decisions on how to deliver it within this requirement are left to the schools. 

On the other hand, quantitative data brought into question the advisability of making civic education compulsory in Hong Kong. Based on the international comparison of civic education curricular approaches and outcomes, as well as considering a variety of other learning experiences, the benefit of both compulsory approach and independent subject of civic education seems to depend largely on their contribution to the development of students’ patriotism. At the same time, these curricular approaches have relatively negligible effects compared with other factors on students’ civic knowledge and knowledge of democracy. Importantly, an independent subject approach has the specific drawback of having a negative association with students’ understanding of democracy. Therefore, the sum of the findings from our quantitative analyses provides little support for a move on the part of the Hong Kong government to reform the mode of curriculum delivery for civic education in schools, especially given the established practices and traditions of schools’ autonomy in making curriculum decisions. Instead, the findings suggest a number of other smaller-scale learning experiences and activities recommended to schools to enhance civic learning outcomes without the investment of resources that a major curriculum reform would require.  

In sum, both qualitative and quantitative analyses produce results that advise against mandating an independent subject of civic education for all schools. Furthermore, whereas qualitative analysis results in a tentative recommendation of making civic education compulsory in whatever curricular form, the quantitative analyses strongly suggest that any potential small benefit of this move in terms of student learning outcomes is outweighed by the cost of another major curriculum reform in terms of resources, training, and schools’ potential resistance.
Selected Publications Related to the Study
  • Fairbrother, Gregory P.  2010.  “Alternative Policy Measures for Improving Citizenship Education in Hong Kong.”  Citizenship Teaching and Learning 6(1):77-90.
  • Fairbrother, Gregory P. and Kerry J. Kennedy. 2011. “Civic Education Curriculum Reform in Hong Kong: What Should Be the Direction under Chinese Sovereignty?”  Cambridge Journal of Education 41(4):425-443.
Biography of Principal Investigator

Gregory P. Fairbrother is an Associate Professor in the Department of Social Sciences and a Research Fellow in the Centre for Governance and Citizenship at The Hong Kong Institute of Education. His research interests focus on state legitimacy and citizenship education, citizenship education policy, political socialization, and youth political attitudes in Mainland China and Hong Kong. He teaches courses in citizenship, social identity, and sociology of youth. His doctoral dissertation, which examines the relationship between patriotism and critical thinking among Hong Kong and Mainland Chinese university students, was awarded the University of Hong Kong's Li Ka Shing Prize. He has taught at the secondary and tertiary levels in Hong Kong, Changchun, and Nanjing, China. He served for 5 years as the Student Advisor and Associate Director of the Hong Kong office of the New York-based Institute of International Education.

Funding Source

Public Policy Research