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It is often said that Hong Kong parents have one common worry: they don't want their children to "lose at the starting point".

As teachers, parents and as a society, we push youngsters to take extra lessons, to join the scouts, learn the piano or take swimming lessons.

If Hong Kong's students are to compete, the starting point is not at the university gate, it is early in life

We care mainly about schools with a reputable name and do not work to cultivate proper habits or good character. No wonder some observers have suggested Hong Kong has fallen behind.

But you won't truly understand what it means to fall behind until you observe what a quality education looks like.

The following is what a teacher and his primary school class experienced when they visited a Japanese primary school - and not a "famous" school, at that.

Entering the cafeteria, the teacher sees a group of students, dressed like nurses, holding buckets full of clean trays, milk bottles, chopsticks and spoons. All are primary school age.

The routine is that one class is selected each day to help in the kitchen, setting tables and carrying utensils.

When the dining tables are set, the students sit on one side and wait for their visitors to be seated. No one holds up their chopsticks.

The visitors sit facing their hosts so they can talk and build friendships. No one shouts, no one screams and no one runs around the cafeteria.

Everyone has the same meal. They eat a simple lunch of rice, vegetables, a few pieces of meat, and soup and each have a bottle of milk with a lid tied on with string, and the students help open their friend's bottle. The paper lid and plastic string are placed into two containers for recycling. Being taught to look after the environment begins early.

A nearby group starts playing rock-paper-scissors. The winners share the milk that has not been consumed.

The teacher looks around and sees that most of the students have finished their food, although his class has not.

When the Japanese pupils take their trays back to a collection point, the teacher notices the milk bottles are lying flat on the tray. One child says that way, the empty bottle won't fall off.

The leftovers and kitchen waste are collected, and the chopsticks and plates are left in their assigned place. As children get up to leave, a few grab small towels and clean up. The others carry the buckets of empty bottles and trays back to the kitchen.

Everyone moves smoothly and orderly, without much noise, highlighting their good manners. The pupils are not told what to do; presumably they are used to the routine.

It is a demonstration of what "all for one and one for all" means. It is group life, mutual help, good habits and manners, all in one.

If Hong Kong's students are to compete, the starting point is not at the university gate, it is early in life.

In the long run, it is not about if children can spell correctly or perform arithmetic quickly. It is about their habits and character.

If Hong Kong can't do as well as the Japanese students in this column, then we have already lost the race - at the starting point. 

Ronald Teng is the founder of MEA, a promoter of liberal arts education


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