Teacher devotes life to improving education in Macao
When Lei Pui Lam went to school, his parents had to scrimp and save to pay fees for him and his three brothers and sisters. When he graduated from secondary school, Macao had no universities, and with the Cultural Revolution shuttering schools in the mainland and no money to go overseas, Lei went straight into teaching. Today, children in Macao enjoy 15 years of free education, from nursery to secondary school. “If a young person now wants to enter university, he or she can,” says Lei. “They have several universities in the city, and the option to choose one in the mainland, Hong Kong, Taiwan or overseas.”
Lei, 69, has devoted his life to improving education in Macao. He currently serves as deputy chairman of the Macao Chinese Educators Association (MCEA); he was director for 40 years. In January 2017, he received the Golden Lotus medal for his outstanding service to the city.
Founded in 1920, the MCEA is one of the oldest non‑governmental organisations in Macao. They were inspired by the example of Cai Yuanpei, then chancellor of Beijing University and leader of the Chinese Educators Association, to set up their own branch in the city. Teachers all over the country did the same, establishing local branches with the aim of popularising and modernising education.
“The Portuguese colonial government only provided schools for Portuguese and Macanese students. The only option for Chinese students were schools set up and managed by private organisations such as churches, civic associations, trade unions, and individuals,” explains Lei. “Education should be the responsibility of the government. But it required heavy spending, so the government did not do it. Ordinary Chinese people were forced to bear the double burden of paying taxes and paying school fees.”
The lack of government involvement has meant that, for nearly a century, more than 90 per cent of Macao’s children have been educated in private schools, one of the highest rates in the world.
Catholic and Protestant missionary schools account for about half of the total, with the remaining schools established by trade unions, civic associations, and other entities. While they worked to keep their fees low and provide scholarships, covering the basic costs of running a school meant fees were still too high for some, leaving the children most in need with no access to education at all.
Struggle for education
Lei was born in Macao in 1948, the eldest of four children. His father, who had not graduated from primary school, sold clothes in a department store; his mother was a full‑time housewife who had completed two years at secondary school. Lei’s father supported the whole family on his salary.
Determined that their children would have the education they did not, Lei’s parents budgeted meticulously to pay the school fees, and Lei worked in his spare time to earn extra money. Their combined efforts paid off; all four children graduated from secondary school.
Lei attended a primary school established by the trade unions. For secondary school, he went to Haojiang, a pro‑Beijing institution. His graduation in 1966 coincided with the rise of the Cultural Revolution, which closed all of the universities in China. Macao had no universities at the time, and Lei’s family did not have the money needed to seek higher education elsewhere.
“Luckily, I had been chairman of the student association at Haojiang and the principal had enough confidence in me to hire me as a teacher. It was a big challenge,” says Lei. It was also the start of a lifetime dedicated to education.
Lei continued his own education by studying in the evening after work. He earned a Master’s degree at adult classes run by teachers from the Huanan Normal University of Guangzhou, and a Master in Law at classes run jointly by the University of Hong Kong and Jinan University of Guangzhou.
After 18 years at Haojiang, he left to take a position as a teacher at a night school. The change in his schedule allowed Lei to work at the MCEA and other associations during the day, and play a greater role in public life.
Decentralisation poses problems
One side effect of the fractured school system in Macao is the absence of standardisation. Each school has added subjects reflecting their political and religious interests, and there is no common exam which all students take.
“No publisher has been willing to publish material for Macao schools alone,” says Lei. “The market is too small. So all of the schools use the Hong Kong curriculum as their base, with their own additions.”
Mission schools continue to play an important role in the education of young people in Macao. They account for about half the private schools. While the principals today are rarely priests, nuns or ministers, the way schools are run remains the same; the principal must be a believer. A