Equal Opportunities Commission

Sex inequality

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 25 August, 1999, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 25 August, 1999, 12:00am

If Hong Kong has always regarded itself as a city where the brightest and best are favoured, it is time to think again. Parents and pupils found out that was not the case in the classroom, when they learned of the Education Department's labyrinthine system for allocating school places last year.

Until then, the department kept its procedures secret. This was a wise move, because pupils who find themselves passed over for a place in a high band in favour of someone with lower marks have every reason to feel aggrieved, and to demand an explanation.

But when freedom of information laws came into force, pupils were told of their banding for the first time, and what they learned prompted the Equal Opportunities Commission to launch an inquiry. That was a year ago, and reports indicate that the commission is about to declare the system discriminatory, and slanted in favour of boys.

The findings will come as no surprise to the parents and students who lost out. What may surprise them is the news that it was devised in a misguided attempt at equality. Or rather, of ensuring that there was a fair division of top places between the sexes.

Because girls tend to perform markedly better in examinations, and would have taken the lion's share of the best schools, the Academic Aptitude Test was brought into play. It is based on logic and mathematics where boys tend to have the edge. To further ensure that top schools would have an equal ratio of boys and girls, they have been assessed separately since 1983.

After the row last year, education chiefs insisted that the method had been devised by academics and educationalists, and aimed to be fair and practicable. That may be so, but it does not work. It even discriminates against boys in some cases. In fact, there is discrimination in every one of the 18 school districts. In 11, girls were discriminated against. In the other seven, boys were affected.

Pupils were not told of their banding this year, but that will not silence the critics, or satisfy bright pupils who have been denied the allocation they deserve. Something is intrinsically wrong in a procedure that penalises the top performers simply because they are the wrong sex.

It should be discontinued without delay, and a clearer, simpler and open system put in its place.