A story, in varying versions, has been going the rounds for many years: at a Primary One admission interview, five-year-old children are asked how they came to the school. No points are awarded to those who came by bus, a few for those who rode in taxis and more for those whose parents drove them. But only children who arrived in chauffeur-driven cars get the full 10 marks.
The moral of the story is that some schools seem to use apparently harmless but snobbish means to select what they consider to be the best students. Because written exams are banned, they try to make full use of interviews to ensure the 'quality' of their recruits.
If nothing else, children from well-off families are considered more likely to have supportive parents whose social connections and financial positions might be exploited to benefit the schools.
It is difficult to know how many schools use interviews in such a snobbish manner. But these interviews certainly have become examinations in disguise. So much so that even cram classes teaching children how to excel in them have emerged in recent years. The tutors of such classes say children must learn to answer with confidence such questions as their own ages and parents' occupations, and be coached on how to respond to various kinds of probes and prompting.
At long last, the Education Commission proposes to end this system by abolishing the interviews. It also proposes to reform the Primary One Admission System so that schools can only give preferential treatment to children whose siblings are already enrolled or whose parents are former students.
These moves should be welcomed by those who share Confucius' teaching that, as far as education is concerned, there should be no distinction between classes and races.
Yet while trying to make the allocation system fairer, the Education Department must also narrow differences which underlie parents' desire to place their children in certain schools, but not in others. These perceptions of quality may be misplaced.
To help make informed choices, indicators of school performance should be published. Those which do poor teaching jobs should be required to shape up, and those which consistently under-perform should be entrusted to better hands.