Red tape pushes tutors underground

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 08 November, 2003, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 08 November, 2003, 12:00am

Prosecutions rise over illegal schools as educators warn that students are at risk and call for a change in the law

Bureaucracy and the economic downturn are pushing more people to operate private tutorial schools illegally, educators fear.

Prosecutions against illegal operators rose to 32 in the last school year, up from 30 in 2001 and 15 the year before, Education and Manpower Bureau (EMB) figures show.

Current legislation only requires registration of a school tutoring more than eight pupils at a time or more than 20 in a day. Registered schools must comply with government regulations on teacher qualifications, fire safety rules and other government regulations.

But it is thought that an increasing number of operators are teaching many more than the allowed number of pupils, and even when they are not there are flaws in the law because no distinction is made between tutorial schools and regular schools for registration purposes.

'The government ought to take a look at this loophole because almost every school student in Hong Kong goes to private tutoring schools. It can be dangerous to their studies and well-being if many of the operators remain outside of the law,' said Hong Kong Education Policy Concern Organisation chairman Mervyn Cheung Man-ping. He called the policy of lumping tutorial and regular schools together obsolete and called for separate provisions.

He also said operators were defying the spirit, if not the letter, of the law by keeping just under the threshold. 'Setting the number of pupils at 20 is quite meaningless because people can still make money by operating smaller classes. There are lots of operators who simply keep the number of students at 19 to avoid registration.'

He suspected that the gloomy economy and shortage of teaching jobs had driven people into operating illegal private tutorial schools for quick money.

Peter Forsythe, president of the Federation of Private Educators, said he thought the complexity of school registration procedures were driving those seeking to enter the market into operating illegally.

'It takes six months or more to register because you have to go through all the bureaucracies - Planning Department, Lands Department, Fire Services Department, Buildings Department, Housing Department, Education and Manpower Bureau,' he said.

'It's both time-consuming and expensive because you still have to pay the rental and all the costs in the months of waiting. Many people just don't bother to go through all these and turn illegal.'

Legislator Cheung Man-kwong urged the government to simplify registration procedures to encourage tutorials to register. 'I hope the government will soon introduce a flexible registration system instead of just combating illegal private tutorial schools,' he said.

'Private tutorial schools have become an extension of school life for most students. It's just as important to regulate them as mainstream schools.'

The EMB set up a specialised team in 2001 to act on complaints and conduct raids at suspected illegal schools. It undertook 1,143 inspections that year, but the number of inspections dropped to 558 last year when the complaints fell from 586 to 386. But a source from the team said the statistics might not accurately reflect the extent of the problem. 'The people who complained were mainly rivals in the tutorial school business or residents bothered by noise from the schools. There can be a lot more illegal schools out there than what we know of since we act only on complaints,' she said.

Mervyn Cheung agreed: 'The drop in the number of complaints does not necessarily mean there are fewer illegal schools. Most parents now want cheaper tutoring because of the economic situation, and they have become more tolerant of sub-standard teaching.'

The EMB website lists unregistered schools at