Legal eagles should stay out of sight

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 10 September, 2005, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 10 September, 2005, 12:00am

An interesting new offering greets the start of the new school year - the arrival in our household of a document from school calling itself a 'contract'.

This sets out in quasi-legal terms the obligations expected of my heir and also those expected of his parents. There is, oddly enough, no effusion of legal split-infinitives 'to conscientiously instruct and educate your son ...' applying to the school itself.

I do not recall that my education ever featured contracts. In those days education and law were two different matters and the intervention of legal concepts in educational matters was inappropriate.

One hears rumours of legal battles over educational matters in America. But this has not happened in Hong Kong yet. The contract which I signed did not seem likely to be much help if a real legal fight broke out. There were no signs of a proper lawyerly concern to deflect any question of liability even if the damage was due to 'negligence of the contracting party or its agents'.

The print was uniformly large. So perhaps we can put this down as a laudable attempt to borrow a legal metaphor and use it to remind pupils of their obligations to co-operate in the efforts of their educators, and perhaps also to indicate to parents that their duties do not stop at the payment of exorbitant fees and provision of uniforms and equipment.

All the same, I wish lawyers could keep their ideas out of my workplace. At the university level the legal eagles hover in spirit over your course plan, syllabus, document or whatever. Although this important piece of paper is rarely read by teachers, and never by students, it is often described by administrators as your 'contract with students', with the implication that a student could complain - or sue you - if the thing is not followed in detail.

There is a balance to be struck here. The part of the course which you are teaching has to dovetail with the parts I am teaching, or which someone else is teaching next year. So we cannot just make it up as we go along. On the other hand, teaching is supposed to be a dialogue between teacher and student. Different teachers find different things interesting. Human subjects gain from being topical. Anyway I do not think this has anything to do with the administrative enthusiasm for a 'contract' with students.

Administrators want to control things. They do not have the right to insist that you should teach material acceptable to them. The introduction of a phantom litigious student allows them to insist that bureaucracy triumphs over improvisation. They cannot force you to teach what they want, but they can force you to teach what has been written down.

This is all a symptom of a basic problem with local universities - the exams are conducted by the person who taught the course. This deprives them of all value as a measure of success and leaves universities looking for some form of 'quality work' which will tell them whether they are doing a good job.

Schools do not have this problem. The exams that count are external. The GCSE examiner does not know or care which school a candidate went to so if your students are doing well you must be doing something right.

External exams can be a curse, but also a blessing. I once knew a man who taught accountancy at a local university. Most of his classes were in the evenings but this did not interfere with his status as a regular at the Hong Kong Press Club. He often set off for work in no condition to drive. But he knew the material backwards. His students passed the professional exam in droves and they worshipped him. This arrangement was probably a breach of contract, but it worked.