Government must close the gap quickly

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

The SCMP Good Schools Guide, published today, lists around 150 independent schools for parents to choose from for their children. But with admission season looming for the 2006 school year, making the choice is not so simple.

While some schools in the public sector face extinction because they cannot attract even 23 applicants, popular schools are bursting at the seams. The leading Direct Subsidy Scheme, English Schools Foundation and international schools were all heavily over-subscribed for this year and are likely to be so next as demand for their style of education grows.

According to Education and Manpower Bureau officials, market forces underpin the private sector, including the DSS. Schools that enjoy greater autonomy than their aided cousins will sink or swim based on their success in attracting students. However, it is a market that must only go so far, tempered by subsidies and fee remission schemes to ensure the less well off are not excluded.

But from the parents' perspective, the market is a mirage. Many are unable to buy what they want because of the huge demand for places in these schools. In reality, there is no free market because the government controls how many DSS, ESF and private independent school places there are. Those running some of the most successful schools, such as the Chinese International School and Canadian International School, failed in their applications to expand with new campuses, while the ESF was given the premises for Bauhinia School as a temporary measure prior to opening two unsubsidised independent schools.

Limited places lead to desperation among parents and a raw deal for children. It drives parents to pay for toddlers to be drilled in interview techniques, to be enrolled as early as possible in English kindergartens or to queue for hours just to secure an application form.

The aim of reforms was to upgrade all schools so that no matter which school a child goes to, they will get a good education. But officials admit the gap is widening. Some schools are racing ahead with reforms while others languish. Outcomes, as measured in exams and English-proficiency, also vary considerably.

Three new DSS schools are opening next year. These include the Hong Kong School of Creativity, and through-schools run by Baptist University and the Association of Evangelical Free Churches. But after that there are no more because of the surplus of places in the aided sector.

If there is such demand the government should free the supply, by allowing the successful, most professional operators to take over school campuses facing closure.

At the same time, it must drive ahead with improving education across the board. Only then will parents be free from the desperation that comes with admission season.