Power to the parents

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 13 October, 2005, 12:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 13 October, 2005, 12:00am

Hindsight is 20-20 vision. If planners could accurately predict demographic trends, they would have built multi-purpose buildings that could be used first as kindergartens, then primary schools, secondary schools and finally homes for the elderly. Policymakers would also have set time limits in the service agreements they signed with various operators, so that terminating their service when they are no longer needed would be uncontroversial.

Had such arrangements been made, those buildings would have been put to different uses as the age structure of the population changed. Primary schools forced to close because of falling enrolments in recent years would not have felt so bitter, and secondary schools facing the same fate would not be fretting about forced mergers.

In practice, planners and policymakers can only make projections based on the best available data. Things that can go wrong do go wrong, either because of their oversights or because of unpredictable social trends.

What has happened in the education scene over the past quarter of a century is instructive. In the early 1980s, parents in new towns complained about insufficient places in primary schools, because planners had failed to predict the large number of young families there.

To address the problem, temporary measures were used to boost enrolment, such as expanding class sizes and using special rooms as classrooms. Expecting the bulge to affect secondary schools later, buildings were built that could be used first as primary and later as secondary schools.

By the 1990s, the school-age population started to shrink because of falling birth rates. But the trend was thrown off by the arrival of tens of thousands of mainland-born children of permanent residents in the late 1990s.

Those arrivals have now eased, and the dominant trends of an ageing population are forcing the need to close schools. Saving schools and the jobs of teachers have become top issues. The political battles are being fought in the name of raising the quality of education by reducing class sizes or the workloads of teachers.

What if the government had planned better? This is the wrong question to ask. Better planning might have alleviated the gravity of the problem, but it would not have stopped it from emerging.

At its root, the row about school closures is caused by an inflexible public-school system, whose stakeholders could remain happy only if it kept expanding.

That scenario was indeed played out for over 50 years, from the late 1940s. During that period, there was always a need for more teachers as the population grew relentlessly. Unfortunately, growth was regarded as so natural that we developed a public-school system that could not be easily downsized.

What if we had a more flexible system in which education subsidies went to parents, so their enrolment decisions would decide which schools survived or perished? We need to look no further than our kindergarten sector to see that such a system would work.

More than 90 per cent of the pre-school children in Hong Kong attend kindergartens, but the schools are all privately run. However, eligible parents can benefit from a government-funded fee-remission scheme.

Over the years, kindergarten operators have moved their schools from one locality to another as the population structure of each district changed. The total number of these schools has declined in recent years, but no political rows have emerged.

The real issue about public-school closures is that the government, politicians and unions dare not contemplate allowing them to die a natural death in a consumer-driven education market, in which parents and students are king.

C.K. Lau is the Post's executive editor, policy