Making school dollars work

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 17 August, 2006, 12:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 17 August, 2006, 12:00am

The chief executive on Tuesday sat down with members of various education groups who were wondering - among other things - if the government could increase spending on schools. He told them that would be difficult, and that the sector would get more funding only as the city's economic pie got bigger.

Education accounts for 22.5 per cent - the biggest share - of recurrent public spending this year. So it is probably unrealistic to expect the government to squeeze yet more funds from other policy areas and spend them on schools.

But that leaves unanswered the question of how spending on education should be split among its different sub-sectors, as expenditures rise in line with economic growth. Indeed, after a decade of education reforms, it is time the community took stock of the situation and considered the way forward.

The changes that have swept through our education system since 1997 have been nothing short of astonishing. They include mandating the use of Chinese as the medium of instruction in most secondary schools, abolishing the academic aptitude test for primary-school graduates and grouping them under three ability bands, instead of five, in the allocation of secondary-school places.

The secondary curriculum will ditch its five-two structure in favour of a three-three split - three years of junior secondary, three years of senior secondary school - and university undergraduate degree courses will become four, instead of three, years long. Community colleges offering associate degree programmes have been launched, increasing post-secondary education opportunities for young people.

All those changes were aimed at improving quality and providing school leavers with a variety of pathways. Some were conceived when Hong Kong was still under British rule, and others under former chief executive Tung Chee-hwa.

But the community today is arguably no more satisfied with our education system. Some issues, such as an alleged decline in English standards among young people, still bother them, while new ones - such as the quality of associate degrees and their connection to degree programmes - have emerged. The reforms have bred resentment among some stakeholders, particularly teachers and principals. Their negative feelings have been compounded by fears about job losses, as some schools have had to close because of a shrinking school-age population.

Last year, appreciating that yet more changes would be too unnerving, the government decided to launch no more new reforms, but just stick with those already under way. Yet, there have been rumours that the chief executive is considering extending public funding to the pre-primary sector. There is certainly a case for doing that, as almost all three- to five-year-olds are now enrolled in kindergartens - while the schools' quality varies and many teachers are underpaid.

Whether the rumours are true remains to be seen. Pre-primary education plays an important role in shaping children's early development. As our society's wealth gap widens, it would be a significant poverty-relief measure to ensure that every child gets the best education possible.

At the other end of the education system, a strong case could also be made for subsidising associate degree programmes: they cater to the needs of school leavers whose grades are not good enough for university studies. Or should resources go towards small-class teaching in primary and secondary schools, as teachers - fretting about job losses - demand?

Perhaps it's time the government consulted the public as to what the community's priorities should be in dividing the education pie.

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