The haves, the have nots and the lucky

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 02 September, 2006, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 02 September, 2006, 12:00am

On the one side of the railway track in Ma On Shan is a brand new school filled in its first term with as many as 900 students from all over Hong Kong. On the other side some relatively new schools are struggling to admit the two dozen or so pupils in a year group needed to stay open.

Even stranger, across the New Territories in Tin Shui Wai is a brand new but empty campus, abandoned before a child set foot in it after a primary school operating morning and afternoon sessions failed to attract enough applicants to justify the second premises it had been allocated by the government.

As education reforms move forward, with some schools in the aided sector racing ahead with change and exciting new choices among the Direct Subsidy Scheme and private independent schools opening up, the gap between the good and the ordinary is bound to widen.

The children who started school this week at the private independent Renaissance College, on the coast side of the track outside Heng On Station, are lucky. Their school has state-of-the-art facilities, strong leadership, highly motivated staff and a trusted, sought-after curriculum in the International Baccalaureate. And most importantly, there's no pressure to drill for exams in the primary years as part of the ruthless survival-of-the-fittest race to ensure favoured secondary places.

Also lucky are the first students in the clutch of new, cutting-edge DSS schools opening this term - such as the Lee Kau Shee School of Creativity, Baptist University's Wong Kam Fai Secondary and Primary School on the edge of Sha Tin and the HKUGA College in Wong Chuk Hang that now forms a through-school with its thriving primary.

The growing number of parents ready to dig deep into their pockets to buy quality education, rather than risk the long odds against winning places in the best aided and government schools, is supporting the expansion of private and DSS schools.

Embracing change isn't easy for either principals or teachers. But rather than merely widening the gap, schools of any kind that have found a winning formula should be seen as having key roles in the system, offering beacons for others and important clues as to what parents want for their children.

These schools have an undoubted contribution to make. But it would be a pity if only children from well-off families benefit.

DSS schools are required to offer financial assistance to the needy. But the government could do more to even the opportunities in the private sector by funding a quota of scholarship places.

The market can be a cruel force but the demand that drives it cannot be dismissed - most parents are savvy enough to know what's best for their children and choose accordingly. Principals who ignore that do so at their peril. Government, meanwhile, should do all it can to support schools in adopting reforms to raise the bar across all schools and narrow the gap.