Public education, local in all but name

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 03 September, 2009, 12:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 03 September, 2009, 12:00am

It is one of Hong Kong's well-known secrets: many of our international schools are more local than international. Walk into one of their campuses and you're likely to see a group of local students conversing in native Cantonese.

As this paper reported last week, those such as Kingston International School (59 per cent), Think International School (81 per cent) and Yew Chung International School (56 per cent) have a majority of local students. However, other schools, including some English Schools Foundation institutions (technically government-subsidised rather than international), also have a very large minority of local Chinese students.

Why? Simply, more parents who can afford it are opting out of a public school system that they see as being increasingly out of date, intellectually irrelevant and spiritually stifling. International schools have become the private schools of choice for many. The government has opted for cosmetic change rather than genuine reform, vitally necessary though it is for our competitiveness and economic future. How bad is the system? Ask this: how many post-handover government ministers and their deputies have sent their children of the appropriate ages through the local public system? My guess is very few - perhaps none. And why should they? As parents, senior officials want the best for their own children too; as mandarins, they merely devise the public system for the rest of us to put our children through - and they know the quality of their creation. Meanwhile, as taxpayers, you and I pay for their children's schooling, private or otherwise, through to university.

In reality, local schools - government-run or subsidised - are not really free. Just like many economic sectors in Hong Kong, extreme inefficiency and questionable quality within the school system have created 'economic rent' - money and opportunity costs that parents end up paying through other means, despite so-called free schooling. As a recent court case reveals, a top private tutor can earn more than HK$10 million a year, and that's just one tutor.

The private tutoring industry must be worth billions of dollars a year, and it is parasitic - extracts a heavy rent - on the public school system. It exists because thousands of students are unable to learn in the classroom - and teachers are unable to teach - what they need to score satisfactorily in school tests and public exams.

Disgracefully, many schoolteachers are, in effect, subcontracting part of their job to private tutors. The cost of all this tutoring adds up, so paying for an expensive international school education may not be so expensive after all - if a family can save on all that outside-class tutoring.

The switch to international schooling, of course, imposes not only a heavy financial cost, but also a cultural burden, on local middle-class families. Many parents, I believe, want their children to retain their Chinese heritage and language, and few international schools can really cater to that need. But the state of local education leaves many of them with few other choices.

If more disgruntled parents are moving their children out of local schools, the government is only too glad to accommodate them under the guise of developing an 'international education hub'. One can safely predict new places at expanded international schools will be filled as much by local as foreign pupils. Getting rid of unhappy constituents at practically no political cost, the government appears to give more choices to parents when it is really asking them to fend for themselves.

The policy also incurs little material cost for the government. Low birth rates mean many local schools have been closed in the past decade and their vacant premises re- allocated to better-established schools, including international ones. Greenfield sites with little potential for property development have been earmarked for them, too. Thus the government ensures Hong Kong offers quality education - if you can afford it.

Alex Lo is a senior writer at the Post