Diocese needs to learn a lesson in democracy

PUBLISHED : Friday, 05 February, 2010, 12:00am
UPDATED : Friday, 05 February, 2010, 12:00am

The notion that parents and teachers have no right to a say in how publicly funded schools are run has long since become heresy. But that has not stopped the Hong Kong diocese of the Catholic Church fighting tooth and nail to uphold it in its 220-odd subsidised primary and secondary schools. Having failed to convince lawmakers to vote against reforms giving stakeholders a voice in the governance of aided schools in 2004, the diocese sought in vain to have them declared unlawful by a judicial review; and this week it failed in an attempt to have this decision overturned, with three Court of Appeal judges unanimous in dismissing the case.

The church has not exhausted its rights of appeal. But even if it decides not to, it will remain in control of its schools, and the reforms include safeguards against any attempt to change a school's mission.

Under the reforms, all publicly funded schools are required to set up a management committee, 40 per cent of whose members must be elected representatives of parents, teachers and alumni, leaving the sponsoring body with majority control. This moderate dose of democracy is aimed at enhancing the accountability and transparency of schools' management in spending public funds.

That it should become an issue arises from a peculiar feature of the public school system dating back to colonial times. The government runs only a small number of schools directly and relies on non-governmental organisations, predominantly religious, to operate most. Opposition to democratic reform reflects concern about churches' freedom to propagate their faiths in the longer term.

School-based management has been the norm at government and English Schools Foundation schools, not to mention modern best practice overseas. Most other religious bodies have accepted the reforms, and they have the backing of parents and teachers. Ironically, the church's fight against democratisation was led by Cardinal Joseph Zen Ze-kiun, a vocal champion of a fully democratic political system. If the diocese genuinely supports democracy, it should start practising more of it in its own schools.