Secretary for Education Michael Suen Ming-yeung has won the first round in a blistering dispute over textbooks. Publishers backed down last night from their stand-off with the government, saying they 'understood and welcomed' his new policy.
However, Suen's victory leaves unresolved in the long run the problem of schools having to pay for teaching tools. The next government may have to deal with it, since publishers will not give out freebies any more in order to keep costs down.
Earlier yesterday Suen explained why he had announced a U-turn this week on easing what was previously a total ban on free teaching materials, after publishers had submitted their price lists for the coming school year. On Monday, he allowed schools to accept basic teaching manuals free of charge.
Suen said his manoeuvre was meant to prevent publishers from transferring the cost of the teaching materials to parents.
'If we had asked publishers two months ago to give out free teaching manuals, before they set the prices, they would very likely have channelled all the costs to parents.'
Critics said Suen had emerged in a bad light from the saga because of his policy inconsistency. Ho Hon-kuen, vice-chairman of the Education Convergence watchdog, said the dispute had pitted schools against parents.
A spokeswoman for the Anglo-Chinese Textbook Publishers Organisation said last night that the Education Bureau had assured them it 'will not force publishers to give out teaching handbooks' free of charge.
Publishers will release their price lists today, after they retracted the information on Monday in response to Suen's about-turn. The bureau will also issue its recommended book list today to help schools select textbooks for their pupils in time for the September school year.
Ben Mak Ka-lung, a representative of the publishers' lobby group, said last night that they would keep their word about separating teaching kits from the sales of pupils' textbooks in the next two years. Mak said publishers were taking more risk, as schools might not want to buy teaching guides.
Most textbooks will continue to see price increases of 4 per cent on average. Prices of books that have been separated from the teaching guides - mostly for major language and mathematics subjects - will rise by less.
Subsidised Primary Schools Council chairman Sin Kim-wai said when new book versions were published, schools would still have to buy them with their own funds.
Chan Chung-hong, principal of S.K.H. Ching Shan Primary School in Wong Tai Sin, said: 'For example, materials for Chinese classes alone cost HK$750 per grade, or HK$4,500 in total. But we have to buy them because the textbooks have recently been revised.'
He said his school, which had only seven classes, had only slightly more than HK$11,000 left over from the curriculum grant this year.
Legislator Cheung Man-kwong said the government should increase subsidies for schools in the long run to buy necessary teaching guides, a practice used overseas.
Suen said yesterday that mechanisms were in place to help schools that ran out of cash.