Subsidised schools are struggling to find quality teachers to replace a generation of principals being forced to retire when they reach the age of 60. The dearth of suitable candidates has been so extreme that one major sponsoring body has been forced to freeze plans to open new schools. Hong Kong Sheng Kung Hui (SKH) is urging the Education Department to consider the problems it faces in the head-hunting of new school principals. It argues that the retirement policy implemented last year to curb employment of teachers and principals aged 60 or above should not be imposed on all schools irrespective of their needs. Timothy Ha Wing-ho, SKH education secretary and chairman of the Hong Kong Association of Sponsoring Bodies of Schools, said that those who were qualified to become principals usually preferred working in a government school or in other professions with better conditions. 'We are talking about people who perhaps 20 years ago were willing to give up more promising opportunities and took up teaching as not just a job but a vocation. These people are increasingly difficult to find,' he said. Mr Ha believed the situation would only worsen as the growth period in Hong Kong before the Asian economic crisis meant many of the best graduates had rejected teaching to enter the finance and business sectors. The resulting dip in quality entrants would in the near future thin the ranks of potential principals. Judy Chua Tiong Hong-sieng, principal of St Stephen's Primary School in Mid-Levels, an SKH school, has had to remain in her post for another year after the school failed to find a suitable replacement. Mr Ha said SKH's decision to freeze expansion plans had been down to the lack of suitable head teachers. 'Principals are the leaders of schools. If we cannot find the right people, we would rather not open new schools,' he said. The choice for subsidised schools is further limited as many sponsoring bodies seek candidates who share their religious beliefs. The problem has been exacerbated in the past decade by nuns and monks who left their school posts for social services positions, Mr Ha said. 'It is not about giving privilege to members of our own religious group. But it will be a burden to both the school and the principals if they are asked to fulfil a mission that they do not believe in,' said Stephen Hui Chun-yim, chairman of Hong Kong Subsidised Secondary Schools Council. Mr Hui said his school, CCC Ming Kei College - established by the Hong Kong Council of the Church of Christ in China - would soon face this issue as its vice-principals were non-Christians. But Director of Education Matthew Cheung Kin-chung argued that the problem was not as grave as was thought. 'If a school has a well formulated succession plan and its school management committee takes grooming of aspiring principals seriously, there should not be any difficulties in future appointments,' he said. Schools that cannot find suitable candidates can apply to the Education Department for their principals to stay on for one more year. Mr Cheung said the extension period should be sufficient for the headhunting process. 'If a principal stays on for a long time after reaching 60, it will not be healthy for the school, and staff morale will also decline as potential heads will see little chance of promotion,' he said. The number of new principals in government schools this year has hit a record high at 108. Mr Cheung said there was no shortage of candidates in government schools because the department had been identifying and grooming talent in the past year. This included running training programmes for existing and aspiring principals, and sending them to education conferences. Collaboration with academic institutions in Beijing, Shanghai, Singapore and Melbourne allowed for short-term programmes tailored to the needs of Hong Kong teachers. Mr Cheung urged subsidised schools to adopt a similar approach by focusing on grooming. But subsidised schools said this was not feasible because of differences between their appointment and promotion systems and those of government schools. 'Unlike government schools, we cannot identify successors for principals at an early stage because we don't have an internal pool of manpower. Principal recruitments have to be drawn from the outside,' Mr Hui said. Limited resources and manpower also prevented schools from arranging frequent overseas visits and staff development programmes, he added. Although many of the department's teacher-training programmes welcomed staff from subsidised schools, Mr Hui said their emphasis was more on 'how to do well in your existing post', not prepare for future promotions.