FOR TEACHERS and students, the year 2001 has been marked by controversies and disputes. Before it is over, let us review the sources of irritation. Not yet an end to inequality In June, after a month's inquiry, the High Court ruled that the 23-year-old Secondary Schools Placement Allocation System discriminated against girls. The system had been criticised for being discriminatory and reducing girls' chances of finding places in schools of their first choice. The system processed boys' and girls' applications separately, using different criteria to balance the numbers of boys and girls in co-educational schools. The High Court ruled that the allocation system indeed favoured boys, and was therefore sexist. The case was put forward by the Equal Opportunities Commission. When the Education Department refused to scrap the system, the commission took the dispute to court. But despite the court's verdict that girls in 772 primary and 433 secondary schools had been affected, the Education Department chose to keep the old system for the year's school placement. As a result, many students (mostly girls), filed appeals against their secondary school placement after the allocations were announced on July 17, according to the Education Department. Consultations are currently underway for a new allocation system. Banding system To the dismay of many parents, the decades-old five-band system for ranking secondary schools was changed to a three-band system this year on the recommendation of the Education Commission. While some educators and parents feared this would lead to a wider mix of student abilities in schools and hinder children from developing their full potential, the Education Department insisted that the arrangement guaranteed higher equality without sacrificing overall student standards. Chinese or English In September, a programme was introduced to all Chinese-medium secondary schools to allow them to teach Forms Two and Three certain subjects in English. The subjects include computing, integrated science and social studies. Almost half of the 300 secondary schools using Chinese as the medium of instruction are now allowed to teach their senior form students in English. The Education Department insisted that the move did not contradict the mother-tongue teaching policy and again reassured the public of its commitment to the policy. Critics, however, said that the Government was backing off. Autonomy and authority Some local schools opted for the Direct Subsidy Scheme (DSS) which, it is believed, will provide a larger degree of autonomy. Exempted from the central system, DSS schools can recruit their own students and do not have to follow the new banding system. However, critics complain about the excessive fees DSS schools charge. In October, Hong Kong's oldest secondary school - St Paul's College - decided to convert from aided status to DSS from 2002 onwards. The move was seen as an attempt to free itself from the education reforms facing aided and public schools, and a backlash by 'elite' schools against government attempts to open them up by changing the banding system and abolishing competitive entry exams. Copyrights The amended Copyrights Ordinance made the unauthorised copying of all printed materials, including newspapers illegal. Even though it exempted copying materials for educational purposes to a 'reasonable extent', many teachers and students complained that there were too many ambiguities in the legislation. Continued opposition led to a partial suspension of the legislation until at least July next year. Public consultation on a review of the ordinance's provisions is still underway. Teenage suicide A growing number of teenage suicides drew public attention. This year, 19 students took their own lives. The youngest was an 11-year-old girl who hanged herself at home shortly before she was due to return to school for the start of the new school term. Right to learn As the year drew to an end, Bishop Joseph Zen Ze-kiun called for schools to take in mainland children whose right of abode was still in doubt. This open appeal to the 300 local Catholic schools defies the Government's ban on education for mainland children awaiting court rulings on their right-of-abode status. There are currently 187 mainland children who have been granted temporary stay in Hong Kong, awaiting the final decision on their abode applications, but have been barred from attending schools. Five primary schools have responded to the bishop's appeal and started enrolling the children. Thirty of them are already attending classes. The mainland's Security Bureau has agreed to review the ban.