Government agrees to let them compete for places in any school and will provide language support after years of lobbying The government has bowed to pressure to allow ethnic minority children to apply to any schools, including those which formerly excluded all but local students. The Education and Manpower Bureau has also said it would consider providing support for some mainstream schools to offer the British General Certificate of Secondary Education (GCSE) or SAT II Chinese to minority students who faced difficulties in studying the local Chinese curriculum. The government's decision, which will be effective when the coming Secondary One central allocation exercise begins early next year, follows years of lobbying by social worker Fermi Wong Wai-fun. 'I am very happy that the EMB has agreed to take concrete measures to help the South Asian children. The changes mean that these students will have a chance to compete fairly with the locals for places in high-band schools and pursue promising careers,' said Ms Wong, founder of Unison Hong Kong-For Ethnic Equality. At present, just 10 of the 114 English-medium secondary schools within the government's central allocation system accept applications from ethnic minorities. But half are the prestigious band one schools - such as La Salle College and St Paul's Convent School - which have highly restricted quotas for non-Chinese-speaking students. The rest admit almost 100 per cent South Asian children and most do not require them to study Chinese. 'Since the children cannot master basic Chinese, they will not be eligible to apply for jobs as civil servants, police or even office messengers. They will never be able to get out of the poverty trap as long as their career opportunities are limited to construction site workers, security guards and other low-skill jobs,' said Ms Wong. In May, Education Post published a report revealing the frustrations of some ethnic minority children who had little chance of gaining admission to high-band schools despite their outstanding academic performance. A dialogue followed between Ms Wong and deputy secretary for education and manpower Cherry Tse Ling Kit-ching. In a letter to Ms Wong last week, Ms Tse said that the EMB would put all non-Chinese-speaking students together with their local counterparts in the same central allocation process for Secondary One places this year. Ms Tse also agreed that ethnic minority children who joined the local school system after Primary Three and found the Chinese curriculum too difficult should be given the opportunity to prepare for easier but internationally recognised alternatives such as GCSE and SAT II Chinese. Ms Tse said this week that the EMB would consider providing support for mainstream schools with a sizeable population of minority students to offer the qualifications based on the results of this year's Secondary One places central allocation. 'Our support for schools that take in a large group of minority children and schools that admit only one or two will be very different. We have to look at the distribution of their students first before coming up with a more detailed plan,' she said. But Ms Tse said the EMB did not have extra financial resources for ethnic minorities. Instead, existing resources would have to be reallocated, she said. The EMB will co-organise a series of workshops with Ms Wong to familiarise ethnic minority parents with the new central allocation process and encourage them to choose schools that offer Chinese. Ms Tse said: 'I believe we will need a few years to find the best solution to the minorities' problem and hiccups will arise from time to time. But we are willing to work for their genuine integration into society.' Ms Wong said there was still the need to design a primary Chinese curriculum for the ethnic minorities to facilitate their transition to the GCSE or SAT syllabuses but she had not been able to get funding for the project. She hoped to liaise with universities and other government departments to ensure the qualifications would be recognised in all sectors. Gautam Daswani, Form Seven student at La Salle, welcomed the changes. The Indian student, who transferred from the English Schools Foundation, is one of only 25 South Asian students in the school, even though it has been listed to accept them. He wanted to learn Chinese at La Salle but had to take French instead. He regretted not being able to communicate with his classmates in Chinese and was studying it outside school. 'French is an asset. But Cantonese and Mandarin are extremely important for us as citizens of Hong Kong,' he said.