Secondary-only schools that offer vocation-oriented teaching to students who do not necessarily want to go to university are an unexpected casualty of the new academic system that extends free education from nine to 12 years. Educators say the system - six years of primary and six years of secondary schooling instead of six primary and three junior secondary as before - means pupils spend more time at school, better preparing them for future work and further studies. But it has left secondary-only direct-subsidy schools struggling for students and looking for ways to stay afloat. Three of the four such schools in the direct-subsidy system have suffered drastic drops in enrolment. The problem arises from a new class structure that no longer produces an excess of Form Three graduates for the schools to draw from, and from the impending scrapping of the Form Five public examination - the Hong Kong Certificate of Education Examination (HKCEE) - that once yielded a supply of repeaters seeking a second shot at the test. The additional three years' free education at government schools has also lessened the appeal of direct-subsidy schools, which charge fees. 'When we went last year to schools to promote [our school] to Form Three students, the response was tragic,' Lee Kwok-wai, principal of Caritas Charles Vath College in Tung Chung, said. The college, set up in 2003, could muster only two classes of 30 Form Four students for the present academic year, compared to six classes of 40 the year before. Under the previous class structure five or six Form Three classes were whittled down to four Form Four classes. But under the new structure the same number of students will progress from Form One all the way to Form Six. Also the end of the HKCEE this year means no more Form Five graduates in future, further depriving such schools of another source of students. 'Form Three graduates who show more aptitude for vocational training will just be trapped for three more years at their original schools if they don't come to us,' Lee said. 'Not all students are capable of entering university or want to contest the limited publicly funded undergraduate places. Many just want to be exposed to job training earlier.' Leung Wai-yin, vice-principal of CCC Kung Lee College in Causeway Bay - where Form Four admission numbers have dropped 56 per cent, from 724 in 2008-09 to 322 - criticised the government for failing to promote vocational education. 'It was the Education Bureau which encouraged us to set up such vocation-oriented schools. Now they promote the new academic structure at our expense,' she said. The heads of the three affected schools say the initial years following the launch of the new structure will be 'bleak', with plummeting admission numbers threatening their financial stability and survival. To ride out the slump, they have launched a series of measures, such as advertising and reaching out to youth and parent associations. In addition to the four core subjects - two languages, maths and liberal studies - required by the local curriculum, Caritas Charles Vath College offers vocational classes in seven fields, including tour guide training and property and clubhouse management. With only 60 Form Four students paying an annual tuition fee of HK$8,400 each this year, Lee said they ran the risk of a deficit. While a government or aided secondary school must admit a minimum of 61 students to stave off closure, a direct subsidy scheme school is not subject to such requirements. A DSS school gets government funding on a per-student basis, with one student entitled to about HK$30,000 per year, and it has the privilege of being able to charge school fees, which is not enjoyed by an aided school. Although the special arrangement means DSS schools can function with smaller class sizes, Lee says they still need to fill certain student quotas to break even. He said the school had to admit a minimum of 200 students for each form to get an 'optimum' balance sheet. 'There have to be a total of 600 students for three forms in three years' time.' Leung, of CCC Kung Lee College, said the school had received about half the number of Form Four students that it had in the past. 'All the government or aided schools are going out of their way to retain students,' Leung said. 'Even if some students are obviously not academically inclined, the schools will still let them progress to Form Four on a trial basis instead of letting them go to us for fear that insufficient student numbers will threaten their own survival. 'Some students might switch to us midway into Form Four after discovering that they could not get used to the new senior curriculum.' One of eight students who joined the school midway through Form Four, Jelly Law Tsz-ying, said the new curriculum at her original school had killed her enthusiasm for learning. 'I didn't have any idea what such main subjects as history and liberal studies were about. I was so depressed,' she said. 'I love the studying style here, which has a lot of hands-on training. I don't want to go to university. I want to work at a hotel counter after I graduate.' Leung said the schools might have to cut teaching staff and offer fewer subject choices if the admission numbers remained dismal. The Form Four intake for the current academic year at Yeo Chei Man Senior Secondary School in Tseung Kwan O, which offers practical training including design and tourism and hotel management alongside the local curriculum, was only 180, compared with more than 200 the year before. Acting principal Hui Hon-wing said the Form Five repeaters the school admitted in the past were alone enough to constitute a class. 'But there won't be any more Form Five graduates,' he said. The school had not foreseen the challenge in securing admissions associated with the launch of the new academic structure, he said. 'We didn't really consider this... Then 12-year free education suddenly cropped up. You don't have to pay school fees if you go directly to senior secondary after Form Three in a government or aided school. But we charge school fees, which is a big disincentive to switch.'