Wiser use of charity dollars can give Hong Kong’s poorer students a real shot at a proper education

Philip Yeung says Hong Kong’s education sector doesn’t lack funds, but it does need a vision to channel the money effectively to address the gaping problem in our public school system – unequal opportunities

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 24 November, 2015, 12:16pm
UPDATED : Tuesday, 24 November, 2015, 12:16pm

Bill Gates is right when he says that, “Giving money away is easy. Giving money away effectively is not”. In Hong Kong, educational philanthropy is blooming; every tycoon worth the epithet has an education foundation to his name. Peter Woo Kwong-ching of Wharf (Holdings), for instance, is pumping up to HK$300 million via his Project WeCan into 50 at-risk schools over six years, backed by 1,250 volunteers and the financial muscle of other civic-minded corporations. And yet, for all the philanthropy and project diversity, the collective effort has yet to achieve a singularity of purpose: saving the public school system from itself.

READ MORE: Education gap threatens poor Hong Kong children

The plurality of agencies catering to needy students, from the government’s own richly endowed Quality Education Fund to the Jockey Club’s education trust, ensures there is enough money to go around. But without a clear vision, many agencies remain in the reactive and remedial mode.

The proposed solutions cannot break the curse of public schools: educational inequality. Gutted by the defections of elite colleges into fee-charging Direct Subsidy Scheme schools, the public system has only crumbs for the poor.

Educational do-gooders need a strategic vision for academic intervention, united in purpose with others to fund and run a parallel experiment that can serve as a foil to failed local schools

These days, schools on the bottom rung are left with only one option: ceaselessly drilling their students for the do-or-die public examination that is hopelessly beyond their reach. For the typical poor neighbourhood school, as many as 95 per cent of their students have no chance of getting into a publicly funded university. Yet the exam drills continue, hijacking the teaching and depriving students of personally relevant knowledge.

To be fair, the money doled out delivers visible improvements, from new classroom furniture to yet another “English camp”. These projects look statistically impressive, with tallies of students helped and schools subsidised. But lasting impact is absent: they don’t change learning and they most certainly don’t change lives.

The old philosophy of giving must give way to new, transformative thinking. In propping up a status quo, these philanthropic interventions merely nibble at the edges. What this sick system needs is a heart transplant, not more Band-Aids.

In their scramble for solutions, foundation managers turn to universities for project partners, on a simple-minded faith that academics are reliable purveyors of innovative quality. The truth is that, unless they have a passion for reform, some are part of the problem rather than the solution. Salvation is likely to come from educators who feel disgusted enough with the system to want to disrupt it.

For a sea change, educational do-gooders need a strategic vision for academic intervention, united in purpose with others to fund and run a parallel experiment that can serve as a foil to failed local schools.

READ MORE: Hong Kong’s super-rich are jumping onto the philanthropy bandwagon, but are they backing worthy causes?

For inspiration, look no further than Teach for America, a model built on the undergraduate thesis of a Princeton student, not on academic orthodoxy. It has spread to over 35 countries around the world. It trains high-achieving college graduates and sends them into low-income neighbourhood schools alongside traditionally trained teachers for two years. Its ruthless teacher selection process brings prestige to the teaching profession, and boasts over 42,000 alumni over the past 25 years.

It is time to kiss our warehousing system goodbye. It starves students of educational excitement, with precious years lost on meaningless rote exercises, leaving them neither prepared for further education nor life itself.

At-risk students need more than cosmetic changes. Bureaucrats, for their part, should cut the schools some slack, and permit experimental classrooms to coexist within the public system. If they can’t solve the problem, they should at least let others repair the system. As for Woo, I am sure he would relish the role of radical education reformer by proxy.

Philip Yeung is a consultant to the vice-rector for academic affairs at the University of Macau and a former team leader in Project JumpStart, a programme serving academically backward schools in Hong Kong. [email protected]