A teacher who committed suicide earlier this month has caused much soul-searching within the community. The tragedy in Tin Shui Wai is especially controversial because of claims the teacher was bullied by her school’s principal, who subsequently took leave reportedly to seek psychiatric help. The school, its sponsoring body, the Tung Wah Group of Hospitals (TWGH), and even the Education Bureau have drawn criticism. But without knowing all the details, it’s difficult to assign blame at this early stage. TWGH has launched an official probe. But this case does point to a widespread problem that has long plagued the local education system: many aided and direct subsidy schools operate like serfdoms with little accountability to parents, teachers and community representatives such as those from their district councils. Whether you are a parent, teacher or student, if you are not in the good graces of senior teachers and the school principal, you are out of luck. There is little recourse to seek redress. That, reportedly, was the situation the teacher found herself in and which reportedly drove her to kill herself. Today, so long as a school satisfies certain key financial and enrolment numbers, education authorities will leave it alone. This is especially so if it is run by a powerful sponsoring body such as TWGH or the Catholic Church. During the early years of education reform after 1997, the government did make a concerted effort to tackle this problem by introducing so-called school-based management reform. Essentially, this meant letting in more parents, teachers and community leaders as members of a school’s board, which would play a greater supervisory role than before. Reluctantly, most sponsoring bodies agreed to the reform. But it was fought tooth and nail by the Catholic diocese led by Cardinal Joseph Zen Ze-kiun, now retired. He unsuccessfully sued the government and lost every appeal, including the last one at the Court of Final Appeal in 2011. But if he lost the legal battle, he won the political war. By the time Donald Tsang Yam-kuen became chief executive and Michael Suen Ming-yeung took over as education chief, the government had lost interest in reform. Zen led the way and other sponsoring bodies followed. Most school boards remain beholden to senior school managements, with the token outside board members. But unless there are greater internal checks, school principals will remain petty dictators in their little realms.