Failure to Plan Sowed the Seeds of Chaos in Education

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As the Primary One Discretionary Places Admission for the 2014/15 school year began last week, parents used whatever means they could to secure a place for their children at their ideal school. Only one month ago, the Education Bureau announced the new choice of schools list for cross-border children in order to solve the ever-worsening problem of misallocation of primary one places. Indeed, I first raised the idea of a separate school net as early as 25th January this year. The government’s failure to conduct educational planning in the past decade is the root cause of today’s chaos in public education. Unfortunately, it is teachers, students and parents who have borne the consequences. While the choice of schools list represents the government’s first major step to address the issue of cross-border students and school places allocation, the future remains uncertain.

‘He who fails to plan,’ Winston Churchill once said, ‘is planning to fail.’ The government’s education policy in the past decade has, unfortunately, only testified to the truthfulness of Churchill’s words. Education planning is necessary if we want to address new demands arising from demographic and social changes. Effective planning, in turn, is impossible without comprehensive, accurate statistical data. For years, Legislative Councillors have persistently asked for data about cross-border children, yet every time the government’s answer has been very disappointing – it has no such data! As a result, the government has been unable to make accurate forecasts on the number of cross-border students, let alone policy changes.

A rudimentary estimation will demonstrate the magnitude of the problem. As table 1 indicates, 27,574 babies were born of Mainland mothers in 2007. According to Secretary for Education Eddie Ng, 3,200 of them begin primary schooling in Hong Kong this year; among them, 1,700 go to schools in the North District. Using the growth rate of children born of Mainland mothers and the statistics provided by Mr. Ng as the basis for projection, in the next two years the number of cross-border children attending primary one in Hong Kong will be 3,900 and 4,300 respectively. After several more years there will be tens of thousands of Mainland children crossing the border every day to go to primary schools in Hong Kong.

The problem, however, is more complex, as the nature and growth rate of the so-called ‘single not’ and ‘double not’ children are different. ‘Single not’ children are those whose father is permanent resident of Hong Kong but whose mother is not. The birth rate of ‘single-not’ children has remained and will remain relatively stable. ‘Double-not’ children are those whose parents are non-permanent residents of Hong Kong. Their numbers rose rapidly and peaked in 2011; yet as all public and private hospitals have ceased to accept booking for delivery from non-local expectant mothers since this year, they will completely disappear in 2019 in primary one admission. Educational planning can be effective only if it takes into account the differences between ‘single not’ and ‘double not’ children.

Lack of relevant statistical data and short-sightedness have led the government to grope in the dark. Poor planning has already resulted in the closure of many primary schools in the past decade. When the problem of cross-border students started to plague our education system, the Education Bureau reacted by scrambling up school places in the North District without showing any signs of planning. These quasi-improvisational measures have disrupted the equilibrium between supply and demand of school places. As the number of cross-border students grows, primary schools are compelled to run extra classes. Consequently the number of primary one places they can offer in the future has decreased. Local students who cannot secure a school place within the district now have to attend schools in Tai Po.

As always, the government undertakes action when a problem is about to turn into a crisis. The new scheme solves the immediate problem of school places allocation by introducing a separate choice of schools list for cross-border children. The new list covers eight of the school nets in New Territories; schools in the list will reserve at least two places in each primary one class for cross-border students. By separating cross-border and local students in the central allocation process, the new scheme disperses the former to various school districts while guaranteeing the latter a school place in their district.

How to ensure that allocation of cross-border children to schools in the list is in accordance with the principle of vicinity remains a problem. Under the new scheme, it is possible that a Mainland pupil who lives close to the Lo Wu border is allocated to a school in Tuen Mun. To avoid misallocation, I recommend the creation of two to three school nets according to the distance of transportation from each control point.

Nevertheless, the government’s new scheme still falls far short of tackling long-term problems. In the absence of accurate statistical data about cross-border students, we cannot know if the scheme will be adequate to meet rising demand in the next few years. Data collection, therefore, remains the top priority. Meanwhile, as the future remains uncertain, the choice of schools list for cross-border pupils will certainly be subject to frequent changes. The government should maintain close communication with schools so that they can start planning in advance of any major policy adjustments. Equally important is the need to ensure that the impact of class size expansion on children’s learning effectiveness will remain minimal. We urge the government to help schools maintain small class size and overall education quality.

No one will disagree that the role of schools remains central to the making of education policy. Existing teaching establishment and resources are inadequate to address new demands. The government should expand teaching establishment and provide extra funding for schools to develop school-based services for cross-border pupils, including transportation, tutoring sessions, English and Cantonese classes, and counselling service.

The growing number of cross-border pupils also generate greater pressure on border controls and the transportation system. Demand for school bus service will certainly increase, and school bus fares will rise accordingly. Moreover, since cross-border students will henceforth be scattered across eight of the school nets in New Territories, there will be difficulties in the re-arrangement of school bus routes. The Education Bureau should thus start planning for the regulation of school bus service as soon as possible to avoid confusion.

‘In preparing for battle,’ General and later President Dwight Eisenhower said, ‘I have always found that plans are useless, but planning is indispensable.’ The new choice of schools list is the first step towards solution of the problem; it is not a substitute for long-term educational planning. These children, no matter on which side of the border they live, are Hong Kong’s future. They shouldn’t be the ones who bear the consequences of the government’s failure to plan. We as educational workers should remain steadfast in the face of uncertainties and challenges, and should endeavour to cater for children’s diverse learning needs.

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Ip Kin-yuen

Education legislator