Killing schools, killing the TSA

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The TSA controversy is only a small part of a bigger structural problem brought about by shift in Hong Kong’s demography. Simon Lee explains the trend and calls for more foresight.

Photo: Hong Kong’s education system taking in a wave of mainland children born in the city is like a pig in a python. (Credit:


The term “cutting schools”, or more vividly “killing schools (殺校)” in Chinese, was once the terrifying nemesis of workers in Hong Kong’s education sector. It will be again soon.

In the early years after the Handover, the Census and Statistics Department forecasted that an annual average of 16,000 school children would come from the mainland. The actual figure, however, was no more than one-third the estimate, the gap between expectation and reality reaching 30,000 students. The local number of births was also dropping to an average of less than 50,000 between 2001 and 2004. Forecasts proved wildly inaccurate, causing consternation among education department apparatchiks.

Hong Kong’s education system, meanwhile, is a planned economy. The number of schools, teachers, students per class and curriculum are all decided through a top-down approach. Officials under such a model tend to raise resources by cutting a large thong from another man’s leather when a problem emerges. That was why the HKSAR Government failed to react to the demographic changes and kept spending lavishly on building schools and recruiting teachers until 2001 when they suddenly realised there was not much leather left in the hide of the sacred education cow. Cuts were needed.


Cutting sacred cows

In 2002, the then Education and Manpower Bureau released the “Consolidation of High Cost & Under-utilized Primary Schools”, marking the beginning of the “kill-school” controversy and the uneasy relations between the administration and the education sector. Simply put, in an era of declining student enrollment, parents and students would flock to the best schools, while the worst schools would lose enrollment. Once a school dropped below an average of 23 students per class, they would lose their funding and their students would, in Hong Kong’s test-and-place system, be allocated to a slightly better school.

Fewer students suggests a need for fewer teachers and administrators. The ‘kill school’ policy meant the worst schools, presumably run by the worst teachers and administrators, would close. The better of those administrators and teachers could presumably find jobs elsewhere. The worst probably should leave the profession, for the good of the students and themselves. Unions resisted, having no interest in shrinking their membership, even by losing their worst practitioners.

At the time, public anger focussed on then Secretary for Education and Manpower Arthur Li (李國章) and his permanent secretary Fanny Law Fan (羅范椒芬) and their education reforms. It is arguable that disputes over resource allocation also contributed to deteriorating relations. Similarly acrimonious relationships developed between social workers and Hospital Authority doctors as the government cut costs post-SARS.


A second chance…and second second chance

The reforms of 2000 were meant to relieve pressure on students. The establishment of the through-train system meant students would write fewer exams as they had a high school place guaranteed for them.

But this meant that those in failing schools had no hope of getting into a better high school as fewer spots were available through open competition. The stigma of coming from a school facing extinction was a heavy drag.

The TSA was meant to give schools a second chance. Teachers and their unions argued that some declining schools weren’t that bad and had declining enrollment for reasons unrelated to performance. The TSAs were meant to give schools a chance to show they could perform on exams and deserved to stay open.

Those representing the interests of schools and teachers advocated small-class teaching to avoid massive job cuts while the Government preferred introducing more meritocratic testing elements into the system, like the TSA. Some of these measures demanded more administrative loading and testing of teachers. Teachers cried being overworked as a result.

The policy was first implemented in 2004. However, that year is also the year mainland mommies starting flocking to Hong Kong, driving up birthrates, putting a bulge in the demographic python that will take 20 years to work its way through the system.


Digesting a demographic boom

Between 2005 and 2012, Hong Kong’s number of births recovered remarkably, outshining the 80’s and 90’s levels. The figure dropped again to around 60,000 when the Government imposed a zero quota on the so-called ‘birth tourism’ from the mainland starting from 2013. The brief baby boom alleviated the shortage of students as these children started to fill up primary school places two years ago. But the problem will resurface in 2019 as the bulge moves on, filling high schools and leaving primary schools wanting – again. Calls for small-class teaching in the education sector will regain momentum on top of opposition to the TSA exams.


It’s the demography, stupid

The shift in demographic structure is at the root of the ongoing controversies. It is no coincidence that the Government is stepping up propaganda to boost the birth rate even though the effect remains doubtful. It is also arguable that the various education reforms in secondary and tertiary education since 2004 were formulated with demographic changes considered as a factor. There is a thirteen year gap for government officials to prepare before the coming wave of students to hit secondary schools, a chance for them to prepare and mitigate political backfire.

Parents and those concerned about Hong Kong’s education issues should understand that there is a deep-rooted systemic problem that sacking Eddie Ng (吳克檢) is unlikely to resolve. Bureaucratic testing systems generate conflict among parents, bureaucrats and teachers – like the controversy over the TSA.

No one other than parents and students themselves are more concerned about teaching quality and effectiveness. Other parties, like teachers’ unions, have higher priorities, like membership and job protection, that outrank education delivery as a priority.

To be frank, adopting a school voucher system is the only solution to let students decide with their feet where resources should go and to kick politics and bureaucracy out of schools. If no such fundamental change is made to rationalise relations between the parties, our education system will only become more and more paralysed in the times to come.