Mind Games

Sooner or later, preferably the former, someone needs to undertake the bureaucratic equivalent of psychoanalysis of the Education Bureau. We can leave aside the recent bizarre behaviour of the Minister, Eddie Ng, in reporting to the Security Bureau that he was being followed (what, one wonders, did he think were the policy aspects that called for intervention at the bureau level?). There is also a deeper problem, as illustrated by the saga of the Territory-wide System Assessment (TSA), and this is only the latest example.

For as long as I have been in Hong Kong, most of those in government dealing with education have had an intense dislike of international schools. This animosity reached a crescendo when mention was made of the English Schools Foundation (ESF), which the old Education Department (now absorbed into the bureau) loathed with a passion. The annual subvention to the ESF was a particular bete noire for them, and they plotted to get rid of it for over half a century.

Now there was some justification for holding a grudge when the ESF was first established. The classes were smaller, there were more and better facilities than in local schools, and the full cost was covered by the government which meant that the subsidy per pupil was very much higher. This anomaly was later corrected and the system changed to parity of subsidy per child, with the higher costs covered by fees. Despite the introduction of ESF fees, many local parents – including civil servants, some of whom were themselves working in the education sector – opted to send their children to schools in the ESF/international stream rather than make them endure the rigours of local ones. (The international schools had always charged fees as the government does not provide subsidies for their recurrent costs.)

As a former chief secretary told a lunch of International Business Committee members "The education department sees the popularity of international schools as an indictment of their own work with local schools" going on to add sotto voce "which of course it is". I was sitting next to him and silently applauded his frankness.

The education officials kept up their assault on the ESF subvention, arguing that it was unfair to international schools because they received no subsidy. The obvious remedy to that would of course have been to introduce a similar subsidy to the international schools as well, which could have been justified on the grounds that the majority of children attending were from local families. But that might have wiped out the local school sector altogether and no one was ready to go that far.

The anti subvention campaign was maintained even after all three candidates in the 2012 chief executive election pledged in writing to maintain it. Finally agreement was reached to scrap the subsidy and it is in the process of being phased out.

Now to the TSA. The idea behind it is a commendable one: test children anonymously on how well they are doing in certain key subjects periodically to measure how well the schools are doing their job so that improvements can be made to systems and curriculae. But then it dawned on the education bureau personnel that indirectly the tests were also measuring their performance in steering the local schools to teach effectively. As we know from press reports, some officials began to whisper to headmasters that it might be nice if the TSA results for their schools were better so that they could maintain their tier 1 rating. The headmasters had by now worked this out for themselves and so the regime of incredible amounts of homework for eight and nine year-olds came to be introduced.

Then came the outcry from parents: their children were being drilled all day in school to do well in exams that meant nothing to them personally and were not learning very much in the process. Then came the message from education bureau officials that this excessive drilling was wrong, that children were not being assessed individually etc. In a good many cases, this latest message was coming from the same individuals who had earlier whispered the opposite. I am not a doctor, but that looks as clear a case of schizophrenia as I have ever seen.

Presiding over this shambles is our hapless minister. I have only one thing to advise him though I am not sure how much comfort he will derive from it: it’s not paranoia if they really are out to get you.