Putting children first in education

The controversy over ESF school fees is capturing the headlines but in the process is obscuring some much bigger issues.

Intriguingly, the confusion has led one of my favourite - and Hong Kong's best - columnists to ask the right question, get the right answer, but then draw the wrong conclusion.

Maybe if we return to first principles the way forward will be clearer.

Hong Kong's school scene can roughly be divided into two broad categories, local schools (which receive financial assistance from the administration in a variety of ways) and international schools which get help with the land but are essentially on their own for buildings and operational expenditure.

The ESF is stranded in a sort of no man's land in the middle. It gets a subvention, which other international type schools do not, but at the same time the recurrent support is not adjusted in line with cost increases as it would be if the ESF were regarded as a local school. The annual subsidy has been subject to an arbitrary cap imposed many years ago.

The international schools are extremely popular with parents because they provide a world class education for their children, albeit at a high price. ESF schools are also extremely popular for essentially the same reasons. Many local families make considerable financial sacrifices to send their children to international or ESF schools and local children now take up a high percentage of places.

Some local schools have an excellent reputation, while others are regarded as very poor. However the administration treats them all as basically the same. The recent exercise to cut secondary one classes was applied equally across the board whereas common sense would suggest the opportunity of falling enrollment numbers should have been taken to close the really bad schools altogether while maintaining - or even expanding - the better ones.

A recent column in this newspaper argued that because ESF schools and international schools are now to all intents and purposes identical they should be treated the same and the subvention to the ESF should be gradually phased out. An alternative way of leveling the playing field - giving more support to the international schools - was apparently overlooked. Bearing in mind that a high proportion of the students at both international and ESF schools are local children, why shouldn't they be supported?

Part of the problem arises because our public funding machinery is directed towards supporting institutions (schools or foundations) rather than students. But this is putting bureaucrats in control instead of parents.

What we should do is give to every lawfully resident parent in Hong Kong an education voucher for each lawfully resident child. The voucher should be valued at the estimated cost of educating a local child at a local school. But it would be up to the parent to choose which school his child should attend and apply the voucher towards the cost.

If a parent chose a local school - and of course he would choose a good one - then there would be nothing further to pay. But if he chose an international or ESF one (or one of the local schools funded in a similar way) where the fees were higher than the value of the voucher, then the parent would have to make up the difference.

Over time, the community would settle on the balance of local and international/ESF schools that it thought appropriate rather than the balance decreed from upon high by politicians or protected from below by teachers unions. And among local schools, competition would gradually drive out the bad in favour of the good.

The main arguments posited against such a system are that its introduction would be disruptive, it would be administratively difficult to operate and so on. But the real underlying arguments are that it would reduce bureaucratic control and also render bad teachers unemployed.

The main argument in favour - that it would lead to better education for all our children in accordance with their parents' wishes - doesn't seem to carry as much weight.

Perhaps it should.