Direct Subsidy Scheme (DSS) Schools reduce social mobility and may not even serve the long-term interests of those who could afford it
A deservedly popular Hong Kong film of the recent past was “Echoes of the Rainbow”, a realistic portrait of the life of a poor family in the late 1960s. Much has changed between then and now and much for the better, especially in the almost total disappearance of the corruption that then so burdened the lives of poorer people. One aspect though that people in 2011 may find hard to credit is that the young hero of “Echoes of the Rainbow” attended Diocesan Boys School, then and now one of the most prestigious in the city. Why is it now so unlikely that a good student from “the wrong side of the tracks” would be able to take advantage of such a fine educational opportunity? A prime reason is that ever since the early 1990s many of the best schools in Hong Kong have been converting themselves into more or less private ones under the Government’s Direct Subsidy Scheme.
The Public Accounts Committee has produced a scathing report into financial irregularities in the administration of the DSS Schools but it is arguable that the entire scheme and the philosophy underlying it is flawed. At least 10% of school fee income should be set aside to provide scholarship places for the less well off but it seems that even this relatively meagre requirement is routinely ignored. Rumours are also rife that DSS Schools give minimal publicity to scholarship schemes because they fear that the parents who can afford to pay full fees will not welcome scholarship children being educated alongside their own offspring. DSS Schools can erect other subtle barriers to deter less well off parents from putting their children forward. Admission procedures, which are not allowed to include written examinations, may favour children with a wide range of extra-curricular activities; skills in music, sports etc., and thus benefit children whose families can afford to provide them with such things. Parents will know, too, that even if their children are admitted to a DSS School there will be expectations as regards things like participation in overseas school trips and may think it wiser to spare their children the humiliation of not being able to afford to join in.
It can thus be argued that the existence of increasing numbers of DSS Schools has the effect of reducing social mobility by reducing the number of able but less financially well off students who can access some of the best school education available in Hong Kong. Even those middle class parents who can afford DSS fees with no trouble should stop and consider whether this situation is really in the best long-term interests of themselves and their children.
First, it is surely unjust that innocent children whose only crime is to come from a family that has less money than others are deprived of educational opportunities that they might have had if they had been born some twenty or thirty years earlier. Perhaps the wealthy will feel that this is not their concern as it has no effect on them but they should bear in mind that their own lives may not always be so lucky and if they somehow fall on hard times they will be glad to be part of a society that generally makes real efforts to help the less fortunate. Second, better rates of social mobility will ensure that society makes better use of the most talented which in turn will help innovation to flourish and our economy to grow, which will benefit everyone of every social class. Third, if the children of the wealthy have more competition from poor but able children they will themselves be spurred on to do better.
It is normally easier to start up something new than to stop or reverse what already exists. It is hard to see how the DSS Schools could be abolished now and reverted to the more mundane, even if more socially just, way in which they used to operate. DSS Schools could, nonetheless, be greatly improved if they were immediately forced to admit 50% of their pupils on the basis of scholarships for the able but less well off. At the same time, there should be an objective study undertaken of the nature of the admission procedures to determine whether, in fact, academic examinations offer a route that is fairest to all. Thereby, the aspirations of the “Echoes of the Rainbow” generations may be maintained rather than betrayed.
Rachel Cartland (簡何巧雲)
Former Principal Assistant Secretary for Education and Manpower Bureau of HKSAR Government (香港特別行政區政府教育統籌局前首席助理秘書長)
1 March 2011