Is this but the tip of the iceberg?

Editorial | Mary Ma 11 Aug 2017

The phantom-students scandal at Hing Tak School in Tuen Mun is probably the worst incident of its kind involving a local primary school.

According to disclosures to date, the scandal involves nearly 30 "students" who had never attended the school. There were also allegations of mismanagement against headmistress Chan Cheung-ping, who tearfully denied the accusations at a press conference.

It will be known very soon whether Chan will continue to lead the school. The chances would be slim.

That the Education Bureau has appointed eight more members to the school board is testimony to the fact it has lost confidence in the school management, or it wouldn't have named so many of its own people to gain control of the school.

The bureau had been investigating Hing Tak for some time, and the profile of the crackdown has been extraordinary - in contrast to normal practice in the past that would have been more low- key.

With the overhaul being carried out in the summer, the timing is meant to cause the least disruption to students.

But as September nears, education minister Kevin Yeung Yun-hung can be expected to quicken his actions.

The authority reported the case to police for investigation, after discovering a number of "students" had never attended classes at the school. Those phantom kids were born in Hong Kong, but live in the mainland. They joined the local placement scheme, and were alloted places at Hing Tak. But their parents decided they would be better off studying closer to home in the mainland.

However, it's reported the parents were persuaded by the school to keep their children on the register.

While it's for police to uncover whether there were motives other than the hypothesis that the scam - by brushing up the school profile - would enable the school to apply for government subsidies for the non-existent students and, at the same time, show to the bureau it had sufficient students, so that it would be spared the risk of being axed due to a drop in numbers.

I eagerly await the outcome of the police investigation.

The case, as it's reported, appeared to be systematic, and may involve other staff and the use of probably fraudulent documents. I wonder if Yeung and his deputies would still be living in the dark if it hadn't been for complaints by some teachers. Is it time to review the bureau's supervision mechanism too?

The Hing Tak incident is unique in some aspects, such as its remote location and - founded by three local villagers - its board had been filled by former and current rural heads of those villages. The management culture is said to be rich in rural characteristics too.

But the motive for creating phantom students is never unique to Hing Tak. Except for those famous ones, nearly all schools are under pressure to keep up with student numbers, at a time of shrinking pupil populations across Hong Kong.

If Hing Tak could hoodwink education inspectors with false figures, why couldn't others - as they strive to avoid the chop tied to dwindling student numbers?

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