Moral hazard in exploiting tragedy

The outcry over a teacher's suicide at a Tin Shui Wai primary school is formenting so much anger that the Professional Teachers' Union has demanded a coroner's inquest and a review of the SAR's school-based management policy.

Mary Ma

Friday, March 15, 2019

The outcry over a teacher's suicide at a Tin Shui Wai primary school is formenting so much anger that the Professional Teachers' Union has demanded a coroner's inquest and a review of the SAR's school-based management policy.

The call for a coroner's court hearing is way out of line.

Even union president Fung Wai-wah admitted the teacher's family hadn't given their agreement as the union made the appeal.

Does Fung seriously believe the coroner's jury would return a verdict other than suicide at the end of any inquest? Lam Lai-tong's death was a tragedy, and the jurors would, at most, tack on some recommendations implying problems in the school's management.

But isn't this exactly what the investigation promised by the Tung Wah Group of Hospitals is seeking to find out? It's best to let the probe run its own course and, if there are issues found in the management at the group's Leo Tung-hai Lee Primary School, a review would have to follow.

It is simply immoral on the PTU's part to exploit someone's tragedy in pursuance of its own agenda.

So far, principal Law Yuen-yee - who is on extended sick leave - has been incommunicado. While she has every right to remain silent, it doesn't shed light on a dark Lam episode that cries out for insight.

What is Law's concern? Is she unsure whether her side of the story would be viewed fairly by Tung Wah, which has already called a meeting with teachers to listen to their complaints?

If that was the concern, it would be even more necessary for Law to surface and speak out. It's improper to prematurely assume that anyone is guilty.

Since the 48-year-old Lam jumped to her death at the school, the aftermath has seen rapid developments that have been veering off course. It's a matter of concern the tragedy is being steered in a different direction. Secretary for Education Kevin Yeung Yun-hung's handling of the outcries is far from satisfactory, being too passive in answering queries.

Meanwhile, Hong Kong's school-based management policy is basically sound. Established schools, especially those with strong alumni and educated parents, have been able to flourish according to needs. Their boards are full of independent minds capable of exercising effective supervision.

The policy was implemented as part of the education reform after the handover. It was meant to give subsidized primary and secondary schools greater flexibility to run the schools according to their own needs. The assumption was that school-sponsoring bodies, principals, teachers and parents know what suits schools best. While remote control from the education authority means greater control, it also means less flexibility.

As demonstrated in the years since the policy was introduced, a number of incidents has shown it may be an issue for schools more lacking in critical minds on the boards. Those schools habitually rely on the principals for leadership.

The question is how to rectify the disconnect - not to return to old mode of remote control by officials.

How closely or distant should the educational authorities be in monitoring the management of a school?

It's a question of judgment.