Wah Yan case signals end to DSS conversions

Editorial | Mary Ma 19 Jul 2018

Wah Yan College Hong Kong's hopes of becoming the SAR's 74th direct subsidy scheme school has officially been shot down by the Education Bureau.

But the outcome wasn't really surprising. More often than not, high-performing schools in recent years have failed in their quest to join the scheme, whose schools are heavily oversubscribed by parents desperate to see their children study at the semi-private academies.

For example, St Paul's Secondary School in Happy Valley made a vigorous application in 2012, aiming to join the DSS two years later. It was rejected.

Band one grant school St Stephen's Girls College and its primary school unit had also planned to become a DSS school in 2015. Their efforts were also in vain.

The stone wall in Wah Yan College's way was only one of the recent examples that showed how difficult it has become for non-government subsidized schools to transform into a DSS one. It lends credibility to a theory that the government is narrowing - if not completely shutting - the door for schools to switch to DSS following a rapid expansion in the scheme.

So could that be the case for Wah Yan in Wan Chai?

Based on Education Commission Report No 3 published in 1988, the DSS was set up in 1991. Then high performing non-selective community schools were encouraged by officials to apply to join so that, while continuing to receive government funding, they were allowed to charge tuition fees to tap additional resources for teaching quality improvement.

More significantly, these schools became selective, able to pick and choose their students instead of enrolling children assigned to them through central placements.

That's an innovative policy and has proven successful. Since then the number has grown exponentially to 73 - 52 secondary, 12 primary, and nine secondary-cum-primary.

However, success also comes with a price: there are fears children from low-income families would be denied quality education, therefore threatening social mobility for generations. It should be easy to understand the political sensitivity involved following the rapid DSS expansion.

It didn't surprise me that the accounts of the application by Wah Yan supervisor Stephen Chow Sau-yan and government officials were scant in content. Chow's two paragraphs said the government's denial was received on Tuesday and that the school, while being disappointed, would strive to keep providing Jesuit education to students from different backgrounds.

The bureau's reply to media inquiries was even more skimpy: after considering the application according to established principles, it concluded the bid was unsuitable at this stage.

Perhaps government officials should add that their target to provide parents with a greater variety of schools to choose from has already been met.

In hindsight, supporters of the application may blame themselves for not having prepared their case more forcefully. One reason cited was the school's fear that its commitment to using English as the teaching medium could be undermined, amid an increase in under-performing students being allocated to it via the central distribution system.

That may be a genuine concern, and few would dare say so publicly. But Chow was probably the exception.

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