All living things have an instinct to learn. Human beings could do it better by passing along what was learned and accumulating it, thus created the human civilizations. We call this system of learning education. It has always been a major initiative in human life.
Education is very valuable, or precious, or expensive. In the past, people had to spend great effort to get it. They went over mountains and seas to seek out a mentor who was able to teach them something. Not too long ago, just a few hundred years back, education was a precious asset only available to nobles, clergies and rich families.
In the west, popularization of education started around the Renaissance when merchants were on the rise and learning was more widespread. Organized education appeared and there were universities for those who could afford it.
It was the emergence of republics and nationalism that raised education as a national requirement. Politicians and economists theorized that literacy should be an indicator for national prosperity and power. Thus public education became a national priority.
The major impact of such movement was the change on education from the learning instinct to becoming a right. Many people see education for granted. Rather than to seek out their right, they expect the right to be given to them, not realizing that public education is only partial, doctored and prejudicial.
Public education is wholesale education. It is organized by the state to ensure that citizens could learn something. Policy makers would say that public education sets a minimum standard of literacy for the citizens. However, for the majority part of the population, they could only receive education barely up to this standard, and some of them failed. Thus it could be said that public education instead sets the maximum standard of general literacy. Furthermore, under this standard, the subjects, skills and ideologies taught are controlled by a censored curriculum. That is why some called public education brainwashing, no matter how and which way brains are washed.
In Hong Kong, the government promulgates a policy of 12 years, now 15, free education. But when put into law, it does not mandate that everyone should receive their education free. Instead, it mandates children must receive education. The legal provision is mandatory education instead of free education. In the last few years, there were parents being prosecuted for teaching their children at home instead of sending them to school.
When considering free education and mandatory education, there are some delicate differences. When education is mandatory, it is not “free”. Students are required to study the prescribed curriculum which is set carefully by the Education Bureau. They are not free to study anything they are interested in. Public education in all countries can be considered as government-issue. Such GI education, as in any other form of government policy, set a rigid standard for the good of the country.
Another effect of mandatory education is that it is not necessary to be free of charge. Free education was introduced as a policy because several decades ago, not every family could afford the cost of education for their children. The widespread of free education provision was a welcomed trend. Almost all private schools turned aided schools, including the more prestigious schools and missionary schools. The few private schools remaining were considered inferior schools accepting dropout students. However, starting from the 80s/90s, people were looking for better schools. The international schools and English School Foundation schools, originally catered for foreign students in Hong Kong, were starting to accept local students at a fee. At that time, the living standard of Hong Kong people had improved. Coupled with the 1997 effect, many parents were willing to spend more to send their children to these schools, thus creating a great demand.
In 1991, the Hong Kong Government introduced the Direct Subsidy Scheme DSS. The slogan was the improvement of quality of private schools. Schools joining the scheme would receive government subsidy based on a fixed amount per student enrolled. The schools would then be free from certain government control and they could charge school fees, devise their own curriculum, teaching method and employment terms for teachers. This was a move to lure good aided schools to change back to private schools, with a cap on government subsidy. The underlying enabling environment was that more families would not require free education. They would be willing to spend much for their children to join good private schools. Good schools saw the opportunity. They could get rid of government control, be confident in getting fee-paying students, with school facilities upgraded and reputation improved.
There are some contradictions in this education policy. On resource management, it is a change of policy on the implementation of mandatory education without completely free education. The population is classified into those who could afford to go to private schools and those remaining in public schools. But DSS schools could get the best of both worlds. They are receiving government subsidy from public funds while they also charge school fees. It is better for the government subsidy to cease after a few years so that the schools could operate on their strength, with public funds better utilized in providing free education.
The other contradiction is the claim that private schools could have better teaching methods and better curriculum, and the aim of the policy is to allow parents to have more choices. No parent would choose inferior education for their children. If there are better ways to educate, the Education Bureau should change the standard curriculum and teaching method in public schools to match the best.
The original intention of DSS schools is that they would take government subsidy, but would charge a small extra school fees so that their resources would be more flexibly managed. It was said the level of school fee would be closely controlled. However, with the gate open, DSS schools spent an extraordinary amount of resources in improving the schools, thus creating an account balance which could justify an increase of school fee; and the Education Bureau duly approved most fee increase requests. This vicious cycle ends up as DSS schools becoming very expensive schools, despite receiving government subsidy, which normal families could not afford.
I think a better way is to completely separate DSS schools from the public education system. They should become private schools and survive in the market solely on their own strength. Enrollment of students should be separated from the central allocation system. This will give a clear signal to parents that private schools are not social benefit. In the meantime, the availability and standard of public education should be improved. This will give parents good grounds to make considered choice, instead of riding the fence as it is today.