Thursday, January 12, 2006

A private school in Discovery Bay

I have a bad habit of reading the agenda and papers of LegCo and its committees and panels, probably an occupational hazard from the old days. But it is now leisure reading instead of work, and so the joy is a bit different. The facts contained in the papers are much more accurate than reading the news.

Colleagues who are living in Discovery Bay may be interest to know that PWSC will discuss this Wednesday the construction of a private school in Discovery Bay, which is a project I briefly encountered in 2001 in its early stage. I do not have a clear impression on the geography of Discovery Bay. I just know it is a low density community and is accessed by ferry from Central. The access road in Lantao is a big detour and is not frequently used, and not by public transport.

The project arouses my interest in two areas: one is the source of students and the other is the curriculum. Briefly, the details of the project are as follows:
- It is a non-profit-making private independent school.
- The school will comprise a 30-classroom secondary section and an 18-classroom primary section.
- The cost to the government is $137 million.
- Government will give $137 million to the school sponsor as capital grant for her to design and construct the school.
- The school sponsor will raise another $88 million towards the project.
- The school will offer a curriculum based on the International Baccalaureate (IB) programmes.

With all the discussions going on regarding surplus classes, surplus teachers as well as the intensive reform of education, the first question is why build school and why build there? I have sympathy towards EMB on the dilemma of having a shrinking student population on one hand and insufficient schools on the other. There was a grand promise in the policy address a few years back that we must have full-time education for all primary students. As a result, all AM/PM schools must be converted to full-time primary schools. This target has not been reached and thus more new schools are needed. But in some mature community with an aged population, the number of primary students has decreased. It is a problem of uneven distribution of schools and students, owing to the policy of district-based primary education that primary students should not travel too far from home to go to school.

So why built in Discovery Bay? The explanation is that this private school is not subject to the EMB school place allocation system. It will accept students from all over the territory and operate on a self-financing basis, thus its operation will only have a marginal impact on the supply and demand balance of public sector school places in Islands District, which still has a projected shortfall of school places. The Islands District always puzzles me as a district as the islands are so scattered and inconvenient to access. I think it is merely for expediency that these small clusters of communities are grouped together for district administration purposes. I wonder whether families in other islands will send their children to Discovery Bay to school. The number of children in Discovery Bay may not be sufficient to use such a large school. So, a large transport system (by land or by sea) will have to be set up for the daily commute of more than 1500 students to and from Discovery Bay. Colleagues who are Discovery Bay residents may have a more realistic assessment of the situation.

The second puzzle is the IB curriculum. For that matter, nearly all international schools and most private schools in Hong Kong adopt this internationally recognised curriculum. EMB claims that it will provide more diversity in the school system and give parents more choices in the selection of schools for their children. It will increase the capacity of our school sector in catering to the needs of investors and executives from overseas. Again, I remember there was a grand promise that the present education reform will improve our education system, hopefully to international standard commensurate with the image of Hong Kong as an international city. How come our school curriculum is not developed towards the internationally recognised curriculum? The present arrangement is that we have a local education system, with 9 years free education in public schools, which is greatly criticized by all quarters. At the same time, a small proportion of the population are given the choice of another (probably better) school curriculum offered in self-financed private schools.

I know many colleagues who are sending their children to the private schools because the teaching method is better, the learning environment is better and the children are happier. This is an excellent and sensible choice. But shouldn't all schools be like that? Some of our education administrators are suffering from schizophrenia in developing the best local school curriculum while sending their children to another.

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