In 2013, we wrote to urge the government to carry out a review on the controversial Direct Subsidy Scheme (DSS) but to no avail. In this letter, we would like to discuss the DSS scheme and its impacts on our education system.
DSS was proposed by the Education Commission in June 1988 in its Report No. 3. The Scheme was implemented in secondary schools in September 1991 and extended to primary schools in 2000. By September 2013, there were altogether 74 DSS schools, representing about 9% of all government subsidized schools and providing 10% of public school places.
Comparison with government aided schools
- Financial resources
DSS schools receive a recurrent government subsidy, the amount of which is calculated on the average unit cost of an aided school place and the number of enrolment of a DSS school. Aided school subsidies, however, are governed by the Code of Aid and the amount is calculated on the number of classes a school runs. Compared to aided schools, DSS schools have more financial resources because apart from government subsidies, they may collect school fees which can generate large revenue especially when enrolment is sufficient.
- Admission system
The admission procedures for Form Two and above in DSS and aided schools are similar, but their Form One Admission (FOA) systems are quite different. DSS schools not participating in the Central Allocation (CA) of the Secondary School places Allocation (SSPA) mechanism are not subject to strict regulations over their FOA. But aided schools do not have this choice and together with a very few DSS schools which choose to participate in the CA mechanism must follow the Education Bureau’s (EDB) strict requirements on admission timetable, School Net and percentage of Discretionary Places Admission (DP).
DSS schools have advantage over aided schools in FOA in many aspects. They can enrol students from any districts all year round; they can enrol and announce the results earlier than aided schools; they can offer scholarships and financial assistance to attract top students from different parts of Hong Kong. Aided schools, however, are restricted by the DP to CA ratio and School Net. They cannot announce their admission result earlier than a specified date. They do not enjoy the freedom and privilege as their DSS counterparts. Some students are forced to give up waiting for an aided school place because of the timing difference.
- Curriculum and medium of instruction
DSS schools are required to offer principally a curriculum targeted at local students and prepare them for local examinations. Without contravening these requirements, they are allowed to have greater flexibility in curriculum design. Although the EDB does not prohibit aided schools from offering curriculum outside the Curriculum Guides, they cannot develop or offer any extra curriculum due to limited financial resources,.
As to the medium of instruction (MOI), aided schools must follow EDB’s regulations. To adopt English as the MOI, aided schools must meet EDB’s strict requirements. DSS schools, however, can choose the MOI that they deem most appropriate for different subjects. The restrictive conditions for adopting English as the MOI do not apply to them.
- Student support
As DSS students mainly come from the middle-class or above, they have greater financial and family supports as their parents are more educated, have better social network and financial ability. DSS schools can also employ extra teachers and provide other learning experience with the school fees they collect. Students of aided schools largely come from ordinary families and they rely primarily on the learning opportunities provided by their schools. But the subsidies aided schools receive from the government are much below the standard required for providing quality education.
DSS schools enrol far fewer students with special education needs and non-Chinese speaking students than aided schools. Though the EDB has increased the amount of subsidies for schools admitting these students on a headcount basis, the amount is still grossly inadequate.
- Teaching staff
DSS schools may employ teaching staff according to their needs and financial ability without having to follow EDB’s approved staff establishment. With greater financial resources, they can hire more staff and provide them with better salary and benefits. They also have more power to terminate teachers who under-perform. Aided schools must strictly follow EDB’s regulations governing the employment, salary and conditions of employment teachers. They are not allowed any flexibility. Even when hiring teachers outside the staff establishment, the seeming flexibility is greatly reduced by the little resources they have. When the supply of teachers is tight, aided schools are obviously disadvantaged.
From the above comparison, we can see the impacts DSS on our education system. If the policy on DSS does not change, the worries over upward mobility through education, cross-generation poverty and equal opportunity to quality education are justified.
Almost no city outside Hong Kong has an education scheme similar to our DSS. The nearest comparison is the global trend to privatize education. Many international studies have pointed out that without the presence of a number of factors such as effective government regulation, privatization of education would bring more negative effects than positive. Here are some examples:
- Parents seem to have more choices, but actually schools have more choices, not the parents.
- While the admission process may not be discriminatory, students of the marginal sector would have little chances of studying in these schools because of their limited access to information, the expensive school fees and expenses for transport and extra-curricular activities.
- The system widens the gap between private and public schools resulting in a divisive, unfair and unequal education system.
- Privatization of education erodes the fundamental principles of publicly-funded education turning it from an element of public interest to a private commercial interest.
Based on the above, we call upon the government to carry out a full-scale review of our education system especially the DSS. When doing so, we hope it will bear in mind that education is for the greater good of the greatest number of students.