‘Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.’

This statement usually applies to states ruled by corrupt dictators, but as the recent scandal of TWGHs Leo Tung-hai Lee Primary School unfolds, it seems to be fitting when it comes to local schools in Hong Kong.

Ms Lam Lai-tong, a 48-year-old teacher librarian who jumped off the sixth floor of her school last Wednesday, is reported to have complained of being bullied for years by management. The death has caused consternation among the public, and one may wonder why the number of teacher-related suicides and cases of dubious school management are on the rise.

TWGHs Leo Tung-hai Lee Primary School.
TWGHs Leo Tung-hai Lee Primary School. Photo: TWGH.

One answer probably lies in the highly controversial school-based management (SBM) policy introduced in 2004.

In Hong Kong, about 80% of primary schools belong to the category of aided schools. Financed by the government under the Code of Aid, they are operated by school sponsoring bodies such as charities, churches and various private organisations.

Hailed as a move to democratise schools and devolve powers to key stakeholders, the SBM policy requires each aided school to establish an Incorporated Management Committee (IMC), which is a legal person made up of the school principal, teachers, parents, managers from the sponsoring body, alumni and independent community members.

An IMC is a body responsible for guiding the day-to-day operations of the school by formulating policies, managing the school’s financial resources, appointing personnel, etc. A school-sponsoring body, in the words of the Education Bureau (EDB), is merely ‘the landlord of the school premises’ with limited powers such as giving general directions to the IMC, overseeing its performance, or setting the school’s mission and vision, etc.

Kevin Yeung
Education chief Kevin Yeung. File Photo: GovHK.

There are no clear rules in the Code of Aid or the Education Ordinance to empower the sponsoring body to remove abusive school management, or to dismiss a management committee, because the EDB, not the sponsoring body, has the final say.

The new arrangement is often understood as a cunning way for the government to remove power from the school sponsoring body so that its own control of schools can be tightened. An IMC of a school is now registered to the Permanent Secretary for Education and is accountable to the EDB for its performance.

Power no longer flows from the school sponsoring body, whose representatives can at most occupy 60% of the seats in the school committee. In this traumatic case, even though Vinci Wong, the current CEO of Tung Wah and the school’s former supervisor, had the moral courage to promise a fair, open and transparent investigation, there is little that he or the charity can do if allegations against school management are established.

Wong’s background as a former actor who is unfamiliar with the education sector may even put him on the back foot: since he is not present in the school every day, his knowledge about what happened in the school often relies on other IMC members – who include the headmistress. This, in turn, empowers the school head.

The Education Bureau.
The Education Bureau. File

The problem of power imbalance in school governance is the reason why the Catholic Church vehemently resisted the SBM policy and launched a six-year legal battle against the Education Bureau.

The arrangement, argued Cardinal Joseph Zen Ze-kiun, was a power tactic of divide et impera (‘divide and rule’) by the state to weaken school autonomy and shrug off legal liabilities. The Church once proposed following the Education Commission’s suggestion in 1997 that a school executive committee be established under the school management committee as an alternative to the IMC.

Unfortunately, this proposal was not accepted. Zen was derided as an old-school leader throwing a spanner in the reform works. Today, it seems he may have been right: the sponsoring body no longer matters but a school can become a breeding ground for power abuse.

A closer look at how the headmistress, in this case, cruised to the top will reveal more disturbing facts about the current situation of education. To some people’s surprise, in 2008 the headmistress was nominated for the Certificate of Merit in the Chief Executive’s Award for Teaching Excellence (CEATE).

A nominee presented with a Certificate of Merit should ‘have demonstrated a standard ‘very close to excellence’ in the following four domains: (i) professional competence, (ii) student development, (iii) professionalism and commitment to the community, and (iv) school development.

These four domains closely parallel the performance indicators adopted by the EDB for quality assurance purposes. The ‘exemplars’ of awardees showcased on the CEATE’s website are all admirable and they provide inspirational resources for teachers to improve their teaching.

However, if these performance indicators are transformed into rigid quantifiable targets imposed on all staff irrespective of individual qualities, these tools can be easily manipulated as weapons to purge dissenting colleagues in the school.

Chief Executive’s Award for Teaching Excellence (CEATE).
Chief Executive’s Award for Teaching Excellence (CEATE).

The large-scale education reform in the past 20 years can be summarised as, in clinical terms, presenting a pathological desire for excellence: an excellent school library, excellent achievements in reading, quality assurance for excellent education, keeping up with the global trend of school management, etc.

No one can resist ‘excellence’; otherwise, they will be condemned as public enemy No.1. As Anthony Leung, the former finance secretary and the architect of the reform put it, three big mountains that stand in the way of change must be removed: the now-defunct Education Department, the teachers’ union, and the school-sponsoring bodies. It is a top-down brutal system founded on scepticism, not trust and care.

What can we say about Miss Lam’s unnecessary death? As Dutch philosopher Gert Biesta put it, education is always ‘the slow way, the difficult way, the frustrating way’ because the outcome of reform cannot be guaranteed or secured.

The ideal picture of school democratisation in the SBM policy turns out to be a concentration of power in a few individuals’ hands. In the high-poverty community of Tin Shui Wai where Ms Lam had worked for more than 20 years, what impresses pupils may not be awards, degrees, trophies, or a school’s ranking position, which often obsess us in the adult world. But children know very well who is loving and caring to them.

Should not a headmistress’s performance be assessed by her colleagues, parents and students?

If you are experiencing negative feelings, please call: The Samaritans 2896 0000 (24-hour, multilingual), Suicide Prevention Centre 2382 0000 or the Social Welfare Department 2343 2255. The Hong Kong Society of Counselling and Psychology provides a WhatsApp hotline in English and Chinese: 6218 1084. See also: HKFP’s comprehensive guide to mental health services in Hong Kong

Henry Kwok is a critical sociologist of education and policy studies. He used to work as a secondary school teacher and a senior lecturer in the School of Education and Languages at the Open University of Hong Kong. Although now residing in Australia where he is completing his PhD at Griffith University in Brisbane, he keeps a close eye on what is happening in Hong Kong. He graduated from the Universities of Hong Kong and Cambridge.