(Next Magazine, 2015/8/13, A002, Second Opinion, Andrew Work)
The Canadian International School’s (CDNIS) very public row may seem irrelevant to the average person on the street. Though the Education Bureau may have other priorities than the education of the children of affluent mainlanders, expats and locals, it needs to step in as CDNIS’s conflict goes to the heart of the rule of law and good governance. Here is why.
The original customer base of our international schools – expatriate children – now competes with wealthy locals and mainland Chinese. Well-heeled mainlanders cannot legally put their children in China’s international schools – but ours are open and inviting.Relocation consultants tell of having to politely explain application procedures to mainland clients who have no qualms about buying their children’s way into schools. After all that’s how things are done in China, why should Hong Kong be any different? Modern governance practices have evolved to guard against precisely this kind of threat to institutional integrity. Our commitment to the rule of law makes our financial markets attractive and successful. We should apply the same world-class governance to our education system. Even if just one school fails on this front, others may take note to bend the rules when opportunity presents itself.
Sadly, one school has done just that by making an internationally recognized hash of its governance. The Council of International Schools (CIS) has, again this year, declined to approve accreditation of that school. In a 2006 report, it gave the school’s administrators and staffs a glowing report, noting that the only barrier to its accreditation was its governance structure. The report was buried by appointed-for-life Members, who control access to the Board of Governors, and no changes were made.The governance structure is at the heart of the conflict that has led to the widely reported mass resignations and dismissal of administrators, support staff and teachers who built CDNIS to be one of the most respected schools in Hong Kong. Parents paying exorbitant fees have to wonder, if CIS accreditation is a far off dream, whether Ontario (Canadian) and International Baccalaureate accreditation, are not also at risk, too. In addition to being suspended from the world’s biggest international teacher placement agency, Search Associates, the school has made the front page of Canada’s national newspaper, the Globe and Mail, which described it as a ‘dysfunctional mess’.
If the Education Bureau allows substandard governance in a school supported through government land grants, it will call into question the government’s commitment to good governance. A vibrant international school sector is crucial to our effort to lure international corporations to relocate their operations and executives here. However, if this sector becomes a vanguard of poor governance worming its way through Hong Kong, we will not only fail to attract talents to come here, we will be endangering our ability to ‘keep it clean’ in other sectors.
Let’s be clear. Mainland students and parents aren’t the problem. With a formerly strong administration and blameless, if competitive, admissions system, no one has taken issue with the school’s increased enrollment of mainland students. In fact, many mainland parents and students have taken the Canadian education ethos to heart. Quality of education and governance cannot be separated. The Education Bureau is duty bound to ensure international schools maintain quality and the highest standard of governance to justify their land grants. It is clear that CDNIS must start its rebuilding process by first reforming its governance structure. Only then can it attract talented teachers and professional administrators needed to sustain a high quality education. If one international school can fail due to a small group of entrenched Members and an inept bureaucracy, other institutions could suffer similar rot. So much more is at stake than the integrity of one school. The stink will spread from this one school to the whole of Hong Kong thus ruining our reputation in the international community. How much longer can the Education Bureau shirk its responsibilities?