Expanding the private school sector: government policy and private secondary schools in Hong Kong, 1988-2001.

Author:Cheung, Alan C.K.


Private education, either informal or formal, has been a central part of every culture and society. It preceded any form of government or public education. Private education and public education are often juxtaposed to either as opposing concepts and ways of providing education. Levin (2001) proposes three characteristics that distinguish private education from public education: financing, sponsorship, and operations. Financing, sponsorship, and the operation or control of a private school come from non-public or government sources. On the other hand, public schools are financed by government funds, and sponsored and operated or controlled by the state. Aldrich (2004) offers the simple distinction in terms of who provides the education: the state or non-government providers. Even so, care must be given to the fact that the use or definitions of the terms "public" and "private" have changed over the years and are often used differently depending on the country. For example, prior to the middle of the 19th century in the United States, the term "public" referred to anything that contributed to the general welfare of society (Randall, 1994). In Britain for example, the "nine great public schools of England" in the 19th century were really schools financed by charitable organizations rather than schools operated for profit or "private schools" (Aldrich, 2004, p. 5). In addition, public schools often contract with the private sources to provide certain goods and services. Private schools often receive some form of government funding. The development and growth of charter schools in the United States, a form of schooling that has characteristics of both public and private schools, and the almost bewildering array of public and private school configurations in places like Hong Kong work against any hard and fast definition of private education that has universal application. For the purposes of this article, private education is education provided, controlled and operated by a non-government source with much of the funding coming primarily from non-government sources or from contractual arrangements with the state to provide educational services.

The emergence of government or public education is motivated by any number of factors. These include nation building, creating a common culture, reducing social conflict, and building human capital. In most instances, government education is begun as an effort to use education a policy tool to achieve political and social objectives, to be a major source of social reform. The rise of the common school movement in the United States in the 19th century, was a political solution to a myriad of social problems (Randall, 1994).

Generally speaking, the role of private education in developed countries is different from the role it serves in developing countries. In developed countries, private education serves as a social and academic safety valve for those seeking such things as a religious perspective, innovative or specialized pedagogy, safe environment or a more rigorous academic approach. In developing countries, private education often provides greater access to basic education because governments are unable to provide universal education to all. Private education fills in the educational gap, often a large one, that the state does not have the capacity to fill (Tooley, 1999).

The Rise of Private Education: A Global Overview

Private education has been gaining favorable support and growth throughout the world in the past few decades (Bray, 1996; Chediel, Sekwao, & Kirumba, 2000; Djame, Esquieu, Onana, & Mvogo, 2000; Glenn, 1995; Kitaev, 1999; Lin, 1999; Tooley, 1999). For instance, private school sectors are burgeoning in Latin America countries, such as Columbia, Argentina, Brazil, and Chile. In Columbia, the percentages of students enrolled in private primary schools and secondary schools were 28% and 40% respectively in the late 90s. Argentina is no less, with a total of 30% of students attending in secondary levels and 17% in higher education. The number of private schools in Brazil is also climbing. As of 1999, 30% of total student population enrolled in private sector schools (Tooley, 1999). Chile offers another excellent example. Since the government decentralized school systems in the late 1980s by providing equal funding to private schools at the same level as other public schools, the number of private schools has increased by one thousand in ten years. In 1996, private schools enrolled about 35% of the total student population. The percentage was much higher in the capital city of Santiago. Private schools in Santiago took in 55% of all students (Gauri, 1998).

Private schools in the Eastern bloc countries such as Russia, Poland, and Czech Republics are also expanding rapidly. Before the late 1980s, private schools were virtually nonexistent in these countries because of the totalitarian principles of socialistic ideology. However, with the collapse of the Soviet Unions, private schools have reappeared again in these post-communist countries. For instance, the Russian government which until recently had banned private education, passed the Law of the Russia Federation on Education in 1991 to give private education legal status in the country. Since then, the number of private schools has been increasing. In St. Petersburg, the second largest city of Russia, over 10% of all primary and secondary institutions are privately run (Lisovskaya, 1999). Like Russia, the post-communist Poland also actively promotes private education in their country. The number of private independent schools has been climbing. For example, in 1990 there were only about 20 independent schools in Poland but it increased to approximately 200 in 1991 and to about 430 in 1992 (Glenn, 1995). The growth of private schools in Czech Republics is also astonishing. The number of private schools has grown from zero before 1989 to approximately 900 in 1996, enrolling close to 100,000 students in the country (Svecova, 2000).

Private schools are also flourishing in Asia. Japan, Korea, and Taiwan are in the leads in the regions. All these countries have a high percentage of students in private post-secondary schools. For example, in Japan, the percentages of students attending private schools in post secondary level were 14% and 80% respectively. The percentages were even higher in Korea, 41% and 79% (Cummings, 1997). The number of private school students in Taiwan is also impressing. For instance, in 1998-1999, private senior schools, private vocational schools, private colleges enrolled 47%, 51% and 64% of the total student population in Taiwan respectively (Bureau of Statistics, 1999). The rapid growth of private schooling in these various regions in recent decades contributed an even greater interest in research of private education.

Private schools in China are gaining ground both in size and acceptability. According to the latest government statistics, China has a total of 308,242 private kindergartens, 504 private elementary schools, 2,146 private secondary schools, and 900 vocational schools (Department of Development and Planning, 1999). The number of private universities has reached 1,200 by the end of 1995 (cited in Lin, 1999, p. 8). Although the number of private schools only constitutes a small portion (4%) of all schools in China, the growth of private education has been impressive considering the fact that private schools were banned until two decades ago (Kwong, 1996).

Private schools vary greatly in China. For instance, in Shengyang, the number of students that attended private schools in 1995 constituted less than 2% of all elementary and secondary education. However, the growth in some regions is quite stirring. Take Wenzhou city of Anhui province, for example. 51% of all secondary school students attended private schools in 1996, surpassing the enrollment in public schools (Zhang, 1995). In terms of ownership, there is also a considerable diversity. Founders of private schools include "private citizens, business entrepreneurs, democratic parties, retired teachers, retired government officials, foreign citizens and corporations, Hong Kong and Taiwan business people, and public institutions of all kinds" (Lin, 1999, p. 11). Unlike many other countries, the Chinese government has not given the green light to religious groups to operate private schools in China.

Private Schooling in Hong Kong

Like many other countries, the development of private schooling in Hong Kong has been linked to shifts in the social, economic, and political climate. When the British first took over Hong Kong, the colonial government did not show great interest in promoting education, and thus early education in Hong Kong was provided mainly by foreign religious organizations and local Chinese. Though the colonial government had gradually increased its participation in education by opening up government schools and granting subsidies to local private schools, the role of government in education was still very limited before the 1970s. Indeed, without much government policy intervention, private schools had dominated the education scene and were the major supplier of secondary education in colonial Hong Kong well through the late 1970s.

The economic prosperity since the 1960s allowed the Hong Kong government to introduce 9-year universal education to the general public in 1978. Private schools at the time were still playing a major role in supplying secondary school places. The government policy was to use the private sector to make up for the shortfall of school places in the public sector. In general, those students assigned to these private secondary schools were low academic achievers. In addition, these private schools received much less subsidies per student than aided and government schools. As a result, many of these private schools were of poor quality in terms of physical...

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