Hong Kong school principals under pressure after education chief warns they could lose jobs over handling of protest-related complaints, group warns

Chan Ho-him

One of Hong Kong’s biggest school heads’ associations said on Monday that principals felt pressured by the education chief’s remarks that they would be disqualified if they were deemed unsuitable for their job when handling protest-related misconduct complaints against teachers.

The Hong Kong Association of the Heads of Secondary Schools also accused Secretary for Education Kevin Yeung Yun-hung of failing to spell out what unsuitable meant, and urged his bureau to have trust in principals’ professionalism.

Yeung made the comments in an interview with online news outlet Shanghai Observer, operated by Communist Party newspaper Jiefang Daily, on the ongoing anti-government protests.

When asked how his bureau would act if schools or heads did not cooperate when probing protest-related complaints against teachers, Yeung said the permanent secretary for education had the power to disqualify principals who were not up to the job.

Kevin Yeung spoke to a mainland China news outlet. Photo: Winson Wong
Kevin Yeung spoke to a mainland China news outlet. Photo: Winson Wong

Under the Education Ordinance, the permanent secretary may withdraw a principal’s appointment approval for failure to perform duties satisfactorily, or for being unacceptable to most of the school’s managers.

“For example, when a school tells us in feedback that the teacher involved is ‘not problematic’, then we might know the school or the principal’s attitude might be ‘problematic’, so we can handle the issue from a management perspective,” he said.

Yeung said the Education Bureau was able to appoint members to a school’s management committee but this power would be exercised cautiously.

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“In serious cases, if [a principal] is deemed unsuitable to be a teacher, the bureau can even revoke his or her teaching qualifications,” he said.

But for minor cases it would ask the school’s sponsoring body to work with the managers to help the heads do their job well, Yeung said.

The bureau said about 80 teachers and teaching assistants had been arrested over the protests while at least four were suspended or had resigned. Among the 123 complaints of protest-related misconduct against teachers the bureau received, wrongdoing was confirmed in 13 cases.

Pro-Beijing politicians including former city leader Leung Chun-ying have repeatedly criticised Yeung over the handling of protest-related incidents, while earlier this month Chief Executive Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor asked the bureau to seriously follow up cases of teachers’ misconduct.

Michael Wong Wai-yu, honorary executive secretary of the school heads’ association, said that while violence and hate speech from teachers were inappropriate and should be followed up, the bureau should provide more guidelines and put its trust in principals.

“Whether a principal is fit for the job should be viewed from the perspective of education professionalism. But now there is a political perspective, which could give principals the feeling that if they support the government, then they are up to their job – which should not be the case,” Wong said.

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Tai Tak-ching, principal of S.K.H. Tang Shiu Kin Secondary School and head of the Wan Chai District Headmasters’ Conference, said Yeung’s comments could put further pressure on principals, who sometimes had limited power to look into each case because doing so could be considered an invasion of a teacher’s privacy.

“If someone complains about a teacher’s comments on his or her private Facebook or Instagram account, how do principals confirm them to be true? For one, many people do not even use their real names on social media now,” Tai said.

Another head teacher from an aided secondary school, who asked not to be named, said Yeung’s remarks might spread fear among principals.

He said in previous scandals the bureau did not exercise its power to remove the principal but instead only appointed people to the school’s management committee.

Education sector lawmaker Ip Kin-yuen, vice-president of the pro-democracy Professional Teachers’ Union, accused Yeung of spreading “white terror” by threatening principals who did not adhere strictly to the government’s line.

Wong Kwan-yu, president of the pro-Beijing Hong Kong Federation of Education Workers, said Yeung’s comments were not “entirely inappropriate” amid a divided society, but he believed the bureau would only remove a principal “as a last resort”.

In a statement, the bureau dismissed claims of white terror, saying it had a responsibility to follow up on cases of teachers’ misconduct. It added that although it believed principals and school management had the ability to handle these cases well, it could exercise its powers in individual cases to protect students’ safety.

It said while the permanent secretary had the power to withdraw a principal’s appointment approval, such power had not been exercised over the past five years.

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