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Steven Leung, a 25-year-old fresh graduate who works as a contract associate teacher in an aided secondary school says it is unfair that he has a lower starting salary than a permanent teacher. He has to teach 22 English lessons a week including the NSS curriculum and is also responsible for extra-curricular activities and counselling students. “My workload is not much different to that of a permanent teacher,” he says.

Although Leung is confident about his abilities at work, he failed to negotiate a higher salary. He thinks this is because his school does not have enough in grant money to pay him according to the master pay scale. “As the funding is not enough, I think my school would like to use a lower wage to hire more assistant teachers to share the workload of my colleagues,” he says.

Leung is a journalism graduate and never expected to be teaching until he was approached by a teacher from his old school who asked for his help at short notice. “The original assistant teacher found a job with a higher salary in another school, so he resigned at the end of August,” he says. “They really needed a teacher because school was going to start soon.”

After working in the school for a month, Leung has some insight into why his predecessor left. He believes the school’s high staff turnover rate is due to the heavy workload and low salaries of contract staff. He says the work is tough, especially as student discipline and academic results at the school are rather poor. He has resolved to leave as soon as he finds a better job, whether or not it is in teaching. For Leung, income and future prospects are important – being a contract teacher does not have a promising future.

Although many contract teachers and Hong Kong’s largest teachers’ union, the HKPTU, say the contract system is unfair and want the government to introduce more permanent posts, Chris Chiu, a 30-year-old Liberal Studies teacher in a direct subsidy scheme secondary school (DSS) does not see the contract system as a problem. For Chiu, the problem is that schools have both contract teachers and permanent teachers, which leads to conflicts and unfairness.

Chiu has taught at direct subsidy schools for seven years. Unlike in government funded schools, he says, all the staff in his school, including the principal, is hired on a contract basis. “Everyone in this school is hired under the contract system, so it is fairer [than government funded schools]. Our code of conduct is strong and staff morale is good,” he says.

Even if he had the chance to get a permanent position in a government funded school, Chiu would prefer to work in a DSS. Instead of doing away with contract teaching positions, he thinks the EDB should improve the contract system and phase out permanent teacher quotas. “Hiring teachers permanently is an old-fashioned and cost-ineffective system,” he says.

Chiu says the government should ask government funded schools to follow the lead of DSS schools in offering contracts of up to five years. “The contract duration can be one year for probation but, after that, schools should give a longer contract like three to five years,” he says, “It is mentally tiring and time-consuming to look for new jobs every year.”

Ip Kin-yuen

However, Ip Kin-yuen, the legislative councillor for the education functional constituency and vice-president of the HKPTU, says education is not a business and schools’ teaching teams should not undergo constant change. He wants the government to expand the quotas for permanent teachers instead of reducing them. The original aim of the permanent teachers’ system, he adds, was to preserve stability and continuity; contracts were only meant to meet short-term needs. Ip says many schools have twisted the meaning of the contract system, leading to instability and to the detriment of teaching quality.

The HKPTU warns that the government may reduce the permanent teachers’ quota because of a drop in the number of secondary students in the coming two to three years. This will have a knock-on effect on job prospects for those joining the profession.

Ip says the government and the University Grants Committee should revise the number of students accepted onto teaching degree and master programmes each year in order to prevent a surplus of teachers.