HONG KONG is being forced to review how it allocates secondary-school places following an equal opportunities commission ruling that the system discriminates against girls and is illegal.
A total of 7,400 more boys than girls won places at their preferred school between 1996-8, despite the fact that girls did better than boys in school exams, the commission found.
Anna Wu, the commission's chairperson, said: "We want our boys and girls to get the best education possible", adding that gender should not deprive a child of a school place.
The problem has arisen because boys and girls are tested separately at age 11 - a system introduced to ensure an equal number of both in mixed schools. Because girls outperform boys in the selection process, they need to score more than boys to win places at the top schools.
According to the commission, the education department has used biased gender curves to scale scores. The separate ranking of boys and girls and the fixed proportion of boys and girls in mixed schools was also found to be discriminatory.
About 72,000 students a year are put into five bands. Bands are worked out on the basis of students' last three terms of results and a multiple choice test of reasoning ability, the Academic Aptitude Test.
The education department says that girls consistently do better in the school exams while boys do better in the aptitude test, though if processed together, girls outperform boys. In a computer simulation the department found that girls could fill 65 per cent of places in a top-ranked school if a joint system was used.
The inquiry followed complaints from aggrieved parents of girls. For example, one girl who was ranked 42nd in her year was placed in band 3 while some of her male classmates who ranked lower than her were placed in band 2, because there were fewer high-performing boys.
The government has now promised to review the system in the light of the commission's findings, and is set to scrap the test.
Lee Fu-shing, head of Yan Chai Hospital Choi Hin To primary school, said pupils would suffer if girls outnumbered boys. It would affect their social skills and create problems, such as schools having not enough toilets for girls.
Girls have also continued to outperform boys in Hong Kong's Certificate of Examination results, with 64.5 per cent of this year's female students achieving grade E or above in five subjects, compared with 54.1 per cent of males. The number of girls sitting the exams was 40,400, compared with 38,200 boys reflecting the higher drop-out rate among boys.