The education department's crackdown on an underground school for illegal immigrants from mainland China has led to protests in the Portuguese enclave and highlighted a growing problem.
The exact figure for the school-age population of Macao is unknown because no one knows how many illegal immigrants there are. In 1989, a two-day amnesty for illegal immigrants under 18 revealed 5,600 children jostling for recognition as legal residents (in a population of 400,000). State and private schools were then banned from enrolling children without valid Macao identity cards. This led to underground schools being set up for "no-ID" pupils.
Such schools often charge fees of 10,000 patacas (Pounds 800) a year and have been accused by educationists of preying on desperate parents, who are often badly paid.
But a recent decision by the Macao education department to shut down an illegal school for no-ID pupils sparked a protest earlier this month by parents demanding the "right to schooling" for their children. The school, licensed in 1992 as a private tutoring centre for 70 pupils, had 1,000 on roll.
The number of "no-ID" students has been exacerbated by a misconception by parents that all their children have the right of residence in Macao even if born outside the Portugese enclave. This will only be true after Macao is handed back to China in 1999, two years after the British Colony of Hong Kong reverts to Chinese rule.
Thousands of mainland-born children of Macao families are expected to besiege the border checkpoints once the 1999 handover is complete.
In the meantime children not born in Macao whose parents are legally living here must go through a long-drawn-out process to get legal status.
Rather than wait years, many families prefer to pay criminal gangs who specialise in smuggling illegal immigrants into Macao and Hong Kong to bring the children to Macao.