Delink volunteerism from school admissions

The unequal distribution of limited opportunities, such as entry to primary schools deemed desirable, is often effected through priority placements that are made explicit and administered by impartial institutions.

When there's a perception that the rules are, say, susceptible to abuse, not in step with the times or influenced by external bodies, these should be reviewed to check any public discontent that bubbles up.

Such a moment has clearly arrived following a ruling by the People's Association on a priority benefit for Primary 1 registration that it has deemed "relevant" to retain. The PA is now asking parents who become grassroots volunteers to serve at least two years, instead of one, to gain school preference for their children.

The question it has spawned is whether Phase 2B of the primary school registration process is consonant with larger efforts towards achieving greater social equity here.

Giving PA volunteers preferential treatment is seen as jarring, especially when the parent volunteer scheme is being scrapped in a number of primary schools. If social volunteers are to be rewarded, are there convincing reasons why it ought to be limited to those endorsed by the PA, to school volunteers, and to members of groups connected with certain primary schools? Such an exercise gives scarce recognition to the work of volunteers elsewhere, especially those undertaking demanding tasks.

There are other cogent reasons for reviewing this rule besides the social contradictions cited. Granting such benefits demeans volunteer work as volunteerism ought to be its own reward, and institutionalising such baits to attract volunteers communicates wrong values to the young. The scheme has led to abuses as opportunists have been observed to appear ahead of the primary school registration season and to fade away once their children have obtained admission. None of this sits well within an education system that is striving to be values-driven. Further, making a benefit out of entry to so-called branded schools perpetuates the scramble for them and runs counter to the spirit of making every school a good school.

Volunteerism is already subject to the "bathtub effect" when the young drop out as their focus shifts to building a career and starting a family. It doesn't help when worthy causes are also buffeted by a shifting group of pop-up volunteers spurred by extrinsic rewards. There is no doubt that the motivations of volunteers are at once self-serving, relational and driven by beliefs. But more is to be gained by social groups when the focus is on one's passion for a cause, acknowledged as the strongest form of commitment.