Realities of competition mean only the smart survive

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 30 March, 2004, 12:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 30 March, 2004, 12:00am

Hong Kong's school system, like the economy, is going through a painful period of adjustment. With the population of six to 11-year-olds projected to decline by 82,600 - or 17 per cent - by 2010, schools are fighting for survival.

Inevitably some will be forced to close, particularly those in older urban areas where the declining number of school-aged children is most dramatic, and those with old campuses that lack the space for more modern teaching methods.

But emotions are running high over how this adjustment is being managed, how many schools we need to lose and how these are identified. The government used a crude measure to determine which schools can survive, with those attracting fewer than 23 children in the discretionary places allocation exercise being sacrificed. A similar strategy was adopted last year with 51 mainly rural schools targeted for closure.

While the government ignored the protests of scattered rural communities, demonstrations culminating in thousands taking to the streets of Central on Saturday have prompted a partial backdown in the latest round of Primary One closures.

Schools have been offered a reprieve if inspections find them to be of high quality. They are also being given the option of transferring to the Direct Subsidy Scheme or merging with other schools.

These are good compromises. But much grief would have been avoided if they had been made before the closure decisions.

The realities of competition are a rude awakening for many schools. Some principals and school sponsoring bodies recognise that survival is linked to improvement - a market mechanism the government favours.

But others often turn to superficial marketing ploys to attract students rather than implement genuine change. The demoralisation that comes with uncertainty is said to be stifling the drive for improvement.

There are other solutions. The Professional Teachers Union has long supported the call for smaller class sizes rather than school closures. Classes of 36, the norm in Hong Kong primary schools, are now not only large by western standards, but by those of regional competitors. Shanghai, for instance, is using a declining population as an opportunity to introduce classes of fewer than 25 pupils.

Although the government argues that smaller classes cannot guarantee better teaching, many educators believe they are a prerequisite for the more child-centred teaching envisaged in education reforms.

Against this backdrop, the government is likely to face opposition to school closures until it shows some commitment to reducing class sizes beyond the current pilot project involving 40 primary schools.

Reducing classes to 30, while encouraging flexible grouping of children to allow for small classes during part of the timetable, could be a start.