Counting the cost
At St Joseph Primary School in Wan Chai, classes are overflowing with students. In a district where the number of school places far exceeds the number of school-age children, the school's eight Primary One classes admitted 311 students last year, or more than 38 each, compared with the standard class size of 35.
Had the school adopted the so-called activity teaching approach promoted by the education authorities, it could have reduced class sizes to 30. Yet the school is so popular that parents, including many from outside Wan Chai, are falling over one another to send their children there.
A similar anomaly occurs at Yaumati Catholic Primary School (Hoi Wang Road). In the past school year, each of its Primary One classes had between 39 and 40 students.
Figures for this year are not yet available, but the school is understood to have also over-enrolled, with other schools nearby complaining that some of their students had gone over after the term had begun.
This is happening in the district where the Fresh Fish Traders' School had to mount a rowdy protest and pass a quality inspection before it was allowed to continue operating Primary One classes this term, because it failed to recruit the required-minimum number of students.
Presumably, if Yaumati Catholic Primary School and other popular schools in the district were obliged to stick to the standard class size, under-enrolment at the Fresh Fish Traders' School and others facing closure would have been less serious.
Requiring all schools to adhere to the standard class size won't stop some from closing as the school-age population continues to drop. But it will mean a few more being spared the chop and dozens of teachers keeping their jobs.
What is surprising is that despite its vocal call for class sizes to be further reduced to 25 as a means of raising education quality, the Professional Teachers' Union, whose membership embraces most local teachers, is not pushing the government to enforce the existing class-size rule.
PTU chairman Cheung Man-kwong, who also represents the education sector in the Legislative Council, doesn't feel the union's stance on the flexible application of the class-size rule goes against its proposal to further reduce the class size to 25.
'Parents should have the choice of sending their children to popular schools with big classes and those that run small classes,' he said. 'Class size does matter, but we're not going to stop parents sending their children to their favoured schools.'
Nor is the government doing anything to achieve the policy objective of reducing class sizes. The targets of having classes with no more than 30 or 35 students each were set by the Education Commission in its fifth report, published in 1992.
The commission envisioned achieving the reduction by the 1998-99 school year. Instead, the rule has been honoured by the breach, even as there is serious over-enrolment at some schools and sizeable under-enrolment at others. As the Director of Audit noted in a 2002 report on the planning and provision of primary school places, of the 11,742 operating classes in all public-sector primary schools in the 2001-02 school year, 4,782 (41 per cent) were over-enrolled and 5,354 (45 per cent) under-enrolled.
In the most serious case of over-enrolment, one class was found to have 42 students, or 12 more than the standard class size. Of the under-enrolled classes, 703 had unfilled places of between seven and 10, and 239 had 11 or more.
The report has since driven the Education and Manpower Bureau (EMB) to work with more zeal to close under-enrolled schools. This year, the bureau initially asked 31 schools to stop offering Primary One classes in September because they failed to recruit a minimum of 23 pupils.
Only two have managed to survive the ban, one by changing its mode of operation by joining the direct subsidy scheme, and the other is the Fresh Fish Traders' School. With no new pupils coming in, the remaining 29 will eventually have to close when their current students complete primary schooling.
But officials have done little to tackle over-enrolment. This year, while the most popular schools in some districts have enrolled 40 students or more, others are operating classes with less than 10 students. Apparently the government, like the union, regards parents' wishes to send their children to favoured schools as paramount. More importantly, it's opposed to the idea that class size matters.
Rallying against the Director of Audit's recommendation to enforce the class-size rule, the EMB said 'there is no definite conclusion from research that class size is directly related to the quality of education'.
'While [the EMB] would encourage schools to follow the standard class size as far as possible, schools would be allowed to make their own professional judgment on whether they should accommodate a few more students in excess of the standard class size,' it said.
Even as legislators from the pro-democracy camp are rallying behind the drive for smaller classes, officials are sticking to their guns. They have pointed to international studies showing students from Hong Kong, South Korea and Japan, where the average class size is about 38, perform much better in reading, mathematics and science than students from Denmark and the US, where the average class size is 23.5 and 17.4 respectively.
These findings, they say, are also supported by the results of attainment tests administered to local students, which show little correlation between performance and class size.
In 2001, for example, the scores of two groups of students from two schools with equally big classes of 41.3 pupils were each found to differ greatly, while students from two schools where classes had more than 40 pupils out-performed those from another two with an average class size of 24.5.
The score discrepancies, officials said, were evidence that what mattered was not class size, but whether teachers used the appropriate teaching methods in the right settings that suited the needs of their students.
Rejecting the proposal to trim class sizes further, Secretary for Education and Manpower Arthur Li Kwok-cheung said the government was not opposed to small-class teaching, but was opposed to doing it indiscriminately.
And that's why the EMB is conducting a study to see how schools can break through the rigid class-size concept to help their students learn more effectively, by strategic and flexible re-deployment of existing resources.
Critics branded the study a delaying tactic, and said it was time Hong Kong seized the opportunities offered by a shrinking school-age population to raise the quality of education by reducing the workload of teachers, through trimming class sizes.
Some have put forward an even more cynical explanation for the government's drive to push schools to the brink. As one teacher, who asked not to be identified, said: 'The government is using falling enrolment as a cover to drive what they consider to be non-performing schools to close.'
Indeed, Hong Kong is probably unique in paying unofficial sponsoring bodies to run public schools without having a mechanism to weed out those that do not measure up. For years, all subsidised schools have practically been left to operate on their own, with little intervention from the government, which doesn't have the power to close or impose changes on these schools on account of poor management or lousy teaching.
The government doesn't even have the power to deploy outstanding principals and teachers among the subsidised schools as a means of reviving non-performing ones, because each school hires its own staff. Only in the past decade have new schools been required to sign service agreements with the government, allowing it to intervene in management and take schools under its control, if necessary.
Officials deny they have a hidden agenda to close non-performing schools, but the declining school population has offered the government an unprecedented opportunity to do so.
What gives them a clear conscience in performing the hatchet job is that the academic performance of students of schools earmarked for closure is usually low. The teacher begged to differ, however, and said that poor enrolment was not a fair indicator of a school's overall performance.
'My son goes to a very popular school with a good name,' he said. 'I regret it, because the teachers there are uninspiring and use the most archaic teaching methods. They frankly admit they rely on parents to help their students learn.
'An unpopular school may have used the most innovative methods to help their students, but there is only that much they can do if the children are from poor families whose parents can't help them because they have little education themselves, or have to work long hours.'
Class sizes in Hong Kong certainly needed to go down because teachers were simply overloaded, he said. 'I can't understand why even the union is not pushing the government to enforce the class-size rule. Maybe the union's afraid of offending parents. But it weakens our argument to further trim the class size to 25. Enforcing the rule will also help slow down closures.'