A chance to make educational progress
The government's proposal to merge at least 30 secondary schools because of falling student numbers has met with a predictable response. Critics have called for the number of pupils in each class to be cut instead.
A reduction in class sizes, which often have more than 40 students, would be a positive step. However, both sides of the debate may be overlooking a wider opportunity to enhance the quality of education by putting underutilised schools to better use.
Secretary for Education and Manpower Arthur Li Kwok-cheung proposes that schools that run fewer than 12 classes be merged. There are already more than 30 of these, with a significant drop in admissions overall expected by 2009-10.
Meanwhile, many schools - typically those admitting mainly Band One students and new Direct Subsidy Scheme schools - have ever longer waiting lists. The fall in student numbers, a result of Hong Kong's declining birth rate, has not made it easier to accommodate parents' preferences for the kind of schools they wish their children to attend. Demand is more uneven than ever.
While some schools struggle to attract students, others receive up to 2,000 applications for 100 places.
The fall in student numbers offers the government the opportunity to take a more proactive role in matching supply with demand, rather than just forcing underused schools to merge.
It is not only a chance to weed out the weakest schools, but also to better meet the needs of children as individuals. At present, it seems market forces alone cannot be relied on to achieve that because they do not sufficiently take account of the actual quality of education offered by the most and least popular schools.
The performance of schools in terms of examination results is what tends to attract students to them - rather than the value schools add to individual performance. The medium of instruction or keeping of old traditions that are often not relevant to a modern education are often not factored into the decision.
As school campuses become under utilised or fall vacant, they could be made available either for merger or to organisations with the ability to run strong schools which believe they can meet an unfulfilled demand.
But the government should be selective in deciding which organisations take over these schools. It could follow the practice already in use to allocate sites for new schools, and allow an independent body to decide.
The criteria should be based on the requirements of a modern, 21st century education as envisaged by education reforms, running schools on a highly professional basis, and meeting the need for change to comply with best practice in Hong Kong and overseas.
Professor Li also suggested the number of students per class could be cut from 40 to 35, while educators want average class sizes cut to 23.
Enhancing the quality of education by reducing class sizes is a notion that is hard to resist. Cutting the number of students in each class would enable teachers to give more personal attention to each, and reduce their workload. But studies overseas have failed to produce definitive evidence to show that smaller class sizes on their own would necessarily improve the quality of education. Rather, the latest thinking is that there is room for flexibility of class sizes according to topic.
Nonetheless, there is room for reducing average class sizes in Hong Kong, especially given reforms aimed at encouraging teachers to adopt a student-centred approach.
It is not surprising the plan to merge schools received a cool response from lawmakers and teachers. Politically, it is not easy to sell. But as student numbers decline, the government still has the opportunity to better match supply of quality education and quality teachers with demand - and at the same time make progress in reducing average class sizes.