Small-class millions unclaimed by schools

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 11 March, 2006, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 11 March, 2006, 12:00am

Low take-up of cash for disadvantaged blamed on fears of being 'labelled'

Schools are being urged to join a programme for smaller classes aimed at disadvantaged children after millions of dollars went unclaimed in its first year.

Only 29 of 75 eligible primary schools have applied for the programme leaving unused an estimated $20 million of $32 million available for the current school year.

Principals and legislators have blamed low take-up of the programme on fear of 'labelling' and called for it to be opened up to a wider range of schools.

The Education and Manpower Bureau launched the programme last year to reduce the size of Primary One classes in schools where at least 40 per cent of pupils are receiving welfare benefits. The average size of a primary class is 32.

The EMB has pledged to provide $32 million a year for the scheme, under which schools can apply for $290,000 for each class reduced to between 20 and 25 students. Over the next two school years it will be extended to Primary Two and Three classes.

Legislator Emily Lau Wai-hing asked in a written question to the Legislative Council on Wednesday whether the scheme would be revised to ensure schools taking part were not 'adversely labelled' and what would be done to help disadvantaged children at the 46 schools not taking part.

Secretary for Education and Manpower Arthur Li Kwok-cheung replied that the majority of schools not taking part already had Primary One classes of 25 pupils or fewer or had too small an intake to create two classes of at least 20 pupils. Of the remainder, some were already participating in an earlier pilot scheme for small classes, while others had chosen not to join because they had other priorities.

Professor Li said the government had already taken measures against any possible labelling effect by not disclosing the names of participating schools to the public.

An EMB spokeswoman said that of the 29 schools taking part in the first year, 15 were eligible for the funding. The rest were already operating small classes but had received professional support. 'We have no quota for the scheme so there is no question of any money left being returned to the government,' she said. 'The money is there for the schools to apply for over the next two years.' There had been no change to the government's original estimate to spend $32 million a year on the scheme.

Cheung Man-kwong, president of the Professional Teachers' Union, said many of the 46 schools not taking part in the scheme could not meet the entry requirements because they had falling rolls.

'This is a bad policy but it is better than nothing,' he said.

Tso Kai-lok, vice-chairman of lobby group Education Convergence, said the threshold of students on welfare benefits should be lowered to 30 to 35 per cent to make more schools eligible. 'They should widen the net so that more students can benefit,' he said.

Tsoi Kai-chun, chairman of Hong Kong Subsidised Primary Schools Council, said the potential for negative labelling meant some schools 'wouldn't dare apply for this funding'.

'Schools that already have fairly small enrolments would worry that if people knew about this they would attract even fewer students,' he said. 'If small classes were implemented across Hong Kong that would be a different matter.'

Lam Seung-wan, honorary chairman of the Aided Primary Schools' Heads Association, urged principals of eligible schools to apply for the funding. He claimed the government had not done enough to promote the programme early on.

To qualify for the programme, schools must have at least 40 per cent of pupils in Primary One to Primary Three who receive Comprehensive Social Security Assistance or a full grant under the Student Financial Assistance Scheme.

Additional reporting Will Clem