Plan to extend free schooling, limit class sizes
Fees set to be waived from next September for students in Form Four to Form Seven
The chief executive yesterday tackled two of the thorniest issues in education when he fleshed out plans for 12 years of free education and set out a timetable for reducing primary class sizes.
Under Donald Tsang Yam-kuen's proposals, secondary school students in Form Four to Form Seven will have their school fees waived from next September. Students leaving school after Form Three to take courses run by the Vocational Training Council will also be eligible for free education.
Primary schools will be able to reduce their class sizes to 25 for 2009 admissions, provided that would not result in a shortage of school places in their district.
An Education Bureau official said it was estimated that funding the extra years of free schooling would cost HK$1 billion annually. That would rise to an estimated HK$1.2 billion in the 2012-13 school year when the new senior secondary structure was fully implemented.
Secondary students now pay annual fees of HK$6,020 for forms four and five, and HK$9,870 for forms six and seven, the equivalent of 17.2 per cent and 16.6 per cent of the total cost, respectively.
However, roughly 60,000 of the 190,000 Form Four to Form Seven students in government and aided schools already have their fees paid by the government through its financial support package. About 30,000 more get part of their fees paid.
The bureau official declined to give an estimate of the cost of reducing class sizes.
She said it was impractical to implement the policy in all schools at once.
'In about half the 36 school nets, there would be a shortage of places if all schools were to implement small-class teaching,' she said. 'We estimate that we would need to open about 40 extra schools in order to meet the demand.'
The bureau would consider allowing students in oversubscribed nets - such as Wan Chai, Kowloon City and Sham Shui Po - to attend schools in neighbouring districts.
She said the bureau would not 'force' schools to reduce class sizes, but those that did would probably have their admissions limited to 25 students per class.
'We want to set a limit,' she said.
The minimum admissions threshold would also drop to 16 in 2009 - down from 21 now. Education legislator Cheung Man-kwong, president of the Professional Teachers' Union, welcomed the measures, but wished they had gone further.
'Twelve years of free education is a good thing. This will reduce the burden on lower-income families,' he said. 'Small-class teaching is a very important step, but it is regrettable that there is no plan to implement it in secondary schools.'
Wong Kwan-yu, chairman of the Hong Kong Federation of Education Workers, said the most popular schools were under pressure to keep class sizes high.
'This is the contradiction of parental choice,' he said. 'Once they get into a school they want small classes, but before they get a place they want large classes so that schools have room for their child.'
Choi Kwok-kwong, chairman of the pressure group Education Convergence, described the proposals as 'fairly conservative'.
'What we are most concerned about is the fact that there is no mention of secondary schools. We believe secondary school classes should be cut back to 30,' he said.
Hau Kit-tai, Chinese University of Hong Kong professor in educational psychology, called on the government to take an active role in getting teachers to realise that smaller classes needed a different teaching style.
'Research shows that simply reducing the class size does not automatically result in improvements,' Professor Hau said. 'We need to make sure that students gain the full benefit of small-class teaching.'