We shouldn't go too easy on our schools

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 24 April, 2008, 12:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 24 April, 2008, 12:00am

The closure of primary schools has been a source of trauma in recent years for the teachers, parents and pupils affected. They had to shut because they could not attract enough pupils to meet government targets. Steps towards small-class teaching announced for secondary schools yesterday are intended to spare them a similar fate.

When primary schools close, frustration and heartache often turn to anger at the education officials who carry out the policy. The government's transparency, and its criteria for choosing which schools to shut, has sometimes been open to question. However, there is little doubt the policy itself is necessary because of Hong Kong's declining birth rate. It is neither efficient nor cost-effective to continue operating too many schools with too few pupils.

This problem has now reached secondary schools, some of which face closure. But the government wants to minimise that number. Officials appear to have learned from the distressing experience of having to deal with angry parents and teachers and of constantly being cast in the role of villains. It is certainly desirable to avoid closures, or minimise them, because of the effects on the children.

News of the small-class policy for secondary schools has to be understood in this light. As a bid to improve teaching quality and the teacher-student ratio, it is too small to make a difference. Class sizes will fall from 40 to 38 next year and 36 in 2010.

The reduction may lessen teachers' workload but will not have a significant impact on learning. But since the government funds schools according to the number of classes they run, reducing class size will allow some to maintain the minimum of three Form One classes necessary to continue operating.

As Secretary for Education Michael Suen Ming-yeung said yesterday, this will relieve the pressure on those schools which face closure unless they can attract more children. Indeed, he told lawmakers some schools with too many teachers - which upsets the teacher-student ratio - would be allowed to run classes with as few as 30 pupils per class next year.

While small-class teaching deserves public support, people need to understand the intention of the new policy. It will, no doubt, make the trauma of school closures less frequent. Children should be allowed to stay in the same school, in a familiar learning environment in which they feel comfortable and safe. In this respect, the new policy has merits. However, it will not necessarily improve the quality of classroom teaching. It does not go far enough to make small-class teaching effective.

Despite the negative publicity, an unmistakable virtue of enforced closure has been putting schools on alert. Besides government schools, most other schools are heavily subsidised by the government but run independently by sponsoring bodies. Like most organisations in the public sector, they are easy to open but very resistant to change and even harder to close. However, the threat of closure has, in recent years, forced many primary schools to make better use of resources and improve teaching quality and school governance. By taking away this pressure, some secondary schools may remain complacent. This outcome needs to be avoided. The government must, therefore, improve on the transparency of the current inspection system, the results of which should be actively shared with parents and community representatives to help them monitor schools and improve their quality.