Teachers' union threatens strikes

PUBLISHED : Monday, 13 September, 2010, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 13 September, 2010, 12:00am

The city's biggest teachers' union has issued an ultimatum to the education secretary, threatening mass demonstrations and strikes if the government continues to block small-class teaching, which the union sees as a way to avoid school closures.

The 50,000-strong Hong Kong Professional Teachers' Union yesterday issued its sternest warning yet, after months of discussion with the government failed to resolve the school-closure crisis. The union estimates up to one-third of the 453 government and subsidised secondary schools will face closure.

Union president Fung Wai-wah said a citywide demonstration would be held on October 24 and the union would not rule out boycotting classes if the government refuses to budge on the issue.

The secondary sector is bracing for a wave of closures after a drop in pupil numbers in the primary sector. More than 100 primary schools have closed in the past eight years because of falling enrolments.

The Form One pupil population is expected to decline from 75,400 in the 2009-10 academic year to 53,900 in 2016-17, according to the Education Bureau. But pressure on secondary schools should ease from 2017-18 as the birth rate rebounded in 2003 - a year after the Sars outbreak - and those children will be at secondary age by then.

Vice-president of the union and education legislator, Cheung Man-kwong, criticised the education secretary, Michael Suen Ming-yeung, for dismissing small-class teaching as a job-saving measure by teachers. 'He is being unreasonable ... he's no longer the Micheal Suen I know,' he said.

So far, 318 - or 69 per cent - of 463 primary schools have introduced small-class teaching. The policy of having 25 instead of 30 students in a class was first introduced in Primary One classes in the 2009-10 academic year. The maximum class size in secondary schools is now 34. To remain open, secondary schools must enrol a minimum of three classes of 61 pupils. While top-rate secondary schools can run up to seven classes of 34 students in a form, those with low banding struggle to meet the minimum enrolment threshold.

The union is calling for a small-class policy to be gradually brought in, with two students cut from the 34 each year until classes are reduced to 24 students.

Fung said band-three schools, which cater to underperforming students with special learning needs, would bear the brunt of closures if small-class teaching is not adopted.

Instead of the current practice of counting only Form One students, he urged the government to use the total enrolment from Form One to Form Three in deciding whether to allow a school to remain open.

'Band-three schools admit quite a lot of outside students in Form Two and Three ... It's not fair to them if only Form One students are counted. If a school can admit an average of 42 students in a junior form, it should be allowed to operate classes,' he said.

Teachers' union vice-president Wong Hak-lim said the 34-student class size was far greater than the norm of 20 in developed countries.