Secondary school pupils thrive in smaller classes, scholars advise minister

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 18 September, 2010, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 18 September, 2010, 12:00am

Academics have waded into the row over reducing class sizes in secondary schools, saying research shows the benefits of smaller classes.

Chan Kam-wing, co-director of the Centre for Development and Research into Small Class Teaching at the Institute of Education, said a study jointly conducted in the 1990s by Cambridge University and the Institute of Education at the University of London showed that secondary-school students in smaller classes took a more active part in lessons.

He made the comments to counter Education Secretary Michael Suen Ming-yeung's claims that the benefits of small classes taper off as children enter secondary school.

'They have better concentration than those coming from larger classes,' Chan said. The largest such survey - conducted in Tennessee in the 1980s - also showed that students in smaller classes were less likely to drop out of secondary school, Chan said.

Suen wrote an article this month titled 'Is Reducing Class Size a Good Way to Save Schools?' in which he said research commissioned by the government showed that the efficacy of small classes was only evident in primary education. 'Having too few people in a class will diminish their group interaction and affect their all-round development,' he wrote.

The research cited by Suen - carried out from 2004 to 2008 by Professor Maurice Galton from Cambridge University's faculty of education, who surveyed more than 20,000 Primary One to Four pupils - concluded that small-class teaching was most effective in Primary One.

With the effects varying depending on the abilities of students and teachers, pupils in smaller classes performed similarly or worse than those in bigger classes, the report said. Shiu Ling-po, associate professor of educational psychology at Chinese University, said the evidence cited by Suen was misleading. 'Without doing any research on its effects on secondary schools, Suen dismissed its benefits to secondary students,' he said. 'There's a group theory in psychology which says that people in smaller groups have a better sense of belonging. It's common sense that students in a crowded classroom ... show less concentration.'

The maximum class size in secondary schools is 34. The Professional Teachers' Union, which has threatened mass strikes and demonstrations if the government continues to block smaller classes, eventually wants classes of around 25.

Suen said small classes across the board would double annual expenditure for secondary schools to HK$40 billion. But Professor Tse Shek-kam from the University of Hong Kong's education faculty said there was no need for this.

'You can just do it in schools in districts that are heavily affected by the falling student population or in schools that specifically cater to students with special learning needs,' he said. 'You don't need to do it in top-band schools as students in those schools have always performed well in big classes.'

The union says a drop in the number of students by 97,600 across six forms by 2016 will yield 'whopping' accumulated savings of HK$13.85 billion that would allow class sizes to be cut in secondary schools.

However, the Education Bureau has said expenditure would not be decreased because of the drop. 'Even if the total number of students in a class drops from 34 to 21, the class still has the same funding,' it said.