A class less equal than others

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

Marching under the government's favourite slogan of 'No opportunity too great to squander', the Education Bureau has bravely decided that the chance to improve educational prospects by radically reducing class sizes should be abandoned in favour of reducing the number of classes.

The government added insult to injury by claiming there is no evidence that smaller class sizes in secondary schools raise standards, and then resorted to its favourite trick of issuing a bunch of phoney figures purporting to show that costs will double if classes are not axed as school enrolment falls.

Not only is there a wealth of evidence supporting the simple proposition that the more attention given to individual pupils, the more likely they are to succeed, but I happen to have first-hand experience of this, which is burned in my memory.

I attended a London school which was sufficiently large to have eight classes operating in the first four years, with an average class size of around 40 pupils. Those of us who were not that interested in being educated quickly discovered that the simple expedient of sitting at the back of the class and causing minimal disruption meant we could get away with doing more or less nothing.

I realised the extent of this escape from attention when my parents were given a report about a class I never attended, which claimed that I was a quiet and studious pupil.

The hard-pressed teacher, deluged by other pupils, presumably saw my name on the list, noted that I had caused no trouble and sought to reassure my parents by telling them of my diligent attitude.

Like most pupils at this school, which incidentally was devoted to the task of producing players for Arsenal Football Club (those with talent received a great deal of individual attention), I left school aged 16 assuming that I had failed most of my O-levels. I then went to work for a company which was going bust and returned to school after learning, much to my surprise, that I had scraped through a sufficient number of exams to qualify for the next level.

By then, the number of classes per year had shrunk from eight to two and the class size was considerably reduced. To my amazement, I discovered I could learn quite a lot in these smaller classes and a severely lacklustre academic performance was transformed into something that verged on being respectable.

I don't think I somehow got more clever but I am convinced that the environment of a smaller class and more teacher attention explained this transformation.

In Hong Kong, the teachers' unions are modestly pressing for class sizes to be brought down to 24 pupils as opposed to the maximum class size of 34 in secondary schools.

The benefits of this would be enormous and go a long way to supporting the government's stated aim of creating a knowledge-based economy.

However, instead of seizing this opportunity with both hands, Michael Suen Ming-yeung, the education minister, proclaims a 'brilliant' plan to 'solve' the problem of declining enrolment. This entails ensuring the preservation of a system of large classes which is failing to deliver.

There is a great deal more to be said about the Hong Kong education system's obsessive orientation towards exam results to the virtual exclusion of other considerations. But, even if this priority is to be accepted, it remains the case that exam success would be more easily achieved with smaller classes.

However, the bottom line in all this is that the government seems determined to preserve Hong Kong's underclass and to minimise the educational opportunities which are rightly seen as the key to escaping from a cycle of deprivation.

The discussion about class sizes is, of course, entirely irrelevant to the private and elite schools which have the funds to escape edicts from Mr Suen.

His focus is on schools for the underprivileged and he believes that nothing other than second-best is quite good enough for them.

This debate over class sizes is far more wide-ranging than an educational debate, or even a clash over educational theories as the government hopes to persuade us. What's at issue is the very essence of how Hong Kong decides to use its considerable resources for the benefit of the entire community; it is also a debate over whether the alleged government commitment to equal opportunities is ever to rise above the level of mere sloganeering.

Hopefully, therefore, this debate will not be confined to the educational community.

The fact that Hong Kong's power brokers have their children safely ensconced in schools with small class sizes and good supplies of educational materials means that these influential people will not lift a finger to help - but loud public protests can make a difference.

Stephen Vines is a Hong Kong-based journalist and entrepreneur