A big, small idea

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 25 September, 2010, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 25 September, 2010, 12:00am

Hong Kong's declining birth rate means a continued drop in the student population and an acute shortage of students entering secondary schools. The government is adding fuel to the fire because of its shortsightedness in education policy and unwillingness to invest in nurturing the next generation.

According to Education Bureau statistics, the annual intake of first-year secondary students is expected to slide to 53,900 in 2016 - a drop of nearly 30 per cent from 75,400 last year. That means a loss of 630 classes at the current average of 34 students per class. This could affect 126 secondary schools that each has an annual intake of five classes of first-year secondary students. If we exclude students at international schools, private colleges and those run by the English Schools Foundation, the number of Form One students could be even lower than government estimates.

This year, 11 secondary schools with too few students were spared the axe because the government put its 'kill-school' strategy on hold for one year. But schools that fail to enrol the minimum of 61 students for their secondary classes will eventually be forced to close. We shouldn't underestimate this problem - it is a time bomb threatening to shake the foundations of our education system.

Many educators believe the government should take this opportunity to implement 'small-class teaching'. Reducing class sizes would save many secondary schools from being axed, improve the quality of education and save teachers' jobs.

This win-win solution would help optimise resources and avoid conflicts with educators. Education is an investment in human capital, and the level of such investment helps to determine the level of economic growth and competitiveness of a country or city.

Small-class teaching can improve the quality of learning by allowing teachers more time to address the individual needs of students. It will not strain existing resources, as alleged by some critics. All it requires is a reallocation of existing resources.

The government should enable underenrolled schools to move to smaller classes. The administration needs to get smarter about making the most of its resources.

Unfortunately, education-chief Michael Suen Ming-yeung doesn't want to play ball. Overseas experience, he says, shows that 'small-class teaching' benefits students only at the primary level; implementing it in secondary schools will burden the education budget and weaken the financing of other public services.

In other words, he is saying it could force the government to trim spending in other areas. Small-class teaching, he implies, is only a quick fix to avoid laying off teachers rather than being a long-term solution to the problem of too few students.

Suen has not only failed to address the problem, but his arguments are confusing and unreasonable. He seems to want to drive a wedge between educators and the public, by saying what the former want could affect the interests of the latter. Let's not forget that education is not only about the attainment of knowledge, teaching and learning - it is the bedrock of society. It concerns not just the success and failure of individuals; it is the key to our success as a community.

Suen also warned that once we implemented the 'small-class' format, it would be difficult to reverse the trend when the student population increased again. But no one has a crystal ball; we shouldn't avoid doing what is right just because we have to anticipate the unexpected.

Hong Kong is a well-developed and wealthy society, and increasing the investment in education is vital to our future growth and economic competitiveness. If we can afford to spend billions of dollars to participate in the Asian Games, why can't we invest the same in education?

Suen shouldn't treat education as a mere budgetary item on a balance sheet. He must show vision and leadership as an education chief rather than act like a number-crunching bureaucrat.

Albert Cheng King-hon is a political commentator