Children must come first in class-size debate

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 19 October, 2010, 12:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 19 October, 2010, 12:00am

When two education groups with their own agendas close ranks against the government, it is worth seeing if their solidarity serves self-interest or the public interest. The issue, smaller secondary class sizes - or fewer schools and teachers - as enrolments enter a period of decline, is hotly debated between educators, parents and officials responsible for getting value for the public dollar.

Self-interest is to be found in protecting teachers' jobs. In that respect, the Professional Teachers' Union and the Hong Kong Federation of Education Workers are no different from any other unions in forging a united front in a common cause, in this case against government policy of forcing schools to reduce classes and close. The question is whether the public interest, in terms of the city's long-term future, sets this instance apart. Their argument that smaller class sizes give teachers more time to look after students' individual needs and are an opportunity to upgrade educational quality are not new. What is different is that falling enrolments are a demographic that comes along only once in a generation or two. They are, therefore, a chance to invest more in this core area of public education without spending a lot more.

If smaller classes would lift the quality of public education, that would raise the bar for the entire sector. That can only be good. It is not healthy that education in this city is defined by a poor perception of the public sector and a growing wealth gap; that elite schools thrive to an extent on that perception alone and that parents of ordinary means struggle to pay fees that can match or exceed mortgage repayments on a small flat. ESF, international and elite schools enrich our educational sector with diversity and choice, but that should be on their merits, not by default. To be sure, the government is reducing public class sizes by small increments. Adopting a radical new benchmark now will eventually cost a lot more when enrolments begin to bounce back from 2016-17. But if officials are serious about making education a pillar of future economic growth, our own children should come first.