Having barely recovered from the national education fiasco, education minister Eddie Ng Hak-kim is in hot water again. In a rare show of unity last Friday, hundreds of headmasters rallied to fight the forced closure of secondary schools triggered by dwindling pupil numbers in the coming years. Some teachers have threatened more confrontation if the government refuses to take the opportunity to adopt small-class teaching. The controversy, observers say, may escalate into another political crisis if it is not handled properly.
The education chief was already dealt a heavy blow in his failed attempt to execute a controversial national education curriculum inherited from the previous administration Now he is under pressure to weather the storm and try to rebuild public confidence. But at stake is not just his authority. It raises questions about what is the best way to educate our next generation. As the deadline to work out a clear benchmark for next year's intake is drawing near, ironing out differences with the education sector should be a priority.
It seems common sense that pupils learn better in a small-class environment. The merits have long been appreciated by teachers and schools. It may be true that teachers push the agenda in order to keep their jobs safe. But as long as pupils are to benefit and the extra cost is affordable, the proposal is worth exploring further. That half of the city's headmasters joined forces rallying for a gradual reduction in class size to 30 pupils by 2017 should not be brushed aside lightly.
From the taxpayers' point of view, running schools with too few pupils is not justifiable. The government is also rightly concerned about the financial burden arising from small-class teaching, as pupil numbers are expected to pick up again after 2017. Officials also argue that the effectiveness of small-class teaching in secondary schools remains inconclusive.
The government has apparently learned from the bruising experience when dealing with the problem at primary schools a few years ago. This time, instead of forced school closures and teacher cuts, Ng has sought to assure that protecting schools and jobs will be a priority. But as far as schools are concerned, the measures clearly do not go far enough.
Education is social investment rather than a burden. The drop in pupil intake in the coming years has opened the opportunity to re-examine our strategy and priorities.