Smaller classes for some will create a more equal education system in Hong Kong
Kerry Kennedy says by introducing smaller classes in selected schools, to benefit certain groups of disadvantaged students, officials can create amore equitable education system for Hong Kong
The Education Bureau, Professional Teachers' Union and principals have been at odds about responses to the falling secondary school population in Hong Kong. Numbers are expected to decline by almost 11,000 by 2016, after which enrolments are set to pick up.
In response, officials would like to cut the number of classes in each school and reduce the number of teachers through voluntary redundancies. The principals and teachers' union want to see a reduction in existing class size in each school.
Both proposals require close scrutiny. The government solution would save money but reducing the size of the teacher workforce, particularly if it means a slowdown in recruitment, risks an undersupply of teachers to meet the rising school population after 2017. The smaller class size solution could also be problematic if that's all that happens across the board. Smaller class sizes in themselves do not guarantee that anything will change.
It is well known from the literature on student achievement that the quality of learning depends largely on the quality of teachers. Making sure classrooms are staffed with highly competent, committed and skilful teachers needs to be the top priority for all concerned.
At the same time, some students could benefit from more time with teachers, more after-school instruction and more attention to their particular needs. Matching high-quality teachers with specific student needs could provide a solution to the temporary downturn in student numbers.
Smaller class sizes can be implemented in schools where there is a commitment to groups of students who would benefit from smaller groups, more attention from the teacher and intensive instruction.
Such an arrangement would assist ethnic minority students struggling to learn Chinese but also having difficulties in other mainstream subjects. Students experiencing learning difficulties in basic subjects could also benefit from smaller classes, where the pace of teaching can be slowed, more feedback can be provided and attention focused on individual needs. For yet other students, for example those living in poverty, more after-school instruction would help as well as support with homework, individualised reading programmes and cultural programmes related to art, music and theatre.
This solution has at least two advantages: it will help those students who need it most and it will require teachers to develop new skills, new ways of thinking about student needs and new approaches to designing appropriate curriculums.
Hong Kong education reforms, initiated in 2001, were based on the premise that "one size does not fit all" - different students in different schools require tailor-made solutions.
So it is with small-class teaching - examine the needs of students, teach directly to them, evaluate progress and feed back results so students know what is expected and whether they are meeting expectations.
A third advantage is that this approach does not need to be implemented in all Hong Kong schools. Only those willing to commit to meeting the specific needs of students and whose teachers are willing to engage in professional development and training should be involved. Other schools can adopt the bureau's solution: cut the number of classes and look to voluntary redundancies.
Small-class teaching in secondary schools should not be seen as a panacea for retaining the status quo: it must be linked to change and innovation that benefits students.
Of course, some will say that any solution must benefit all students; otherwise, it is not fair. Why should some have small classes and not others? Or, put another way: why should class sizes be different from school to school?
This attitude to equality needs to be challenged. It assumes that fairness is about treating everyone the same. Yet, when students come to school, they are not the same. Some cannot speak Chinese; others have difficulty reading; others have no parental support; still others may have a disability that interferes with their learning. Treating these students the same as those who already have many advantages in all the mentioned areas is what is not fair. Schools need to ensure that all students graduate with the knowledge and skills they need for a satisfying and rewarding life. This will involve treating some differently, such as in smaller classes.
The Education Bureau needs to take advantage of the present context to ensure equity for those students who most need it. In this way, more students will learn to benefit from their education. Hong Kong can only be better with a more widely educated population.
Professor Kerry Kennedy is director of the Centre for Governance and Citizenship at the Hong Kong Institute of Education