Wah Yan College shows small classes yield better pupils

Positive experiences by Wah Yan College students and teachers translate into a call for more secondary schools to adopt small-class teaching

PUBLISHED : Monday, 14 July, 2014, 5:57am
UPDATED : Monday, 14 July, 2014, 5:57am

Pupils are likely to fare better socially and academically in classes of not more than 30 learners, a new study has found.

Small-class teaching, or SCT, could be a model for more secondary schools across the city to follow, researchers at the University of Hong Kong's education policy unit believe.

It was effective at improving both the attentiveness of pupils and motivation among teachers, the university found in an assessment of the SCT scheme at Wah Yan College in Wan Chai, in place at the school since 2008.

"It's ironic that at primary school level, lots of money is being invested on SCT, but the benefits of it at secondary school level are constantly being dismissed," HKU researcher Dr Gary Harfitt said last week.

"The government's 2009 secondary school curriculum reforms put a lot of emphasis on [pupils'] personal response to learning and critical thinking. But this is all very hard to make work in a class of 40 students."

According to the study, Wah Yan pupils received more individual attention as their teachers could respond to questions inside and outside the classroom.

"Too much emphasis is placed on exam results," school supervisor Father Stephen Chow Sau-yan said. "The aim should be how to help students become better, lifelong learners."

The researchers conducted focus group interviews on 1,300 pupils and about 100 teachers over a month.

Eighty per cent of the pupils reported experiencing a more "positive classroom atmosphere", while 95 per cent of the teachers said they could better adjust the pace of teaching according to the ability of the class.

The teachers, by shrinking enquiry-strong classes such as languages and liberal studies into smaller groups of 25 to 30, found themselves spending less time on discipline and more time on curriculum planning and professional development. They also did not have to compete with other teachers for pupils' time.

Harfitt said the optimal class size for a secondary school should be between 16 and 20, but most Hong Kong schools could never afford that. The typical class has about 40 pupils.

At Wah Yan, adopting SCT has proved to be a hefty investment.

Through the institution's Wah Yan One Family Foundation, more than HK$43 million has been spent since the start of the scheme to train teachers and hire a dozen new teachers each year. Foundation member and Wah Yan alumnus Stephen Ng Tin-hoi, who is also deputy chairman of Wharf, said the foundation was trying to raise HK$60 million to fund its SCT programmes in the next five years.