The government has finally set out a deal with secondary school principals to reduce class sizes, after sometimes tense negotiations over the past month.
The deal was announced ahead of a meeting today of the Secondary School Places Allocation Committee to agree enrolment procedures before the Education Bureau conducts a centralised allocation of places for the next school year.
Class sizes need reducing to avoid teachers being laid off as admissions to secondary schools suffer a temporary drop over the next few years. By 2017, annual enrolments are set to fall by 11,000, then begin rebounding.
School principals had suggested class sizes be reduced by six places over three years, but the government disagreed. Secondary school principals accepted a government proposal to reduce class sizes by three to four places over three years after a five-hour meeting last week.
Education Minister Eddie Ng Hak-kim said in a letter to secondary school principals yesterday that public schools should cut class sizes by one place a year for three years from next year.
Schools could cut two places in the first year, and then one place in each of the following two years, if two-thirds of the schools in a district agreed.
"Through-train" schools and those with feeder and nominated places could be exempted, depending on their intakes, Ng said.
The current standard class size is 34, although schools are allowed to enrol up to 36 in a class by using up two extra places meant for pupils who need to repeat a year. Ng said that schools needed to guarantee their class sizes would return to the current level when the number of pupils rebounds.
Other measures the bureau plans to take to alleviate the pressure on schools because of the drop in the number of pupils include changing the minimum class size from 30 to 25, and allowing "excess" teachers to stay in a school unless they remain surplus to requirements for three years in a row.
The bureau would review the measures next year, Ng said.
More than 200 secondary school principals - representing more than half of schools - protested in support of smaller classes at the Legislative Council earlier this month. They also want teacher headcounts to remain unchanged.
The government recently extended a voluntary retirement scheme for experienced teachers for a further five years, providing financial incentives for up to 700 staff to retire.
Education lawmaker Ip Kin-yuen said the government's measures would hardly relieve the pressure on schools.
Ip, who is also the secretary general of the Professional Teachers' Union, will move a motion at a meeting of Legco's education panel to express regret at the bureau's stance.
The union conducted a survey in the past week in which 91 of the 110 headmasters interviewed said they were not satisfied with the government's plan for reducing class sizes.
Principals in the Sha Tin, Tuen Mun and Eastern districts were especially unhappy.
The union said the survey results showed that some principals agreed to the government's plan only because they had no choice amid a tight schedule.