Government proposal is greeted with disdain by legislators who want smaller class sizes amid falling student numbers At least 30 secondary schools that run fewer than 12 classes may have to merge under a government proposal to deal with falling student numbers resulting from the declining birth rate. But the plan, unveiled yesterday by Secretary for Education and Manpower Arthur Li Kwok-cheung, got a chilly response from legislators who renewed their calls for smaller class sizes. Professor Li suggested the number of students per class could be cut from about 40 to 35, while educators want average class sizes cut to 23. The government said the jobs of about 450 teachers could be affected by the mergers. 'I believe that it would be difficult for a school that has less than 12 classes to provide enough teaching subjects,' Professor Li said on an RTHK radio programme. 'It may be a good time for the schools to start discussing the merger plan now, as it will take a few years to prepare.' He said it would be desirable for schools to run at least three classes in each grade. The Education and Manpower Bureau said more than 30 secondary schools are now running fewer than 12 classes. Secondary schools are expected to start seeing a significant drop in admissions by 2009-10 - six years after the bureau started to require each subsidised school to recruit a minimum of 23 primary one pupils per year. The policy has forced 26 primary schools to close so far. Another 33 will face closure next year, according to the bureau. The low birth rate - less than 50,000 a year since 2001 - is expected to have a bigger impact on secondary schools from 2013. According to the Census and Statistics Department, the number of births in Hong Kong reached an all-time low in 2003, with only 46,965 babies born that year. The figure was up slightly at 49,796 last year. Officials of schools likely to be affected - including Tak Yan School in Mei Foo, Buddhist Tai Kwong Middle School in Tai Po and Caritas Ma On Shan Secondary School - either refused to comment yesterday or did not return calls. Legislator Cheung Man-kwong, president of the Hong Kong Professional Teachers' Union, said it would be impractical to require schools in different districts to merge. Mr Cheung said the best solution would be to limit the number of both primary and secondary school students to 23 in each class, as was the case overseas. Secondary School Heads' Association chairman William Yip Kam-yuen said schools may have different missions and policies, making it difficult for them to merge. Mervyn Cheung Man-ping, chairman of the Hong Kong Education Policy Concern Organisation, warned such a policy may give rise to conflicts among schools, which would need to change their structures. 'For example, which school principal is going to head the school after the merger? Also, the boards of school have to be restructured,' Mr Cheung said. But Education Convergence, a pressure group for better education, welcomed the proposal, saying the government was taking the right approach.