The estimated 10,000 teachers who took to the streets on Sunday to call for a review of the pace of education reforms constituted about one-fifth of Hong Kong's teaching force. A protest on such a scale must be taken seriously. It was triggered by insensitive remarks by Permanent Secretary for Education Fanny Law Fan Chiu-fun, when rejecting suggestions that the reforms had anything to do with the recent suicides of two teachers. Teachers demanded that Mrs Law step down for failing to appreciate the heavy pressure that the reforms have imposed on them. When 20 per cent of the members of any profession take to the street, a responsive government must sit up and listen. But the government need not bow to the Professional Teachers' Union's politicisation of Mrs Law's unfortunate remarks. Senior officials should be held responsible for policy failures. That is what accountability is all about. Mrs Law's comments, however, do not amount to that. She has apologised for them - and that should be sufficient. Teachers need to realise that they are not the only ones who are unhappy with what is going on in schools. Sponsoring bodies, parents, students and employers have all spoken out against aspects of the reforms. But all agree that the school system must change to improve quality so that our next generation will have the skills to face future challenges in a competitive world. The reforms have the right objective. Rolling them back is not an option, and sacking Mrs Law would achieve nothing except the short-term soothing of teachers' emotions. The way in which the reforms have been implemented, however, leaves much room for improvement. Policy makers appear to have overlooked the effect of demographic changes. As a result of these changes, teachers have to upgrade their skills, schools must go through quality inspections and students sit competency assessments. Even in a stable system, these measures could spark grave anxieties. In a system that has to shrink because of falling birth rates, they have inadvertently become tools for measuring performance. The penalty for 'failure' is harsh as it can mean school closures and redundancies for teachers. No wonder the reforms have unleashed a huge backlash. To cushion the impact of school closures, the government has tried to maintain a balance between the overall supply and demand of teachers by introducing voluntary redundancies and reducing the student-to-teacher ratio. Still, many teachers have found the twin pressures of retraining for an uncertain future and labouring hard to keep their existing jobs highly stressful. The large volume of paperwork generated by the quality inspections and various project grants has left them with little time for their students and families. A committee has now been appointed to assess the workload of teachers. To address the problem at its root, however, the review should broaden its scope to encompass resource allocation. In 2004-05, government spending on education amounted to a modest 4.3 per cent of gross domestic product, but the sum was far from evenly distributed. The unit costs of educating a primary, secondary and university student were respectively $24,690, $33,710 and $204,400. The teachers are calling for smaller class sizes. This may not lead to better academic performance, but it would reduce teachers' workload and facilitate the revolution in teaching practices that they are being asked to undertake. An alternative would be to seek to reduce the workload of teachers without trimming class sizes. Cultural changes are also required, to give teachers more professional autonomy - and a better working environment. A careful reexamination of all these issues is required if we are to ensure that the reforms proceed - but in a way that does not place an unbearable burden on teachers.