A TEACHER STRUGGLES to quieten students chatting away at their desks and motivate a few reading comics hidden in their drawers - common problems in schools with large classes. But Chan Ka-wai, head of G.T. (Ellen Yeung) College in Tseung Kwan O, says it is a different scenario in his direct subsidy scheme school with about 24 students in each class, and is convinced of the benefits of smaller groups. 'Students have more opportunities to participate in activities in class and receive individual attention from teachers, and are more motivated to learn,' he said. Tong King-lam, 10, agrees, having moved two years ago from a school with an average class size of 40. 'In my previous school there wasn't much chance for me to say anything in class because there were so many students. Teachers wanted us to be seated quietly,' he said. 'I'm much happier here where I can voice my opinions.' Mr Chan, who used to teach in an aided school, said smaller classes had made a big difference to teachers. He added they were a global trend: 'Learning in small classes improves the quality of education and benefits young people in Hong Kong as they compete on the world stage.' General class sizes in Hong Kong, however, are well above the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development average. In the OECD's annual Education at a Glance report, published last month, class sizes at primary level in OECD countries averaged 21.4, compared with between 32 and 37 in Hong Kong. Portugal had the smallest classes, at 16.4, and South Korea the largest, with 33.6. The UK average was 24.3. The education sector in Hong Kong has long called for the reduction of class sizes. Last month Education Convergence, the Gifted Education Council and Hong Kong Parents' Association urged Chief Executive Donald Tsang Yam-kuen to pledge in next Wednesday's policy address a reduction of class sizes from 32 to 25 at primary level and from 40 to about 32 in secondary schools. While the declining birthrate is accelerating school closures and threatening teaching jobs, the Professional Teachers' Union and district-based primary school heads' associations have demanded the government standardise smaller classes. The Education and Manpower Bureau is running two pilot studies in more than 60 primary schools where Chinese, English and mathematics are taught in small classes. The first started in 2004 and involved 37 schools while the second study started last year in 29 schools with a high proportion of socially and economically disadvantaged students. An EMB spokesman declined to comment on the studies, saying only that a full report would be released at the end of 2008. The EMB has been reluctant to reduce class sizes across the board, telling Legco this year some schools that were not part of the two schemes were already operating classes of about 25 and that small classes were not the only way to improve learning and teaching. The bureau suggested schools make use of available resources to provide other support to students, including teaching in groups and offering individual guidance. At Wo Che Lutheran School in Sha Tin, which took part in the first EMB-initiated pilot scheme, Primary Two and Three students are being split into four classes of 20 to 25 pupils according to their ability. Each class is further divided into two groups. Six to eight EMB inspectors visit the school every three months to observe classes, talk to the staff and make suggestions. Principal Shin Kei-lit said small classes were possible with the availability of extra teachers. The school received HK$290,000 from the government in the first year of the pilot scheme and HK$580,000 in each of the subsequent two years - which has been spent mainly on hiring three additional teachers. But money and extra staff alone were not sufficient to make learning more effective, he said. The school curriculum had to be tailored for different classes and teachers needed the skills to take advantage of the smaller number of pupils. 'A teacher who gives a lecture and then leaves the classroom will not help students even if the class is small,' he said. Mr Shin cited the need to juggle routine tasks and extra work entailed by teaching small classes, including curriculum design and evaluation meetings, as the major difficulty in running small classes. While so far it was not evident whether students had made academic progress in exams, it was clear that they had become happier and keener on studying, he added. Ip Kin-yuen, a lecturer at the Hong Kong Institute of Education who has been studying the effectiveness of learning in small classes in Hong Kong and Shanghai, said introducing small classes in Hong Kong would not place a heavy financial burden on the government because the cost of providing extra classes would be offset by the money saved from falling birthrates. Whereas in 2002, there were 14,000 primary classes and the average class size was 34.5 students, the number of classes was expected to be reduced to 13,000 in 2010 if classes were standardised at 25 pupils each, he said. Mr Ip added small classes were in tune with the educational reforms. 'We want students to be more active in acquiring knowledge. This we can achieve through reducing class sizes where teachers can cater better for diversity and carry out more activities,' he said.