School is back - and so is unrest among teachers. This time, their biggest union has not ruled out industrial action, which could mean anything from being unco-operative to going on strike. Their dispute with the government is not new, but the teachers are turning up the heat a notch with a mass campaign to cut class sizes rather than schools. Anything that impacts on the education of our children from day one of a new school year should concern us all, whether it is the perennial argument about rewards or an issue of the times. In this case, it has been triggered by the latter - a demographic that neither the government nor the teachers has any control over. A falling student population has already left a trail of 70 closed primary schools and is now affecting secondary schools. The union claims another 150 schools could go. The issue is what to do about it. In a perfect world, the government would do nothing and just let things run their course until student numbers begin rising again in five or six years. Small-class teaching would emerge by default at schools with falling enrolments, particularly in the worst-hit districts of Tuen Mun, Tai Po and Sha Tin. That would suit teachers and parents. It is ironic that the fortuitous, random occurrence of an educational ideal should lead to conflict, and regrettable that students are caught in the middle. It is doubtful, however, that even if it happened, that would dissuade parents from trying to cram their children into the best schools they can afford or find, which usually run bigger classes because of high demand. In the real world, the government is rightly concerned that it is neither efficient nor cost-effective to continue running too many schools with too few pupils. But teachers have flagged fierce opposition to more closures, which would do nothing to smooth the path of education reforms. The government has come up with a political solution aimed at avoiding closures and further conflict with parents, teachers and principals. Government and aided secondary schools that cut Form One classes by one get an annual HK$250,000 cash incentive to switch displaced teachers to other duties, such as administrative work on the new secondary curriculum, and a guarantee of no job losses for five years, after which they could apply to increase classes. But the Professional Teachers' Union insists further action is needed, including small classes in areas most affected, cutting the minimum number of students needed for running Form One classes from 61 to 42 and accelerating planned reductions in maximum secondary school class sizes across the board. The union has a point, even if its interest here is enhanced teacher job security. Most parents would welcome more quality, individual teaching time. Secretary for Education Michael Suen Ming-yeung consulted principals, parents and school sponsoring bodies extensively before adopting the latest policy. But it is disappointing that smaller class sizes were not part of the mix over the next five years. A trial across a number of schools would have been useful, at little if any more cost than class reductions. Comparative data on educational outcomes might have been a worthwhile input into the reform process. While parents may still prefer sought-after elite schools, this is a missed opportunity to pursue the ideal of quality education in the least advantaged ones.