Education minister Michael Suen Ming-yeung said yesterday that the government would consider extending a grace period, currently five years, for teachers threatened with redundancy by the city's class-reduction scheme. Facing a lukewarm response from schools to the voluntary scheme, Suen said he would also soon roll out more measures to give schools more 'flexibility' in manpower, to keep experienced teachers and maintain staff morale. With student numbers plummeting, thanks to a declining birth rate, the scheme, announced in March, is intended to cut the number of classes at participating schools from five to four. Students bound for the fifth class in schools that are top-banded - considered best - can be assigned to schools that have difficulty in attaining the minimum enrolment threshold of 61 students. As an incentive for joining the scheme, a school is currently to be given extra funding of HK$250,000 a year, and surplus teachers will not be sacked during the grace period. Suen made the comments after meeting more than 300 secondary school principals yesterday. 'The main point is not to get rid of teachers,' he said. 'Early retirement ... or [letting people go] through natural loss cannot be done in certain schools, where most teachers are young and far from retirement age.' He added that experienced teachers were difficult to replace. 'We want to retain them within the system.' He said the Education Bureau would discuss with sponsoring bodies the feasibility of merging schools. 'We will also consider extending the grace period. We won't divulge details of [further incentives for joining the voluntary scheme] as we still need to discuss the nitty-gritty of plans with the stakeholders.' Only 23 schools had joined the scheme by the deadline for its first stage in April. Large school sponsoring bodies, including Po Leung Kuk and Tung Wah Group of Hospitals, which run a combined 34 schools, have yet to express interest in joining the scheme. Suen has on more than one occasion urged schools to join it. He said the reluctance of top-banding schools to join would render the scheme ineffective. But most such schools, like St Joseph's College in Central, refused to join the scheme. Its principal, Caroline Chan, said that parents would be disappointed if they joined the scheme. 'Our district is not among those heavily hit by the falling student population,' she said. 'If we join the scheme [and operate fewer classes], students will have to go to another district.' Wong Kwan-yu, chairman of the Federation of Education Workers and principal of Fukien Secondary School, in Siu Sai Wan, said there was no way the voluntary scheme could solve the crisis, in which, Education Bureau figures show, the Form One population will fall from 75,400 to 53,900 by the end of the 2016-17 academic year. 'The first wave of lay-offs will hit in 2012,' Wong said. In that year there will be no more Form Seven classes, as students under the old seven-year secondary structure will all have graduated. Only 229 government and aided secondary schools operate five Form One classes or more currently. 'Suppose all of them reduce the number of classes,' he said. 'The number to be reduced is still far short of the 1,000 that will be gone in 2012. 'This does not include the teachers who are going to be made redundant by the falling student rolls.'