Teacher Eric Chung Chun-woon asked the class: "How do you spell the past tense of the word 'teach'?" He commanded the students' attention easily, without raising his voice; there were only 12 children in the smaller-than-usual room, after all. The small class was created by Wah Yan College Hong Kong in 2008 to narrow differences in students' abilities in Chinese, English and mathematics. In the English class, students were asked to read or answer questions from the textbook. After a student had done his round, he was asked to nominate a fellow classmate for the next task. The small size led to increased participation, if not a more intimate atmosphere. "I like taking English lessons. The teacher is lively and we have more chances to ask and answer questions," says Form Two student Alester Tsang. Junior form students at the school are split into either classes of 24 or 12 for the three subjects, depending on their academic results, while those in senior forms remain in classes of about 36 for all subjects, as in other public schools. Dr So Ying-lun, principal of Wah Yan College Hong Kong, is convinced of the value of small classes, which he says create an environment conducive to learning. Closer interaction between teachers and students and increased involvement in class activities help boost students' self-confidence and teamwork. But it is a costly approach. In 2008, the school's alumni group Wah Yan One Family Foundation allocated HK$60 million to the initiative at Wah Yan's two colleges to foster quality education. Both schools have since hired 20 additional teachers to handle extra student groups, which costs about HK$6 million each year, says So. Wah Yan would not have been able to sustain the drive without the foundation's strong funding support. Class sizes at Wah Yan College Kowloon are smaller on the whole, at a maximum of 28. Still, small classes are unlikely to be as prevalent among public secondary schools as in private ones and the growing number of international schools here. English Schools Foundation schools, for example, have a class size range of 12 to 30. Cost is among the reasons that, despite the obvious benefits, public schools in Hong Kong have yet to fully embrace the idea of going small. The government decided in 2009 to launch small classes only in public primary schools, a move seen as more of a political gesture rather than a sign of a long-term commitment. Paul Chan Kam-wing, director of the Centre for Small Class Teaching at the Hong Kong Institute of Education, says it happened merely as a result of the re-election of Donald Tsang Yam-kuen as chief executive. Tsang had promised to go for small class teaching in his election campaign. Schools struggling with falling students numbers were the first to support the policy, but more have joined over the years. In the current academic year, more than 70 per cent, or 334 primary schools, are adopting the policy, setting the maximum student number in each class at 25. The teacher is lively and we have more chances to ask and answer questions Alester Tsang, Form Two student But there is no sign of a similar move in the secondary sector. "It is now time to look at introducing small classes for secondary schools to align with primary schools," says Chan. "Primary six students entering secondary school next year will have to adjust to a bigger class environment if there is no change in policy." Overseas studies have long associated positive outcomes with small classes, such as increased attentiveness and motivation of students. Rather than the merits of small classes, current research has switched to focus instead on the effectiveness of various teaching methods in a small class setting, says Chan. His centre has offered workshops and training for local and mainland teachers on effectiveness. Wah Yan remains among the few traditional elite schools that have opted for the change, using self-raised funds. "Elite schools have relied on traditional teaching methods to achieve good examination grades," Chan says. "They don't want to risk having grades affected by a change in teaching style," he says, adding that even the new Diploma of Secondary Education, a product of reform, still emphasises memorisation. The schools' reservations may also be due to the lack of studies establishing the link between class size and secondary students' actual academic performance. Says an Education Bureau spokesman: "Conceptually speaking, small class teaching is a kind of teaching setting or grouping driven by pedagogical considerations. The size of grouping should not be fixed across the board, but adjusted according to the learning objectives and students' needs." Chan notes that size alone is no guarantee of high grades. But small classes give teachers room to adopt non-traditional or student-centred approaches. One example is cooperative learning, under which students of mixed abilities learn together in groups, with the academically stronger assisting the weaker. "This helps cultivate friendships and develop general skills like being able to work in teams. Other skills like problem-solving are also needed in today's globalised world," he says. Wah Yan shares the goal of cultivating multifaceted skills that are hard to measure in public examinations but could be of lifelong value. "Our goal is to prepare students for the post-industrial society. In today's workforce, they have to face challenges and resolve unforeseen problems. "They cannot just sit still and take orders. Our founders, the Jesuits, also emphasise whole-person development," says So. But he admits additional resources are needed to find more classrooms for small-class teaching. What's more, it is certainly not just the size of the class that matters. "Ultimately, the teaching is the most important," says Chan. "It is no use if teachers don't change; and they won't change unless you give them training and support."