Hong Kong’s largest teachers’ union, the 80,000-strong PTU, has called a citywide demonstration on October 24 against the government’s refusal to sanction smaller classes as school rolls fall in the secondary sector. The demonstration is a welcome first shot in a campaign against what one commentator called the “kill-school” strategy of the government. But this must be a springboard to further action, including strike action, to stay the hand of government and its axeman-in-chief, Michael Suen Ming-yeung, the Secretary for Education.
The annual intake of first-year secondary students is set to fall by almost 30 percent according to the Education Bureau, from 75,400 last year to 53,900 in 2016, as a result of the lower birth-rate in the mid-1990s. This leaves secondary schools struggling to fill classes based on current government criteria. Already about 30 secondary schools face the axe for failing to enrol a minimum 61 students for three Secondary One classes this academic year. The government has offered a one-year ‘stay of execution’. But this only postpones what will become an even bigger problem in 12 months’ time unless the government can be forced to shift from its present line. To date there is no sign it is willing to do this. Based on PTU estimates this means that up to one-third of the 453 government and subsidised schools will face closure over coming years.
Teachers rightly demand that the government use the dip in student numbers, which is temporary (first-year enrolments will rise again after 2016), to implement smaller class sizes. The PTU is calling for the average class size to be cut by two students each year until it drops from the current average of 34 to 25. This is supported by 99.6 percent of teachers and principals according to a recent survey. But Suen has dismissed this as “unrealistic and unsustainable”.
Suen’s faulty maths
The Secretary for Education is simply lying when he says the government cannot afford to meet the costs of an adjustment to small-class teaching. He should be forced to do his maths lessons over again judging by the figures released in the media. Suen claims that if class sizes are cut to an average of 24 “the cost of educating a secondary student would double”. This, he claims, will raise costs across the sector by HK$900 million each year. In reality the government will reap “whopping” savings of HK$13.85 billion over six years as a result of the declining student population according to the PTU. This money could be used to improve what is one of the worst pupil-teacher ratios of any advanced economy:
- The average secondary class size is 30.3 in Hong Kong compared to 21.1 in Britain – in reality at some schools there are 45 or more students in a class
- 90 percent of teachers report that their workload has increased in the past three years
- Over 57 percent of teachers work an average of more than 61 hours a week, according to the Hong Kong Institute of Education
Hong Kong has the most neo-liberal government in the world. It has run a budget surplus averaging HK$44.7 billion over the last five years. This sum is more than double the entire annual budget for secondary education – at HK$20 billion. Compared to this bulging government surplus – mainly the result of windfall profits from land sales – the sums needed to reduce class sizes to a more tolerable level are literally a drop in the ocean. But the government prefers to shower gifts on its cronies in the property and corporate sectors.
While Suen says he cannot afford to reduce secondary class sizes in line with international norms, the government is proposing to squander HK$13.8 billion on the 2023 Asian Games if its bid is successful. This is the projected loss the government’s number crunchers envisage for staging this, its latest, white elephant project. It is nothing more than a gigantic “red envelope” full of taxpayers’ money to fatten the bank accounts of the usual range of corporate sponsors, promoters and property developers. Ordinary working people are increasingly priced out of such sporting spectacles.
PTU demonstration in Edinburgh Place 2006 against government school ‘reform’
While it talks of creating a ‘knowledge economy’ the Hong Kong government pampers a small privileged elite in every sphere of policy including education. The wealthy are not hit by the effects of government meanness. They send their children to elite schools. Last year, for example, 5,151 pupils from Hong Kong attended independent fee-paying schools in Britain. Hong Kong students, driven to get an ‘English education’, account for one in four of the foreign secondary students at British schools. Even at home, the privileged few can escape a school system blighted by government neglect and underinvestment:
- Hong Kong spends just 4.4% of GDP on education – a lower share than Bhutan (5.2%), Zimbabwe (4.7%) and Ethiopia (4.6%)
- Yearly expenditure per secondary pupil in Hong Kong is HK$41,000 compared to an OECD average of HK$54,023 (OECD = Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development, the 30 most developed economies in the world). This is despite the fact that Hong Kong’s per capita GDP (US$29,800 in 2009) is higher than Greece, Portugal, New Zealand and Israel (OECD countries).
United action against school closures
Socialist Action (cwi in Hong Kong) fully supports the teachers’ demands for a phased reduction in class sizes to an average of 25 per class in 2016. This is an extremely modest demand – even the South China Morning Post admits the PTU “has a point”. In our opinion, the maximum class size should be 25, rather than the average. The arguments of government that funding is not available are false – the money is there but it is in the wrong hands!
To force the government to retreat will require determined action by teachers, including strike action. This must be prepared for in a meticulous fashion with a campaign to win the support of parents, students and the wider community especially other sections of the union movement. The issue of class sizes must be linked to improvements in pay and conditions and above all the onerous workload of teachers today.
Young members of Socialist Action are already campaigning to build a secondary students’ action group to fight alongside the teachers against school closures. Such initiatives are essential. Similarly, the demonstration on 24 October must be used not just as a warning to the government as to the depth of feeling that exists on this issue, but as a means to mobilise and prepare for citywide strike action unless the government backs down.
Socialist Action calls for:
- A maximum class size of 25 students!
- Massive new investment in public sector schools – raise spending by one-third in line with the OECD average!
- Cut teachers’ working hours – expand teacher training, raise pay and conditions!
- For school democracy and a mass students’ union