Remember those tall tales some of us heard growing up of our great-grandparents having to traverse unpaved mountainous roads, fording streams and battling the elements for long distances to get to school? They were barefoot, of course, while carrying their baby sibling on their back.
Sound overdramatic? Sure, but the moral of the story was not to take the gift of access to education for granted. And so my jaw couldn’t help but drop when I read the news of the merger of two secondary schools – one in Tung Chung and the other in the Southern district on Hong Kong Island – because of low enrolment.
Students will commute between Pok Fu Lam and Tung Chung – which are not neighbouring districts, to say the least – every day to complete their secondary education. Granted, they won’t have to make the trip walking barefoot as a bus service will be provided. Even so, it’s still preposterous.
Secretary for Education Christine Choi Yuk-lin has described the merger of the schools by Caritas Hong Kong, the schools’ sponsoring body, as a “prophetic vision”. That, too, is preposterous.
Such an arduous commute for students is pitiful for a global city in this day and age. Hong Kong’s drop in student numbers is a perfect opportunity to implement smaller class sizes, but instead the government has decided to close schools.
Before we get to that, let’s address the perception problem the government is creating for itself. On one hand, Secretary for Labour and Welfare Chris Sun Yuk-han says, “The government has implemented various measures to foster a supportive environment for childbearing and to promote family-friendly measures to provide better support for couples who wish to bear children, but should avoid excessive intervention.” On the other, the government is taking away schools.
Sun is correct to point out that the declining birth rate is an issue that concerns multiple bureaus. However, the Education Bureau doesn’t appear to be optimistic about the government’s measures since it insists on closing schools based on its projected 15 per cent fall in the student population in the next six years.
Clearly the bureau isn’t counting on the birth rate to rise. If shutting down a school is a tough decision to make, imagine how much work it would take to build a new a school. Our education policymakers have placed their bets.
Financial Secretary Paul Chan Mo-po said he sees Hong Kong as being in a “golden window for development” and that university students from the mainland, Singapore and Malaysia are eager to forge careers in Hong Kong. We have no reason to doubt Chan, but it seems as though he’s not confident they will stay here and start families.
The government is adamant about moving forward with its Kau Yi Chau artificial islands project, which involves creating three artificial islands spanning 1,000 hectares at an estimated cost of HK$580 billion (US$74.1 billion). The project is expected to provide about 200,000 residential units. Why are we creating land to house future residents but not anticipating school-age residents?
Being strict about enrolment numbers and insisting on closing schools suggests to the public that the government isn’t optimistic about the birth rate. So why are we taking land from a golf course and spending public money on reclaiming land? There seems to be cognitive dissonance at work here.
But let’s get back to the government’s failure to see a drop in student numbers as an opportunity to adopt smaller classes. Choi said that “when dealing with the problem of a declining school-age population, we have always emphasised the interests of students are the top priority”. If so, the interests of students whose learning was disrupted by the pandemic should top her list of priorities.
The learning gap left by the pandemic is best filled by small-class teaching, which can help improve students’ academic achievement and social skills by facilitating an environment where teachers can provide more support and attention. This is all essential for students who have missed three years of in-person instruction.
The declining student population presents us with the opportunity to address learning loss, and this would no doubt be welcomed by couples considering whether to have children. If the government is willing to invest in improving students’ achievement, perhaps that will help ease our population crisis.