SCMP Saturday, January 6, 2001

Shanghai in lead over student ratio


Several hundred primary schools in Shanghai have slashed class sizes from 50 to a maximum of 30 as the city pursues a "small class" policy.
Zhang Minshen, deputy director of Shanghai Municipal Education Commission, told Education Post that all primary schools were required to cut their class sizes from 50 to 40 and in the pilot schools the number of pupils had to be kept below 30.
A total of 280 primary schools - accounting for 20 per cent of the total in Shanghai - joined the pilot scheme in 1999, while 80 per cent of primary schools in Jingan and Hongkou districts have already managed to reduce their sizes.
"Small classes are ideal for school education but we had to limit them to about 50 because of the huge number of children of school age," said Mr Zhang.
He added that a number of parents had complained because they had not been able to get their own children enrolled in the pilot schools. The pilot school figures compare favourably with Hong Kong, where the average class size in a primary school is 37. It is 40 in a secondary school.
Wang Gang, associate professor in the Department of Educational Administration at East China Normal University, said the Municipal Government was now considering extending small-class education to Shanghai's junior secondary schools, with class sizes planned to be cut from over 50 to about 40.
"If there are enough qualified teachers and the number of secondary students declines, small-class education is likely to be extended to senior forms," he said.
It is primarily the declining number of primary school students in Shanghai - a powerhouse of education reform on the mainland - which has made the reduction of class size possible. A falling birth rate in the past decade has resulted in a sharp reduction in the number of Primary One students. The trend is particularly noticeable in city centres, where many families have been resettled in new communities.
Shanghai had been among the first cities to experiment with smaller classes on the mainland, Professor Wang said. The average class size in mainland primary and secondary schools is about 50. "Since 1949, we never tried reducing class size. But it is obvious that teachers are not able to take care of every student, particularly those with learning disabilities, with 50 students to a class," he said.
"Our study shows that smaller classes are definitely beneficial for students and have enhanced teaching and learning quality," he added. "In a class of 50 students, a child may not have the chance to answer questions. We have noted that students are more active than before."
He said in-service training courses on small-class teaching would be available for Shanghai teachers, preparing them for small groups and individual students. All mainland teachers are required to attend in-service training courses every five years.