The crisis of class reductions and school closures has reappeared. The government believes that the continued decline in the school-age population is structural, which necessitates a corresponding adjustment to the numbers of classes in secondary and primary schools. The scale on which this will be conducted has aroused concern.
A few days ago, the Education Bureau submitted a document to the Legislative Council, issuing an advance warning that it will reduce classes and close down schools. According to the Education Bureau, the number of babies born in Hong Kong has continued to decline in recent years. The number went from more than 60,000 in 2016 to less than 53,000 in 2019. By 2020, the number had dropped to a 20-year low of only 43,000. It is hard to tell whether the birth rate will rebound after the pandemic. The authorities believe that the change in the school-age population will be completely different from the situation over the past 10 years, as the continued decline will be structural rather than temporary. This means that transitional relief measures may not be suitable, and it will be necessary to formulate long-term measures as soon as possible to deal with a glut of school places. In view of the long-standing large number of excess school places in specific regions, the Education Bureau has begun to discuss the matter with school sponsoring bodies to gradually close down or relocate schools. As the sponsoring body of government schools, the government will lead by example by closing down or relocating government schools that have been unable to enrol enough students for years.
In the past two years, Hong Kong has been hit by unprecedented political changes and the pandemic. Some people have chosen to move abroad with their entire families. Many cross-border students have been unable to travel to Hong Kong for school due to the pandemic, so they have simply transferred to schools in Shenzhen. Many mainland parents originally intending to arrange for their children to begin primary one in Hong Kong have ultimately given up the idea. When classes resumed in the new school year, the numbers of students in many primary and secondary schools decreased. The situation has been the most serious in North District, where there were a relatively large number of cross-border students in the past. According to the Education Bureau, the number of primary one classes in public primary schools in Hong Kong in the new school year has reduced drastically by at least 55 from the previous school year. As time passes, the shortfall in the student intake will spread to secondary schools in six years. In addition, Hong Kong's fertility rate dropped sharply last year. It can be extrapolated that the number of children beginning primary one in 2026 will very likely decline, thus forming another shortfall. The authorities need to plan early to help school sponsoring bodies, secondary schools and primary schools cope with such difficult times. As for whether to reduce classes and close down schools on a large scale, careful consideration will be necessary. One must not act rashly.
In terms of the supply of secondary and primary students, the impact of the mass exodus from Hong Kong will mainly be short-term. Similarly, the impact of the pandemic will come to an end one day. After the border is reopened between Hong Kong and the mainland, the number of cross-border students will ultimately see a gradual recovery. However, it will be another matter whether the numbers can return to previous levels.
Now the pressure of class reductions and school closures is reappearing in primary and secondary schools. If there is indeed a problem with how specific schools are being run, which leads to seriously insufficient numbers of students, it will of course be necessary to readjust educational resource investment appropriately and consider relocating some schools to new development areas. However, the authorities must consider the issue in a comprehensive manner. Schools cannot be closed down rashly. There will be many uncertainties in the development of Hong Kong in the next 10 years. Some room for manoeuvre should be preserved in the allocation of educational resources so that these resources can be adjusted according to new demand and new changes.