School is out – along with permanent jobs for education graduates

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A crisis in new hiring for teaching graduates is being decried. An investigation reveals that the old guard may have saved their permanent jobs and cast the young adrift in contract limbo. If that’s the new world, adjustments must be

School is out and high school students contemplate further studies or entering the job market. They may be considering a career in teaching. Often seen as a safe sinecure for idealists with low tolerance for the risk of the normal job market, they could help children – and have a guaranteed job for life.

But nothing could be farther from the truth. For aspiring young teachers, the teaching job market has been closed to them by a system that saw declining student numbers and struggled to save itself.

Hong Kong is flying, but they aren’t

With unemployment running at historical lows, this should be the best of times for young people entering the workforce. Youth unemployment is trending around 9.4% – the lowest in years. A slight bump produced by the double cohort arising from the New Academic Structure (NAS) introduction has been moderated by the buoyant economy. A higher rate of 11.4% at the end of 2012 corresponds with young people taking about 2 months to find a job. Employers at small businesses, second choice employers to major multinationals and government, are at wits ends with the demands of fresh grads. Completely inexperienced students, university educated on a dogma of their rights and work-life balance are demanding Standard Working Hours (in advance of legislation), mandatory promotions and salaries that will enable them to (theoretically) buy a flat before their 30th birthday. But instead of the best of times, we are told there is a crisis. Specifically, a crisis for those graduating with a degree in Education, expecting to work as teachers.


According to the Professional Teachers’ Union (PTU) and several associations of the heads of secondary schools, teachers are facing a dire situation.

The problem is the decimation of new regular posts on staff establishment, meaning permanent contracts. Like the rest of the working world, teachers range from full-time salaried staff (practically guaranteed for life) to contractors (normally 1 year) to support staff (teaching assistants). The Education Bureau (EDB) has a standard class-to-teacher ratio: 1.7 teachers per junior secondary class and 2.0 teachers per senior secondary class (assuming 25 primary students per class; secondary has no standard). This determines hiring levels. The demographic change of a diminishing child birth rate has reduced the student population and therefore eroded the number of teaching jobs available. However, programs designed by the Education Bureau and implemented with the cooperation of the PTU and and schools themselves have made things worse, specifically for young teachers.

VOCSS – Saving unpopular schools at the expense of good and new teachers

The Voluntary Optimisation of Class Structure Scheme (VOCSS) which was executed in 2010-2011, was designed to save jobs in unpopular schools. The Hong Kong government funds schools in large part based on their student population. High performing schools are jam packed as parents fight tooth and nail to get their children into the schools of their choice. Schools spurned by parents and students drop below a certain students-perclass threshold, lose their funding and are closed.

220 schools of 462 under the government and aided schools joined the program. Popular schools volunteer to take fewer students. This means that students were pushed down to their less popular choices in a cascade through the system such that the least popular schools could keep classes above the cutoff threshold and stay open. Rather than deploying more students to their preferred schools, the system forced more students into schools they didn’t choose.

For top schools, fewer students means fewer teachers – sort of. Schools were allowed to keep up to six excess teachers (the threshold based on a class-teacher ratio) for six years. They would then be displaced at a rate of 2 a year (assuming none retired). Schools presumably kept the best teachers. 370 teachers were retained under this plan, locked in place for six years (until 2017) and phased out over another 3 years later (until 2020). Good schools lost some teachers, but still had too many and couldn’t hire. Poor schools weren’t hiring, but nor did they lose teachers. Jobs for new teachers evaporated as openings will only be created when schools shed their excess teachers over a period of nine or more years. When a school drops to the target ratio, and someone finally retires, it can hire again. But while teachers retire from time to time, the production of new graduates from education programs is relentless.

Deck stacked against them

On top of the shrinking regular posts, contract teachers are facing uncertainty. The government has made one-off grants to alleviate the situation, intending the money be used for contract teachers. The funding tends to be erratic. School managers hire when the money comes, but must either fire people or divert budget from other areas when funding is cut. But then more money comes.

The EDB has provided one-off grants, such as the Liberal Studies Curriculum Support Grant (LSCSG). Contract teachers hired under these grants will have to embark on job-hunting from time to time. While this is normal and expected for people in the regular job market, it creates a huge expectation-reality gap for those who entered teaching expecting safe lifetime employment.

The PTU estimated that at least 400 contract teachers and teaching assistants will lose their jobs once the LSCSG ceases this year. PTU also revealed that from May 2nd to June 11th, only 8 job advertisments for regular posts can be found in newspapers out of the 419 teaching vacancies concerning the secondary schools. 411 ads were for contract and teaching assistant roles. According to a research conducted by the Hong Kong Institute of Education, the percentage of its graduates securing full time employment in secondary schools has gone from 41.2% in 2011 to 17.9% in 2012 – right when the VOCSS impact occurred.

Graduates are obviously facing a tough time securing the full time, secure jobs they expected. It seems though, that the government is keeping enough money flowing to keep the contract and part time market stable.

The EDB predicted the number of secondary one students will grow after three or four years and might even succeed the current level, therefore many measures are temporary and transitional.

The PTU solution: Smaller class sizes

In an interview with Mr. Cheung Yui-fai and Mr. James Hon from the PTU, they urged the administration to reduce the class-to-teacher ratio in schools and increase the permanent positions. Furthermore, they demand the grants providing for contract work to be extended.

A review of PTU literature shows their focus is clearly on serving teachers. But does smaller class size serve students? The PTU claims yes.

Many teachers and principals address the issues as a crisis facing the teachers but from the perspective of the students, Mr. Cheung identified a crisis in education too. He says the New Secondary School curriculum has widened the diversity of academic qualifications among students sitting in the same classroom. In other words, the old system meant bright and dull students were streamed into distinct classes and teachers could teach them all in the same way. Now the fast and slow were mixed together and teachers had to teach a range of capabilities at once, increasing their workload. Also, many subjects have now transformed their teaching methodology, requiring new ways of teaching. For instance, English speaking practices cannot be conducted in a big class and small discussion groups are required in Liberal Studies lessons.

“The learning environment is not the same as in the old days when teachers talk and students listen which is suitable in big class.” Mr. Cheung Yui-fai, PTU

To address both the teacher and education crisis,

Mr. Cheung and Mr. Ip Kin-yuen suggested the small-class solution. Mr. Ip saw two merits of small-class teaching. First, more teachers can be accommodated and the whole system can be maintained providing stability. Second, it improves on the learning and teaching the new education demands which, according to Mr. Ip, was to stir up interest in lifelong learning interest and cultivate in students skills in problem solving, critical analysis and creative capability.

Politics and Education. Is there a crisis?

Professor Cheng Kai-ming from the University of Hong Kong sits on the Education Commission, an august advisory body providing the government with guidance on education. He has been involved in planning education in Hong Kong for decades and has the library to prove it. When presented with the situation as a crisis of teacher jobs, he was bemused – until he heard this was a proposition from the PTU.

“To the PTU, everything can be turned into a crisis.”

He did believe there were problems in governance arising from the sidelining of the Commission. He contrasted the colonial era, when a Governor with no political legitimacy had to secure it from rationality (through research) and consensus (from

“I think the wisdom in that political game is lost and the situation is getting worse” Professor Cheng Kai-ming

the Commission representing various sectors). He believed the Patten era began a sidelining of the Commission as long-term focus was given up in the rush to the handover. Since 1997, power had been concentrated in the Education Bureau, preventing the Commission from providing political support and cover. If the decisions weren’t theirs, they were not likely to support them. This left the government exposed and more influenced by other powerful groups – like the PTU.

He linked problems people had in the job market to broader societal issues and seemed to think that if teachers had it worse, it was that they were being exposed to the same pressures as the rest of the workforce for the first time. “This is not limited to education – finding a job is more and more difficult in general…individuals are facing a lot of insecurity, uncertainty…They change jobs and work in small organisations that are less stable.” He was not convinced that small class sizes were a panacea. He indicated the large body of research in comparative education (his specialty) that shows that class size is at best, an indeterminate factor in achieving educational excellence. “There is no evidence that smaller classes are better.” He believed that Michael Suen, the former Secretary for Education, in particular, was beholden to schools principals and more concerned about political rather than educational outcomes. This harsh charge accompanied a suggestion that the department chose political solutions that would duck media criticism and opposition at the time. An oversupply of teachers should have been ideal for schools to choose the best and the rest should move into other professions better suited to them, like the rest of the workforce.

His focus was clearly on serving students. He felt the current administration was too concerned with the providers – teachers – not the students. “CY is taking the teachers as the initial, eventual stakeholder, which is wrong. For any profession, the eventual stakeholders are the clients. For teachers, it is the students.”

Saving students or teachers?

All groups interviewed agreed that changes were needed in how we teach and what students need to learn. Far outside the scope of this article is the bigger issue of what should be taught how – and then how we measure success.

While there is disagreement on whether smaller class size will help students, there is no doubt that it will require more teachers to be hired. Whether they are permanent or contract seems to the concern of the PTU. The current formula provides long term funding based students for permanent staff and special ad hoc funding for contract workers.

Fighting demographics

Hong Kong’s birthrate has recently spiked dramatically reversing a 60 year downwards trend. However, this is entirely attributable to mainland mothers coming to Hong Kong and their numbers will not affect demand for teachers any time in the foreseeable future. While a small bulge of students may be coming to the secondary level over the next few years, the overall and inexorable trend is fewer students.

That leaves the PTU with one political choice: Smaller Class Sizes or shrink and perhaps one day, die. Contract workers will be easier to lay off as the student body shrinks as permanent teachers are really, truly, permanent.

The onus will be on the PTU to make the case for it to also be a case for better education. The research seems to show that there are many many other factors that have a much bigger impact on student achievement, ranging from teacher quality to school leadership to home environment and even diet.

One choice makes priorities clear

The PTU’s current case is that recent educational reforms have increased demands on teachers, leaving them overworked and less able to their jobs and devote time to students. The common knowledge of ‘many hands makes light work’ lends credibility to this claim and it may be correct in our specific circumstances – or not. We have no means of evaluating the truth of this as of yet.

Hong Kong is a strange place. We regularly outperform the rest of the world on international testing and yet it seems no one is satisfied with the results. Dissatisfaction and achievement may be connected – Americans show high levels of self-evaluation and low levels of achievement. Many want Hong Kong’s system to be more like the Americans – less homework, less rote learning, but without American levels of achievement. Mr. Ip: “Are going to change into Americans? That would be disastrous.”

Reform after reform has been undertaken because everyone – experts like Professor Cheung, the government, teachers, parents and even students – seem to agree that the system must change to do something different. It must get Hong Kong students off rote learning and make them, as Mr. Ip says, interested in learning, skilled in problem solving, critical analysis, and creative capability. They should like reading, be flexible and have concern for society.

For the PTU, more money for smaller class sizes may be the way to deliver that through the reforms enacted now – and it will certainly save permanent jobs. If the rest of education establishment in and outside the government doesn’t have a better answer on how to get results, then the PTU will probably win the day.

Whether this will come in time to help current young aspiring teachers is another matter. The system, in particular the VOCSS, in place now that is blocking their access to permanent positions was designed by a government and teaching establishment while they were still in grade school. Erratic funding for contact teaching in the meantime seems a cruel fix designed to string teachers along when they perhaps should be considering other careers. On the other hand, it may be that teachers should realise the rest of the world doesn’t live with expectations of lifelong employment and prepare for that eventuality.

It may take many years to resolve the issue while new graduates are dumped on the market every year.

“If there is a crisis for the young, it was designed by their elders trying to save themselves”

The reckoning has come and it is time for the establishment to fix the mess they made. It may not mean guaranteeing money for unlimited teachers, but rather ensuring that safety seekers are not lured into the profession expecting a lifetime of safe employment. Teachers in the future are going to face a rocky ride more that like faced by the rest of the world.