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Tuesday, March 26, 2002

Prefectures embrace paring of student-teacher ratios

Staff writer

A growing number of local governments are planning to limit elementary and junior high school classes to 40 pupils each, the standard set by the education ministry, in an effort to provide a better educational environment for children.

The reduction comes after ongoing problems at schools that many experts attributed, at least partly, to crowded classes. By comparison, classrooms in other industrialized nations in elementary and junior high schools hover between 20 and 30 students.

Tottori Gov. Yoshihiro Katayama announced plans in February to cut the salaries of prefectural officials by 5 percent starting in April to finance smaller first- and second-grade classes with up to 30 pupils each.

Katayama, a father of six, including one attending elementary school, said he recognized the need to improve the educational environment for young children when he visited schools on parents' visiting days.

"The first and second grades are an important period for pupils because it is the time when they start their school life," Katayama said in an interview. "By introducing classes not exceeding 30 pupils, teachers can take much better care of children. I think this will significantly help children acquire basic academic abilities."

Referring to mounting education-related problems in recent years, including an increase in truancy and dysfunctional classrooms due to unruly students, Katayama pointed out that the standard student-to-teacher ratio set by the ministry long ago is too large for teachers to cope with.

Katayama said the prefecture has added about 170 teachers at public schools over the past two years, but the financial situation is getting severe. He thus decided to cut the salaries of prefectural personnel to finance the smaller class scheme.

The prefecture plans to add 88 more elementary school classes this academic year, which starts next week, but it will cost about 440 million yen if more teachers are to be employed, Katayama said, noting the introduction of the smaller classes is also a prefectural job-creation effort.

The Yamagata Prefectural Government announced in January that it will launch classes of between 21 and 33 pupils for the first through third grades.

Kouji Kimura, an official in charge of compulsory education, said the prefecture launched smaller classes for major subjects last April.

The prefecture decided to expand the scheme to cover older students in the belief that children need careful guidance not just in their academic pursuits but in daily life as well, Kimura said.

"Citizens have also voiced concern over the declining academic performance of children. We think smaller classes will be effective in dispelling such concerns," he said.

The prefecture conducted a survey on elementary school students, their parents and teachers in October. Between 80 percent and 90 percent of the parents and teachers said they hope to see classes limited to 30 pupils, and 52 percent of fourth- to sixth-graders said they also want smaller classes, Kimura said.

Yamagata plans to introduce smaller classes at all elementary schools by fiscal 2004, he said.

According to the results of a survey released by the Mainichi Shimbun earlier this month, 12 prefectures will introduce classes with fewer than 40 students in April.

The classroom reductions have come about based on a law revision last April on class-size standards and the number of teachers of compulsory education.

The revision allows prefectures to introduce classes with fewer than 40 pupils when the local governments think it is necessary.

But local governments have to cover the expenses in employing an additional number of teachers and making the infrastructure preparations, ministry officials said.

55% to shorten week

Only 55 percent of private elementary, junior high and high schools nationwide will introduce the five-day school week in April, according to an education ministry survey.

The survey by the Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology Ministry covering 10,400 private kindergartens, elementary, junior high and high schools was conducted in February and released earlier this month.

The ministry sent letters to governors nationwide urging them to encourage private schools in their prefectures to introduce the five-day school week.

But the survey may raise concern by parents and students feeling the difference in class hours between public and private schools may result in different academic levels.

An official at La Salle High School, an integrated six-year junior high-high school in the city of Kagoshima, said parents will not leave their children in the hands of private schools if the schools do not hold Saturday classes.

"Parents want their children to do without cram schools and preparatory schools for college entrance examinations. I think the five-day school week system will cause a widening gap in academic levels between public and private schools," the official said.

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The Japan Times

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