Another dot in the blogosphere?

School mergers & lost opportunities

Posted on: April 24, 2017

Last week, news broke that seemed to rock the schooling and teaching worlds in Singapore.

The number of tweets about the school mergers, analyses [example], and opinion pieces [example] practically overshadowed the other hot topic of a few church leaders serving prison sentences.

Systemically speaking, the school mergers are a response to a generational change. The long story short is this: Singapore schools, junior colleges in particular, are feeling the impact of declining birth rates over the last 25 years. If you play just the numbers game, fewer kids mean smaller student intakes means fewer schools — and arguably fewer teachers — are needed.

If some teachers are worried now, they might look back with the benefit of hindsight of how their friends and relatives were retrenched during downsizing exercises in other industries.

While some of these job losses and changes might be due to cyclical events like the ebbs and flows of our economy, you cannot ignore the larger scaling down efforts due to declining birthrates.

The cyclic events are like hula hoops in that what goes around comes around. But the hoops are tumbling under the gravity generated by the birthrate slope.

The changes in school resource allocation might be driven primarily by population dynamics now. In the years to come, the changes might be due to automation as enabled by rapidly evolving technologies.

It might be difficult to see how teachers might be replaced with technology because teaching is such a human and subjective task. But we already know of people who teach “robotically” or we might be aware of vendors trying to offer automated solutions. The latter include “analytics” platforms and services that monitor, diagnose, and remediate students on-the-fly.

So how might teachers and policymakers respond to impending change? The current response provides some clues and I counter with alternatives.

The latest merger response is thinking inside the box. The numbers game is typified by comments [source] like:

Currently, there are 23 schools offering a JC programme including Integrated Programme schools. All eight JCs involved in the latest merger exercise can each take in up to 800 students annually, however their enrolment numbers have fallen – one of them, in fact, has a student population size of only between 500 and 600. Without the mergers, the Year 1 intakes at some of the JCs could fall to as low as 200 or 300 in the coming years.

In light of the impending mergers, Serangoon JC, Innova JC, Tampines JC and Jurong JC will not take in any JC1 students next year.

And:

The ministry reiterated that falling cohort sizes would limit the co-curricular activities (CCAs) available at schools, as the CCAs require a minimum number of students in order for learning and participation to be meaningful. At secondary schools, declining enrolment could also affect the range of subject combinations which students can take in upper secondary level.

School mergers meet the number quota. These in turn allow school curricula and programmes to operate as they normally would.

This seems to solve the problem because the numbers look good in a spreadsheet and policy document. However, these measures still operate inside the box of business-as-usual (others might point out that this business is cruel).

Why not take the opportunity to try something different that leverages on other changes or helps educators work towards a fuzzy future?

Some outside the box ideas include, but are not limited to:

  • Co-curricular activities (CCAs) in centralised venues
  • Boutique programmes
  • Having more than one teacher per lesson (team teaching)

The centralisation of some CCAs is already partially outside the school box. Schools that do not have the numbers or resources send their students to other providers and venues. Think about sports like sailing, canoeing, dragon boating, bowling, shooting, wall-climbing, etc. Non-sports programmes might include computer programming, geocaching, community service, new media production, and more.

The affected schools and zones might adopt the boutique approach in that they embrace smaller class sizes. These run not on the efficiency-driven model but on one of effectiveness instead.

Hattie conducted meta analyses that concluded class size reduction only had a very small effect size of 0.2 (effect sizes of 0.2 and below are considered small). However, arguments persist for smaller class size (lower student-teacher ratios) thanks to conflicting research.

We already reduce class sizes for students with special needs or students who are not academically blessed. They undergo programmes that leverage on their strengths and alternative methods like e-portfolios, experiential strategies, and most importantly, closer teacher attention.

One boutique strategy is to have more than one teacher in each class. I do not mean administratively having two form teachers per class. I mean having two or more teachers in class during each lesson, i.e., team teaching.

This is already the norm is some Normal or Normal Technical subjects. This might also be the case when “special needs” students are integrated with “normal” students.

Having more than one teacher per class could address many issues:

  • The bean counter’s problem of having a surplus of teachers per school goes away because of the lower student-teacher ratio.
  • The teachers of the same subject could take turns to teach different sub-topics.
  • Team teaching could be part of teacher mentoring in terms of content expertise, classroom management, school culture, etc.
  • Teachers can share the workload of providing feedback and grading. A smaller burden could lead to more personalised attention to students.
  • Team teaching could allow teachers to specialise in different types of students and meet specific learner needs, e.g., some students need more remediation while others need more challenges.
  • Having less administrative work and a shared academic load could contribute to the ever elusive work-life balance.
  • Teachers finding better balance, deeper meaning, and more time to reflect and develop professionally all point to better retention and job satisfaction.

If the balance tips to a better quality of life, perhaps teachers might create more life (wink!), and possibly contribute to an increase in birthrate. The falling birthrate was officially the root issue after all, so anything to cause a sustained rise is good, is it not?

We cannot keep applying old rules to new changes, or using the tired excuses like “not efficient” or “not cost effective”. We should not have to wait until times are dire and resources are low to try something different.

We still have plenty and we can afford to change. If we do not try now, we might not be able to afford it when dire change arrives.

5 Responses to "School mergers & lost opportunities"

E Tan: School mergers & lost opportunities ashleytan.wordpress.com/2017/04/24/sch… via twitter.com

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E Tan: would so love to have smaller class size! it’s not so much abt e teaching but e TSR will definitely improve! via twitter.com

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CHAN Hsiao-yun 曾曉韻: School mergers & lost opportunities: Centralisation, boutique approaches, team teaching bit.ly/2oCO4od #edsg via twitter.com

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