Another dot in the blogosphere?

Of class sizes and solar panels (Part 1)

Posted on: November 10, 2017

One of several topics about Singapore schooling that gets raised cyclically is the call to reduce class sizes in schools.

A Non-Constituency Member of Parliament (NCMP) raised this issue earlier this week and it was not the first. One need only scan Google search results on “reduce class size singapore” in the general findings and news sections to see how frequently and far back this goes.

The most often cited reason for reducing class sizes is the attention that teachers can spend on each student. Fewer students means potentially more attention. This might then reduce dependence on remedial and enrichment tuition — the bane that is Singapore’s shadow schooling system.

Of late, our plummeting population growth has resulted in rounds of school mergers. This has tempted observers to suggest that the resulting “excess” of teachers be removed by increasing the teacher-to-student ratio, i.e., reduce class sizes.

However, our Ministry of Education probably sees things differently. It will not say this publicly, but trimming the fat is a good way of getting bad teachers out of schools. The problem with this is that some very good teachers get caught when they pull this plug.

The MOE has and will cite its own data of low student-to-teacher ratios. For example, here is a tweet from @singapolitics in 2016 and an extract from the article last week:

In August, (Education Minister (Schools) Ng Chee Meng) had told Parliament that the average form class size in primary and secondary schools last year was 33 and 34 respectively, while the median form class size was 32 in primary schools and 36 in secondary schools.

However you make sense of these numbers, they probably have more to do with obtuse calculations, Singapore’s low birth rate, and policy changes.

Step into a mainstream primary or secondary school classroom. You are unlikely to see 16 students in an “average” primary school classroom and 13 in an “average” secondary school classroom.

The numbers hide the fact that you can get such ratios by totalling the number of teachers and students while not factoring how many teachers are actually in active service. Speak to school leaders and managers and you will realise the manpower struggles they face every academic term. The most honest response I have come across in a parliamentary session was this one in 2013:

our PTR (pupil-teacher ratio) has improved from 26 in 2000 to 18 in 2012 for primary schools, and from 19 in 2000 to 14 in 2012 for secondary schools…

But a PTR of 18 in our primary schools does not mean that our class sizes are 18 in our primary schools – it simply means that we have one teacher for every 18 students, or two teachers for every 36 students, etc. The same PTR can result in different class sizes – as it depends on how we deploy our teachers.

Combine this fuzzy math with our falling birthrate and the policy decision to have smaller class sizes in Primary 1 and 2. Now consider how schools also have special programmes or interventions that temporarily reduce class sizes, e.g., dividing a class for mother tongue lessons into two or three classes, or having smaller classes for a few at-risk students at strategic periods. These schemes reduce student-to-teacher ratios, but they should not be confused with a reduction in class size across the board.

The long story told short is that the reply to having smaller class sizes is no.

What does this fuzzy math and resistance have to do with the use of solar panels in Singapore? It is cyclic and about leveraging on good timing. More on this tomorrow.

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