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  • Writer's pictureEvery Child

How To Reduce Class Sizes in Primary School

Updated: 1 Mei

MOE recently published a parliamentary reply and an EdTalk piece on reducing class sizes and how class sizes are determined. MOE admits that “a typical form class size is around 40 students” and its current explanation for why we can’t have much smaller class sizes in primary school seems to be:


  1. “Reducing class sizes across the board would require a significantly larger teaching force and come at the expense of quality.” 

  2. Hiring more teachers would also “not be sustainable given Singapore's local workforce constraints and growing demands in other sectors such as healthcare”.


The EdTalk ends by reassuring us “various international benchmarking studies have shown that our students are moving ahead in their ability to apply their knowledge, to reason and evaluate”.


This leads us to two important questions:


  1. Why do we need to reduce class sizes in primary school?

Reducing primary school class sizes to a maximum of 25 is one of EveryChild.SG’s 3 key recommendations for adapting our school system for the future economy. As explained in ‘Why Foreigners are Shocked at our Class Sizes’:

 

  • Singapore’s primary school class sizes are way larger than other developed countries, e.g. the average public primary school class size in OECD countries is 20.5 students!


  • If we want every child in our local system to maximise their potential and develop a love of learning, a top-down delivery of material in a fixed style and pace by a teacher facing a class of 35-40 is not going to work anymore. (Ask any teacher.)


  • In a developed country as rich as ours, ALL our children deserve smaller class sizes, provided upstream, in primary school, not just children with higher needs and those in secondary school.


The “various international benchmarking studies” that the EdTalk reassures us about are not measuring 21st century competencies like creativity, collaboration and out-of-the-box thinking, to name a few. And if our children seem to do well in ‘applying knowledge, reasoning and evaluation’, skills that will anyway soon be taken over by generalised AI, how much of it can be attributed to our over S$1.4 billion (2018) tuition industry, which typically teaches children one-on-one or in small groups, vs. our primary school education system (receiving S$3.2 billion in recurrent government expenditure, 2023) which teaches children in classes of 40?


Just this past week, two teachers shared in our EveryChild.SG survey why they want to see smaller class sizes:


“ Teachers choose to be in this profession for a good cause. However, most became jaded after being on the ground for a few years. Large class size is one of the main factors why so many teachers left the profession.”

Pauline Lee, parent & educator



“As a teacher I really hope for smaller class sizes so that I can attend to each student and their needs. Teaching a child is more than just boosting their grades. If we want to develop the whole person, we really need smaller class sizes.”

Anonymous, parent & educator



  1. Can we hire more teachers without compromising quality?


Yes! Working around manpower constraints and planning manpower ramp-ups, while challenging, is certainly not new to Singapore. But more crucially, in this case:


  • There is a large pool of ex-educators in Singapore, given the high attrition rate among teachers. While reliable information on the private tuition industry is hard to come by, some quote an estimated 50,000 teachers working in the tuition industry alone. To reduce class sizes in half in primary schools, teachers would have to double from about 16,000 currently to about 32,000. If we assume two-thirds of tuition teachers are teaching primary school students, that would be about 33,000 tuition teachers, more than double the amount MOE needs to halve class sizes in primary schools. MOE could consider special schemes to attract ex-MOE educators to return to teaching e.g. by promising to place them in the schools piloting smaller class sizes.

 

  • The reduction in class sizes can be done gradually to maintain ‘quality’. A gradual scale down from a maximum of 40+ to a maximum of 25 can be done without compromising quality if paced over the next 8-10 years, for example. Smaller, less well-funded Ministries like MSF have been ramping up manpower (e.g. preschool teachers, therapists, psychologists) to serve the growing needs of their sector, while more or less maintaining ‘quality’.


  • Talking about the ‘quality of teachers’ is meaningless when they are overwhelmed by large class sizes. Some improvement in the ‘quality of teaching’ will automatically happen once typical class sizes drop from 40 to 20. (Just ask any teacher. Or if you get the chance, peek in on a primary school class in an international school, or when you’re traveling in another developed country.)


  • We have one of the lowest female labour force participation rates in the developed world. In other developed countries, women tend to reduce workforce participation only temporarily in the early years of their children's lives. However, in Singapore, many women feel they have to continue spending significant time on tutoring or taking their children to tuition, throughout primary school - or in some cases attending tuition themselves! This often culminates in reducing to part-time work or unpaid leave during the child’s PSLE year. (See pg 44 of our white paper for more info.)


When teachers are able to connect and teach more effectively in smaller classes, and PSLE is made optional (EveryChild.SG’s other key recommendation), many mothers will no longer feel the need to reduce their workforce participation to prepare their children for PSLE, thus boosting Singapore’s labour force.


If the benefits of reducing class sizes from ~40 to ~20 were really questionable, or if the reduction was really that difficult to implement, the typical primary class in other developed countries would not be half the size of ours. This table shows the average public primary school class size (2021) in the top 25 countries by PISA ranking, plus the OECD and European Union averages.

Beyond the impact on individual students and teachers, this issue should worry those of us concerned about Singapore’s economic competitiveness. Education is the main investment in our future workforce. The latest science of child development shows that brains are most plastic when children are younger, and relationships and connection with adults are critical to their learning. Is it ok for our young children to get way less attention and connection from their teachers, day after day, than the rest of the well-off world? Is that the best way to prepare our children for the future economy?


credit: EdTalk, edits by EveryChild.SG


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