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  • Writer's pictureEvery Child

Why Foreigners are Shocked at our Class Sizes

Well, because our primary school class sizes are so much larger than other developed countries! Our primary school class sizes are also larger than private schools catering to upper-middle and high-income families in developing countries:

In most developed countries, primary school class sizes hardly ever exceed 25 children in a classroom.

The OECD average for public primary school class size is 20.5. For public lower secondary classes, it is 23. (The OECD, Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, is an economic organisation with 38 member countries, mostly high-income. Singapore is not a member.)

● In India’s urban public schools, anecdotally classroom sizes average 45-55, but these cater largely to low-income families. In private schools, where the upper-middle class and higher income families send their children, anecdotally it averages around 25-30 children in a classroom, both at the primary and secondary level - those are the children who will go on to get degrees and compete with ours.

● China, a much poorer country than Singapore per capita, has an average public primary school class size of 37.

Average primary class sizes (in government/ public schools) in the 25 top performing countries by PISA ranking. Only China has a larger average class size than Singapore:

If we want each 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 cut it anymore.

There need to be smaller class sizes for more individualised attention, to nurture creativity, collaboration and real exploration, to allow different styles and pace of learning for children, without the stress of a high-stakes exam at P6 hanging over the heads of children as young as 7.

“These teachers each have to, on a daily basis, manage classes of 40 or even 44. Teacher-student ratios are well and good. Life at the coalface for these teachers, however, is not a convenient ratio. For them, 40 pupils means 40 personalities, 40 sets of varying abilities, 40 sets of homework, and possibly several dysfunctional families to contend with as part of the work. We cannot allow this to continue if we value our teachers, especially those who are passionate about educating our children.”

“Sadly, not all children can focus at such a class size. Teachers will not be able to help every student. Some soft-spoken ones will suffer in silence."

An upper primary class in Finland with less than 20 students

Over the years, MOE has made varying arguments about why Singapore does not need to reduce its class sizes. In the past, its main claim was that studies on the impact of reducing class size were inconclusive. What MOE failed to point out is that most of the published research on this subject has been done in developed countries, usually testing reductions from 22-25 to even smaller classrooms of 10-20. Singapore, however, is way above the OECD average of 21 in a public primary school class.

More recently, MOE has made the argument that the ratio of teachers to students in our schools is comparable to other developed countries. And that in Singapore, rather than mandating smaller class sizes across the board, schools are given flexibility to deploy these teachers to help students with greater need for guidance.

However, what matters to us is not the overall ratio of teachers to students, but how large the class size is that a teacher has to deal with most of the time. The overall ratio of teachers to students in Singapore may look decent, but anecdotally we hear a lot about teachers having to spend large amounts of time doing work outside of classrooms (manually marking, organising CCAs and other events) that could be digitised or outsourced to admin support, at the expense of giving direct attention to students.

Also, the average class size given by MOE (29 in primary schools) is just that, an average. Yes, there may be some children in P3-P6 who spend a few hours or most of the school day in classes of less than 30, but most of our teachers and children are struggling with large class sizes of 35-40.

More than half of those (teachers) surveyed said they also struggled to manage students' behaviour, exacerbated by insufficient support for special needs students and difficulties with parents. Many attributed this to "overwhelming" class sizes.”

It is not enough to provide small class sizes just to children in the GEP and those who are struggling. In a developed country as rich as ours, ALL our children deserve smaller class sizes. And these class sizes should be provided upstream, in P1 to P6, rather than just downstream in Secondary schools for children who end up in Specialised schools and ‘Normal Stream’. Many ex-MOE teachers who are free to voice their views publicly have called for this, here’s an example.

With good teachers, smaller class sizes help the students. It’s quite clear. Why then is MOE cautious on the issue of class size? Because how it is implemented makes all the difference.”

The other argument that MOE makes is that teacher quality matters as much as class size, and that ramping up the number of teachers to reduce class sizes will reduce the quality of teachers. This is a truly disingenuous argument - no one is forcing MOE to implement small class sizes immediately.

Projecting ahead and gradually ramping up manpower for a sector, though it has its challenges, is not rocket science. 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 maintaining quality.

If the benefits of reducing class sizes from 35-40 to 20+ were really questionable, or if the reduction was really that difficult to implement, the average primary class size in other developed countries would not be so much lower than ours.

This should worry those of us concerned about Singapore’s economic competitiveness. Education is the main investment in our future workforce. Is it ok for our 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?

Class sizes in Singapore are much larger than other developed countries.

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