The debate on class size in schools is one that is nuanced. It is not merely stating that big class sizes inhibit students’ learning, and vice versa. Singapore’s education landscape has witnessed a sea change to ensure that primary, secondary and junior college students’ learning is maximised. Whereas many improvements have been made, class size in schools has remained big.
Class Size or Teacher-to-student Ratio: Which is more important?
It is important to note that class size is not the same as teacher-to-student ratio, a measure used by the Ministry of Education (MOE) to sidestep the issue of providing each child with optimal attention from teachers. The latest figures from MOE show that the teacher-to-student ratio has improved from 1:19 in 2011 to 1:16 in 2016 in primary schools, and from 1:15 in 2011 to 1:12 in 2016 in secondary schools. This is surely a positive trend. Some may even see this as an inevitable outcome of a falling birthrate in Singapore.
Before we celebrate this high teacher-to-student ratio of 1:12, the reality is that these numbers are averages. This means that there are classes with enrolment as high as 44. The average class size is being brought lower because some classes with unique subject blends have less than ten students. In the end, students of big classes will still not experience a low teacher-to-student ratio. These big classes tend to be high progressing ones as students in these classes are believed to be able to cope better academically.
Even if these students are able to cope academically, it would be erroneous to assume that their social-emotional needs will not be neglected in a big class. And teachers struggle to give every one of their students regular face-to-face time and the attention they crave.
It is true that there are support systems set up in schools such as the Form Teachers’ Guidance Period, where one period a week is dedicated to the teaching of values and for bonding between teacher and pupil. Nevertheless, this weekly non-academic interaction may not be sufficient. The voices of students in a big class may easily be missed. One of the reasons this can happen is that teacher lack the necessary time and space to support students facing academic, social, psychological or emotional challenges. Thus, reducing the number of students in a classroom to 30 can lead to greater depth in the quality of interactions between teachers and students. With a smaller class size, students will also be less encumbered to share their views during class discussions. An engaged and personal class environment helps to build rapport and class spirit.
Cap Class Size at 30
As mentioned, a class size of maximum 30 students is optimal to ensure effective teaching and learning. However, the current policy practised in primary schools maintains a small class size only for Primary 1 and 2 classes. When the student progress to Primary 3, the class size can expand beyond 40. What impact does this abrupt increase in class size have on a Primary 3 student’s learning and social-emotional development?
As learning has become more complex due to an emphasis on critical and creative thinking, big class sizes can hinder the effectiveness of the classroom. With their efforts spread thinly, teachers have less time to provide effective and timely feedback on students’ development. It is no wonder that parents are sending their children to tuition centres where class sizes are kept small. When PSLE is round the corner, it is ultimately the responsibility of the parents to ensure that students are well-equipped to manage this academic milestone examination.
Policymakers in MOE should recognise that a ‘small’ class size is only considered small when a child sits in a classroom of not more than 30 students. Using averages will only satisfy a statistical requirement, not a child’s deep need for a teacher’s attention. With a slew of changes in train for Singapore’s education landscape, we hope a reduction in real class size will finally materialise.