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Time to go beyond Compulsory Education

by Lisa Li

photo credit: Ministry of Education

Half a year ago, I met two boys aged seven and eight. They had just moved into temporary flats, because their families were homeless and previously living in public parks. The seven year-old told me he attended a school that, by my calculation, was possibly an hour away by public transport. The other boy stared at me in perplexed silence, until the younger boy explained, "He doesn't understand English!" before helpfully translating my question and the older boy's reply that he was in Primary Two, and attended a school nearby.

How did he slip through almost two years of primary school without understanding all his lessons and instructions in English?

The seven and eight year-olds I hang out with every Sunday at our neighbourhood volunteer tuition programme and kidsREAD club are slightly, though not much better off.

Some are excited to be reading and writing, but others, even at the end of Primary Two, are still barely literate. They ask for help spelling words and after laboriously writing a few basic sentences, are unable to remember, pronounce or understand what they have just written. Some show signs of dyslexia or perhaps merely an unfamiliarity with the shape of letters. Few are able to read an entire book on their own.

All these children mentioned are from low-income families, with a household per capita income of approximately $400 or less. Their families face a range of difficulties in cost-heavy Singapore, and apart from Sunday's volunteer tuition programme and kidsREAD, I doubt these children get much academic help at home.

The focus on education

To be fair, this can be read as a success story -- that even children from poorer families are attending schools, and occasionally, extra tuition classes and reading programmes on weekends. Perhaps this is spurred on by Singapore's Compulsory Education Act passed in 2000, which makes primary school education compulsory for all except disabled children.

According to the Straits Times report 'Kids Who Don't Go to School' (19 April 2009), 1,483 non- disabled seven year-olds did not register for Primary One in 2009. Liaison officers and counsellors from the Singapore’s Children’s Society then tracked down and supported the parents in sending their children to school. As a result, all but two children were accounted for -- no mean feat considering some of these families were homeless and living nomadically in public spaces.

It is certainly commendable that the government and parents value education enough to ensure that their children attend primary school -- but this is not enough.

Reduce the teacher-student ratio

In July 2004 during a Parliamentary session, MP Mdm Ho Geok Choo asked then-Acting Minister for Education Mr Tharman Shanmugaratnam about class sizes. He replied that in 2005, all 132 government schools would reduce their Primary One class size from the current 40 to 30, and this would be extended to Primary Two in 2006.

This is definitely an improvement, but I feel that class sizes can and should be further reduced. How can a teacher effectively help a struggling child when she has to deal with another 29, or 39 children in the class? Throw in discipline problems, tons of marking and a heavy administrative load, and it is unlikely that the poor teacher will have much energy left -- this is possibly why weak students slip through the cracks.

There may be plenty of practical reasons why the teacher-student ratio cannot be further reduced. Some may even quote studies that suggest this ratio has no bearing on the effectiveness of teaching. However, anyone who has ever worked with very young children will know that the smaller the teacher-student ratio, the more personal attention can be given to each child.

In fact, this has been corroborated by the National Academy of Early Childhood Programs in the United States, which found that the ideal teacher-student ratio for the ages of six to eight years old is approximately 1:12, which has been achieved by the Danish education system's teacher-student ratio of 1:10.

Increase the education budget

One could argue that this excellent ratio is funded by Denmark's high taxes, and this is impossible by Singapore's tax standards.

However, I believe that it is a matter of prioritising. If we lack funding, I believe that the Ministry of Education (MOE) can redistribute funds by cutting down on unnecessary administration and expenditure. One simple example: rather than regularly distribute both MOE's hardcopy publication and the civil service publication to every one of the 27,894 teachers in Singapore (figure accurate for 2008), why not eliminate the printing and distribution costs by publishing it entirely online?

Furthermore, Singapore's budget allocation currently prioritises defence over education -- in FY2010, S$11.46 billion (4.3% GDP) went to MINDEF and SAF for defence, while S$9,664 million (3.6% GDP) was allocated to the Ministry of Education, based on the figure of S$265,057 million GDP for 2009.

In contrast, the United Kingdom's defence budget for 2009 was £42.1 billion (3% GDP) while its education budget was £79.9 billion (5.7% GDP). Even South Korea, in the face of an antagonistic North Korea, spends 12% of its budget on defence, but 15.5% on education.

My point? Other countries have managed to re-prioritise their budget, and Singapore too has the financial means and choice to spend our budget with a greater emphasis on education.

I believe that if the Singapore government prioritises the bare essentials of improving students' learning through methods such as further reducing the teacher-student ratio in line with international standards, teachers would be better able to help our weak students.

This would also have the added advantage of easing the teachers' burdens, potentially reducing the drop-out rate for teachers, adding to the pool of experienced teachers and reducing the expenditure needed to attract and train new teachers.

Beyond merely Compulsory Education

It is good that Singapore's Compulsory Education Act dictates enrolment and participation in schools, but beyond this, we need to ensure that the children are truly learning in a well-supported and conducive environment that allows teachers to pay more attention to their students.

Our children need this, especially the weak, barely literate ones, those whom welfare agencies and low-income, unemployed parents struggle just to send to school. It is both pragmatic and right to make sure that once these children are in school, our schools do not let them down.