Coral Primary School which will be merged with White Sand Primary School. (Source: Google street map screenshot).

by Prof Yeoh Lam Keong

In Parliament on Wednesday (July 11), Mr Ong Ye Kung said that the Ministry of Education (MOE)’s approach is to grant the school the teaching resources, and “give them the flexibility to configure class sizes for different groups of students, for different subjects”.

“Let me put MOE’s position on this straight: With good teachers, smaller class sizes help the students. Our teachers can attest to that through first-hand experience,” he said. “Why then is MOE cautious on the issue of class size? Because how it is implemented makes all the difference.”

I fully agree with him and the MOE that good teachers and smaller class sizes clearly help students. Especially in nurturing the important soft skills needed by the modern knowledge economy rather than battery farm methods of churning out higher but more dubiously relevant PISA scores.

However, in this light and much as I have considerable personal respect for him and some of his initiatives, I must say that I find Education Minister Ong’s arguments as to why class sizes in Singapore are still so large rather unconvincing and inadequate.

In Singapore, there are 29 students per class in primary schools and 33 to 34 for secondary schools on average.

Comparatively, for countries under the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), the overall average class size in primary and secondary education stands at 21 and 24 respectively.

International rankings that are more focused on relevance to business rather than more mechanical PISA scores rate Singapore’s education system poorly on the dimension of lack of investment in teaching resources at primary and secondary school.

This is confirmed by the latest Swiss business school and global competitiveness expert IMD’s international education rankings for 2016 where Singapore dropped 5 places to 15th. The rankings were based on three main categories – education, appeal of the country to talent and how work-ready people are.

The education category, which was measured mainly by the amount of money invested, was Singapore’s weak spot. It invests a relatively small amount of national output or gross domestic product (GDP) in public education, with a ranking of 56 in this area.

Focus group industry surveys of higher value-added firms, which I have conducted also, consistently lamented the poorer employability of our students in terms of vital communication, innovation, creativity and people skills.

Lack of good teachers to run the smaller classes needed to consistently nurture these skills systematically has been one of the main reasons given by the MOE but this is unconvincing as same reason has been given for over the last 15 years.

A more likely reason to me for our persistently lower teacher-pupil ratios might be because we are just not prepared to invest more in education to build up the needed teaching capacity to run small class sizes more prevalently. Singapore still spends around 3% of GDP on education compared to around 4-5% of GDP in advanced developed countries.

Professor Arturo Bris, director of the IMD World Competitiveness Centre, told The Straits Times in 2016 “Singapore’s reduction in investment in public education relative to last year was not big, but because many other countries invested more in education over the year, they overtook Singapore in the rankings.”

He noted that many European countries like Switzerland occupied the top of the charts. In general, European nations have boosted their investment in physical and intangible infrastructure such as education after the European debt crisis receded in 2014, he said.

Our greatest asset in the long run is the quality of our people. When are we going to step up to the plate and properly reform an outmoded and under-resourced education system to one that can better prepare our students for the new knowledge economy of the future?

This was first published as a post on Prof Yeoh’s Facebook page and republished with permission. Prof Yeoh was formerly the Chief Economist in Singapore’s investment entity, GIC and former Adjunct Professor at the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy.

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