Education Minister Lawrence Wong says pupil-teacher ratio has improved despite “slight decline” in teaching force, after MPs propose reducing class sizes to ease teachers’ workload

The pupil-teacher ratio in Singapore schools has improved despite a “slight decline” in the country’s teaching force, said Education Minister Lawrence Wong on Wednesday (3 Mar).

Mr Wong was responding to three Member of Parliament (MPs)’s concerns and proposals on the issue of reducing class sizes.

Sengkang GRC MP Jamus Lim of the Workers’ Party highlighted in his cut during the Ministry of Education (MOE) Committee of Supply debate in Parliament today that Singapore “currently has one of the highest average class sizes among advanced countries”.

“In primary and secondary schools in 2019, it amounted to 33 students per class. In contrast, the average among industrialized economies is a little more than 20, and even in East Asian economies—such as Korea and Japan—student numbers in the primary school classroom push only a little past 25,” he stressed.

While he noted that the trend in Singapore has improved over time, Dr Lim pointed out that the pupil-teacher ratio at the primary level was “around 26 at the turn of the millennium, compared to 15 today”.

“But this is hardly satisfactory in light of the fact that these numbers still pale in comparison to countries such as Denmark (12), Austria (11), and Luxembourg (9),” he said.

While certain banded classrooms are indeed smaller, this does not cover students not currently struggling, who only arrive there on the basis of supplementary support, said Dr Lim.

“Perhaps more importantly, smaller class sizes can also help level the playing field,” he added. “While the evidence in favour of smaller class sizes for overall student achievement is weak — albeit still positive — it is undeniable that individual students can benefit from smaller classrooms.”

A smaller number of students, said Dr Lim, “relieves the load on our teachers, thereby freeing them up to pay more attention to students that are falling behind”.

“And since lower-income households are less likely to be able to allocate additional finances toward tuition just to ensure that their children stay up to speed, obviating the need for supplemental tuition can prevent students from such households from falling further behind,” he added.

Dr Lim subsequently suggested the MOE to consider capping class sizes at 23 — the OECD average — particularly for the most tutored subjects, such as mathematics and languages.

Mr Wong said that it would be “more relevant to compare our teacher numbers with our student enrolment numbers”.

The ratio went down from around 19 in 2010 to 15 at present for primary schools. For secondary schools, the ratio went from 16 to 12 for secondary schools.

The ratios are “comparable” to the averages for the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), said Mr Wong, referencing the MPs’ comparison of Singapore’s relatively larger class sizes against the OECD standard sizes.

“I hope they understand that it is not that we have fewer teachers as compared to the OECD countries,” he said.

Teachers are placed in classes where they can “maximise their impact” such as in the earliest grade levels or where students have greater needs, said Mr Wong.

Learning support programmes have class sizes of as few as eight to 10 students per class, he noted.

Foundation classes in the upper primary classes are taught in smaller groups of between 10 and 20 students. Classes for secondary students in the Normal (Technical) course are generally smaller, Mr Wong added.

“Compared to other OECD countries, we also devote a larger share of our teachers’ time to important activities that are crucial for students’ holistic development, such as CCAs (co-curricular activities), like professional development and lesson preparation,” he said.

Dr Lim also noted that private tuition is instrumental in boosting Singapore students’ performance in international studies.

“Private tuition and other supplementary education expenses come up to $112 out of households’ monthly expenditures — a little more than 2 per cent. This is more than the average household spends on clothing and air travel, and about a quarter of what they spend to put a roof over their heads,” he observed.

“At the national level, we spent $1.4 billion on such additional private tuition. This is around 10 per cent of the total the government spends officially on public education, and—to the extent that we believe public education should be largely self-contained—represents an additional, implicit tax on Singaporeans,” Dr Lim added.

Other East Asian societies—including China, Indonesia, Japan, and Korea—tend to engage more private tutors than other advanced countries, with around 70 per cent of students in such countries attending after-school lessons in mathematics, Dr Lim said.

In comparison, less than 20 per cent of students in countries such as Austria, Canada, Finland, and New Zealand take up private tuition.

“Even so, the disparities between what we devote in public education expenditure is clearly indirectly — if imperfectly — made up for by private supplemental financing,” he said.

Mr Wong, in response, said this is “not being very fair” to school teachers.

“In fact, the OECD and other research point to teacher quality as being the critical element in influencing student learning and performance,” he said.

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