Speaking in Parliament on 3 March during the Committee of Supply debate, the Workers’ Party (WP) Member of Parliament (MP) for Sengkang GRC Jamus Lim raised the issue of class size in schools.
Assoc Prof Lim noted that among the advanced countries, Singapore has one of the highest average class sizes in primary and secondary schools.
He suggested that the class size should be limited to a maximum of about 23 people, believing that this will help reduce the need for and dependence on additional private education fees, and also provide a more level playing field while reducing the burden on teachers.
However, Education Minister Lawrence Wong stated that the ratio of pupils to teachers in primary and secondary schools has improved in the past 10 years – from 19 to 16 in 2010 to 15 to 12 in recent years.
The Minister pointed out that although the number of teachers has declined slightly in recent years, it has remained roughly at around 32,000. Therefore, he argued that the number of teachers should be compared with the number of enrolled students.
Last Thursday (11 Mar), local Chinese mainstream media Lianhe Zaobao published a forum letter – titled ‘Exchange Station: Good grades created through tutoring?‘ – where the author refutes Assoc Prof Lim by saying that his “tutoring theory” is equivalent to denying the efforts by the school teachers, adding that even good results from tutoring have to be built upon the foundation laid by the schools.
Following this, the WP MP issued a response via a letter to Lianhe Zaobao on Tuesday (16 Mar), emphasizing that the efforts of school teachers are undoubtedly a major factor behind the good academic achievement by students.
“But no matter how strong the lineup of teachers, no matter how outstanding the teachers are, once faced with a heavy workload, they will definitely struggle,” Assoc Prof Lim wrote.
He also reiterated his views that the small class system allows teachers to concentrate better on teaching.
If there is no problem, why change?
Assoc Prof Lim pointed out that whenever there are proposals to improve resources for the schools, there are often responses such as: “The country’s educational achievements are among the best in the world, why change?”, or “Since there is no problem, why bother to change?”.
In other East Asian economies, such as South Korea and Japan, there are on average 25 students in the school class. But Singapore has an average of 33 people. In developed countries, the average class size is only 20 students.
“Of course, some schools run extracurricular tuition classes and while some classes with a small number of students, and some have nearly 40 students. Although Singapore’s teacher-student ratio is close to the average of other developed economies, it is still on the high side,” said Assoc Prof Lim.
Despite the average number of students in a class being relatively high, so why can students still achieve excellent educational achievements, he questioned.
Assoc Prof Lim mentioned that in addition to formal education, many families rely heavily on tutoring. He noted that Singaporeans have spent S$1.4 billion on such additional private tuition in 2018 alone.
The environment that spurs a huge private tuition market
“The average cost per family per month on tutoring is about S$112, which exceeds the cost of clothing and travel, which is also a quarter of their housing expenses,” he stressed.
Assoc Prof Lim said that many families send their children for tutoring not for additional academic advantages, but merely to prevent them from failing to keep up with the syllabus.
He also pointed out that the previous arguments made by Minister Wong and the forum writer seemed to misinterpret his original intention.
Assoc Prof Lim went on to emphasize the contribution of school teachers, though he highlighted several concerns along the way. No matter how strong the team of teachers and no matter how excellent teachers are, they will still face struggles in the face of a huge workload, he asserted, adding that in addition to teaching, teachers are also responsible for extracurricular and non-academic duties.
“One of my jobs after graduating from university is to be a contemporary teacher in elementary school, so I have personally experienced the challenges teachers face every day. Managing a large class with a large number of students requires the time and energy to devote more time and effort to teaching,” he explained.
“Ministry of Education can conduct a poll on opinion regarding class sizes”
Ultimately, Assoc Prof Lim hopes that these high-quality teachers can enjoy a better teaching environment, so they may be able to focus more on teaching, and dedicate their time and energy on students.
He reiterated that by reducing the class size, teachers will be able to realize their potential, and concentrate on the cultivation of the next generation of Singapore.
“Many teachers reflected to me directly that they hope the class size can be reduced so that they can focus more on improving the quality of teaching,” Assoc Prof Lim shared.
He also called on the Ministry of Education to not just take his word for it, but instead conduct a national survey to gain insights into teachers’ hands-on experience and their professional views, and subsequently share the results openly to the public.