Assoc Prof Daniel Goh Pei Siong (Non-Constituency Member): Thank you, Madam. Mdm Chair, no matter how meritocratic our education system is, no matter how well trained our teachers are, there will be inequality in two areas. There will be students coming from under-privileged backgrounds who will need closer attention and motivation, and there are teachers who are by nature more caring and motivated to go the extra mile, change the lives of their students.
I ask that the Ministry consider establishing a "Teach for Singapore" Programme to match exceptionally motivated teachers to under-privileged students. This will be modelled after the US' "Teach for America" and the UK's "Teach First Programmes", both of which have good track records in improving educational outcomes for under-privileged students. We should, of course, make specific adaptations to the Singapore context.
Practising teachers could apply to join "Teach for Singapore" with a select group chosen each year to train in a one-year diploma programme in counselling, cultural sensitivity and teaching for social mobility. Graduates could then be deployed as "Teach for Singapore" fellows for three years to schools with high number of students on financial assistance.
"Teach for Singapore" alumni are then free to develop their teaching career. The aim is to create a national core of dedicated alumni who will continue to inspire and improve each other through conferences, courses and retreats. This will seed and grow the pursuit for education and equality and social mobility among our teachers as well as close the school quality gap.
Mdm Chair, the average class sizes at Primary and Lower Secondary levels in OECD countries are 21 and 24 respectively while MOE's planning parameters are for 30 students per class at Lower Primary and 40 at Upper Primary and Secondary levels. Only in the Gifted Education Programme are class sizes kept at 25 to promote better teacher-student engagement. I understand that the pupil-teacher ratios for Primary and Secondary schools are equivalent to OECD averages. But teachers in Singapore are deployed to provide support and extra classes for low-progress students rather than to reduce class sizes. However, reducing class sizes will remove the need to provide these extra remedial classes, which reinforce the stressful tuition culture in schools.
Nothing beats the close attention paid to students by the primary teacher in class and only a smaller class size can facilitate this. In line with falling student enrolment numbers and instead of closing down schools and merging them, I ask the Minister to again consider reducing class sizes to the OECD and GEP equivalent.
The Acting Minister for Education (Schools)(Mr Ng Chee Meng): Mdm Chair, I would like to thank all the Members for sharing their views and suggestions.
Assoc Prof Daniel Goh enquired if we could reduce the class sizes in mainstream schools to the levels in OECD countries.
Rather than reducing class sizes across the board, we adopt the approach to deploy resources in a much more targeted way, to support areas of greater educational need. This allows our schools to implement appropriate intervention strategies and give individual attention to low-progress students and students with special learning needs.
For example, levelling up programmes are in smaller groups of about eight to 10 in pull-out classes; and School-based Dyslexia Remediation (SDR) programme goes down to four students per class. We think this is a better and more inclusive approach to deploy the limited resources that we have.
Furthermore, it is not conclusive that smaller class sizes improve student outcomes on a system-wide basis. In fact, studies show that teacher quality matters much more. While we do not rule out further improvements in class sizes, we must balance this carefully with what is sustainable, and not risk compromising the quality of teachers we recruit.
Third, and very importantly, we resource schools and train teachers to support our low-progress learners. The Learning Support Programmes that I mentioned earlier are centrally-designed and taught by teachers who are specially trained to engage low-progress learners and be able to address not just their academic needs but their social-emotional needs effectively. Our goal is not just to help them level up in their studies, but also to develop their self-confidence and self-esteem.
As a result of these efforts, the proportion of these students in our system has reduced significantly over the years and is among the lowest internationally.
I would like to address Assoc Prof Daniel Goh's specific suggestion for MOE to set up a national corps of specially trained teachers for under-privileged students. As I have explained, we already have differentiated and dedicated support for low-progress learners, including those from needy families. Our context and approach are quite different from many other countries. We are able to centrally train and deploy teachers, being a small country. So, I am proud to say that we already have a national corps of well-trained teachers for all students.
Mr Leon Perera: Thank you, Mdm Chairperson. Just two points. Firstly, a point of clarification to the Minister on the issue of class sizes which he discussed in relation to what Assoc Prof Daniel Goh had mentioned. The Minister mentioned there is no proven causal link between smaller class sizes and better educational outcomes. I would like to ask if that is the case then why is it that the OECD average is smaller, why is it that our GEP classes are smaller, why is it that our international schools in Singapore have smaller class sizes and why is it that the tuition centre classes that we have in Singapore all have smaller class sizes than the norm, compared to the Primary and Secondary schools.
The Minister alluded to the fact we can generate good educational outcomes in Singapore based on tests like PISA and so on in spite of having larger class sizes than the OECD average. But we have to bear in mind that that is also with the help of the $1 billion tuition industry.
My question and my suggestion is − and relating to the point about sustainability − right now we have a situation where enrolments are gradually declining and if we assume that the attrition rate remains stable and that teachers are not made redundant, would not this create an opportunity to redeploy teachers in such a way as to reduce the class size, to avail ourselves of those kind of benefits. So, that is my first point.
My second point is just in relation to the increased emphasis on outdoor learning with the OBS and so on, what are the provisions being made for students with physical disabilities in order to be inclusive towards them?
Mr Ng Chee Meng: I thank the Member for the question. What I said in the speech is that on class size, according to research, on a systemic basis, there is no conclusive evidence. But we do go on a needs basis to tailor our education programmes for specific needs, whether it is GEP or for Normal (Technical) classes. Where the class size of Normal (Technical) is concerned, in Spectra and Crest, we go down to 20 per class to meet those needs. So, it is not just an issue of having a smaller class size for the GEPs but according to the needs. Both ends of the spectrum.
On OE learning and physical disabilities, we are running a pilot programme and it will be implemented in 2017. I would like to update that just last evening we were talking to Ms Denise Phua about how to have this inclusive programme for children with different disabilities. So long as they can meet the criteria of certain programmes, we would like to include them in those outdoor education opportunities.
Assoc Prof Daniel Goh Pei Siong: This is for Minister Ng. While it is true that there is inconclusive research on the causal link between reduced class size and teaching and education outcomes on a systemic level, and that is because academics are so good at destroying at each other's research, there are provisional conclusive results that reduced class size would positively affect education outcomes for disadvantaged students especially in the US and UK.
Given this conclusion, and because the Minister said that there is a possibility of considering improvements to the class sizes, would the Ministry consider pilot studies on reducing class sizes in secondary schools, for example, in mainstream schools that have more students with financial assistance to see whether results would bear fruit in Singapore.
And my second clarification is actually for the "Teach for Singapore" programme.
The Chairman: Keep it short, please, Assoc Prof Goh.
Assoc Prof Daniel Goh Pei Siong: Yes. What avenues are there for teachers who are passionate to teach disadvantaged students to take a sabbatical to upgrade themselves with skills outside the regular academic fields so that they can go and teach the disadvantaged students and then to request for a transfer, where they can go and teach the disadvantaged students?
Mr Ng Chee Meng: I thank the Member for the questions. Perhaps, I will just give an update to Assoc Prof Daniel Goh. When we do a needs-based approach, we provide the necessary resources to disadvantaged students. In Primary 1 and 2, as I had mentioned, if students joining our schools are not able to catch up, we take them out of the form class into a smaller size of maybe eight to 10 students and we provide dedicated teaching resource, one or two teachers, to level them up in English or literacy skills or numeracy skills, for up to two years. In the time that I have been in MOE, if I recall the numbers correctly, about 6% of our students benefit from these programmes. They do graduate out of these support programmes. So, it is very tailored, as per our philosophy, where there is need, we will put in the necessary resources to level our children up.
For the posting suggestion that Assoc Prof Goh mentioned, when I visited Spectra Secondary School in Woodlands. I was very impressed by one teacher. She was a teacher at Raffles Institution. But because of her deep ingrained desire to make a bigger difference to children with low progress, she decided to ask for a transfer to Spectra. As I had mentioned in my speech, in the context of Singapore, through NIE, we have a central institute, if you will, to train teachers to a very high quality. In this central system, we do allow these transfers for teachers with the passion that Assoc Prof Goh had mentioned.
Mr Png Eng Huat (Hougang): Thank you, Madam. This question is for Minister Ng, still on the subject of class size, but for Secondary school. There is a falling cohort size. Would the Ministry consider taking the opportunity to reduce class size then for secondary schools, rather than not post any student to those secondary schools and eventually those schools got to merge or close?
Mr Ng Chee Meng: I thank the Member for the question. With reference to school mergers, falling cohort size is a reality. Enrolment is coming down across the different schools. It would not be right to roll back enrolment in a healthy Secondary school to bolster up the lowered enrolment in the other secondary schools because this would lead to a distortion of outcomes.
In our philosophy, when we look at merging schools, we want the students to have the best opportunities to explore different programmes. If you do not have the critical mass in low enrolment schools, we will not be able to afford the programmes, the CCAs that Members have also mentioned. If it is 400 students versus 1,200 students, you can see the potential differences in opportunities to be given to the 400 and the 1,200. So, we do need a certain critical mass and there is a certain design in our school system that affords us these resources for them to run all these different co-curricular activities and so on and so forth.