Forum: Relook class sizes, school start time for new normal

Pupils wiping their tables after recess at Jing Shan Primary School on May 27, 2020. ST PHOTO: LIM YAOHUI

I applaud Dr Jeremy Teo Chin Ghee's suggestions to use the Covid-19 crisis to further improve our education system (Make school fun again, May 25).

The coronavirus pandemic has spurred examination of the challenges of density.

First, given our propensity for large school and class sizes, the current crisis is the ideal time to review the Government's longstanding argument that smaller classes do not necessarily lead to improved learning outcomes.

Put measurable results aside for a moment. Visualise instead what a smaller class size could offer: more individual attention; greater scope for student participation, especially for less confident children; and a smaller workload and less stress for teachers.

Greater or customised attention is one reason so many parents pay good money to send their children for tuition. Class size must matter: under the Gifted Education Programme, class sizes are typically smaller than the average in national schools.

With Covid-19, we have a new reason to consider the benefits of smaller classes. They will allow for more physical distancing and reduce the risk of disease spread.

Naturally, smaller class sizes will incur costs. But as a high-income per capita nation, we have the resources. It is a question of priorities. After all, haven't we been investing in the singular natural resource our country has - our people?

Second, Covid-19 has put in motion home-based learning. The upside is that it has allowed our children the luxury of sleeping in.

A 2014 study by the Nanyang Technological University and National University Hospital found that four in 10 primary school children are not getting enough sleep (Many parents not alert to child's lack of sleep: Study, Feb 5, 2015).

The problem is even more acute for teenagers, whose circadian rhythms shift forward, making them biologically wired to sleep and wake later, neuroscientists say.

With almost all schools in single session today, let us work towards a later start time for students.

Perhaps primary schools could start at 8am or 8.30am and secondary schools at 9am.

Traffic considerations have previously surfaced as obstacles. If a new normal of less commuting is here to stay, we could design a school day that leads to less sleep deprivation.

The pandemic has upended many of our longstanding convictions. Let it be our portal into a better school system - one less obsessed about academic outcomes and Pisa (Programme for International Student Assessment) rankings, and which puts our children's holistic well-being and development first.

Sunita Sue Leng

Join ST's Telegram channel and get the latest breaking news delivered to you.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on May 28, 2020, with the headline Forum: Relook class sizes, school start time for new normal. Subscribe