Mergers in the pipeline involving 28 schools, including eight junior colleges, came as a shock to many. The news stung because of the scale of the exercise and because the loss of one's alma mater is never easy to bear. On a rational plane, however, none would expect schools to remain unaffected by the rolling tide of demographic change, as plunging birth rates result in shrinking school enrolments. The numbers here are stark, with resident live births at 36,863 last year - 30 per cent fewer compared with 1988. Population decline affects other cities too. In Japan, for instance, nearly 40 per cent of its cities contracted between 2012 and 2015. But the effects of shrinkage are magnified in a small city-state like Singapore.
Schools, like endearing landmarks, help anchor people socially and emotionally to a home town. Their gradual disappearance presents a bureaucratic quandary. People need to be kept rooted to Singapore, but to keep the old intact for that reason alone could hinder progress or result in sub-optimal outcomes. For example, some buildings have heritage value, many clearly do not, and some provoke debate. Choices must be made.
Other factors apply to schools with dwindling numbers, and the rationale for merging them has been scrutinised closely, with some asking if the choices reflect an elitist bias. An open discussion of macro issues is thus called for. For example, the geographical spread of population decline has to be taken into account when deciding how best to realign services to match realities on the ground. In education, schools are expected to be closer to areas where families with school-going children are located - typically in newer housing estates. That is why new schools have been built there, even as old ones are merged elsewhere.
Critically, there is a need to maintain the richness of programmes in schools to help every child fulfil his or her potential. Sufficient numbers of students are needed to justify programmes and infrastructure for diverse educational pursuits, sports, music, various performing arts, robotics, coding and other niches.The learning of communication, collaboration and information skills, components of 21st century competencies, would be also less effective when there are not enough students to simulate real-world settings.
While pragmatism should rule when undertaking mergers, school culture and loyalty should not be dismissed. Even when affiliated Chinese High School and Hwa Chong Junior College merged, there were concerns about the loss of identity and tradition. Consequently, compromises were struck. Thus, upcoming merged institutions should not lose sight of heritage when they weigh changes to the school badge, motto or song down the road. The history of disappearing schools deserves to be preserved properly in one form or another for the sake of their alumni.