Just as leaving school is a rite of passage for the young, schools leaving the scene altogether marks the passage of ageing societies. As all schools must be run optimally, the Education Ministry has had to undertake the largest merger exercise of schools in the past five years. No fewer than 22 schools will be whittled down to 11, as there are fewer schoolchildren to fill classes.
The move ought to drive home the meaning of low birth rates in general for the country. Demographic decline might seem a distant concern for many compared to more immediate concerns like jobs and careers. But its impact is already upon the nation, manifested pointedly when one's alma mater has to be closed permanently while more eldercare facilities are being opened. The ineluctable truth is that, without being open to immigrants, no country can escape the destiny shaped by its demography.
The scale of the issue as it affects schools is apparent in the numbers. Around 38,600 students were posted to secondary schools this year, down from about 50,000 a decade ago. It might be argued that even so, the smaller cohort of pupils could have been spread across the almost 160 secondary schools. However, schools need a certain critical mass to be able to offer a good range of educational programmes and co-curricular activities to students. When secondary schools have insufficient classes at each level, the sensible choice is for them to join forces.
This is a sad demographic necessity that is felt at a personal level as people value old-school ties. Hence, managing such mergers should not be taken lightly. Schools are now paired by considering enrolment size, the suitability of merger partners and infrastructural capacity. The ministry also intends to work with schools to ensure the transition is smooth. Practical concerns aside, one must have a care for memories as well. Gratifyingly, the history of the schools will be preserved in a heritage space. It is not only older schools that inspire students by a long track record of achievement. Neighbourhood schools contribute to the nation, too, with the added characteristic of being an integral part of their neighbourhoods. There is every reason to remember their larger social identity along with their educational traditions. Every cohort that passes through the doors of such merged schools will extend the influence of their joint past on the present.
Ideally, one would want mergers to be kept to the minimum possible. But in the face of declining birth rates, the best one can hope is for exercises to be carried out with flexibility. It is important to recognise the sense of attachment that students and teachers feel to their schools. School ties are an important part of the many linkages one develops that collectively build a sense of belonging to Singapore.