No set way of implementing smaller classes: Ong Ye Kung

Education Minister Ong Ye Kung said schools have the flexibility to configure class sizes for different subjects.
Education Minister Ong Ye Kung said schools have the flexibility to configure class sizes for different subjects.

Schools now break up students into different group sizes in a variety of ways, he says A group of five Nominated MPs raised a motion yesterday on education for Singapore's future, calling for more to be done to ensure a love for learning, and for education to remain accessible and inclusive. A total of eight NMPs and five MPs spoke, raising issues ranging from tuition and the PSLE to lifelong learning and aptitude-based admissions.

While students can benefit from smaller classes with good teachers, there is no one set way of implementing this across the board, Education Minister Ong Ye Kung said yesterday.

Schools here break students up into different group sizes in a variety of ways, he said, through learning support programmes in groups of eight to 10, or class sizes of 20 in specialised schools like Assumption Pathway School.

Mr Ong made this point in Parliament to address the perception that students in Singapore study in one class with a fixed size. "The reality and the lived experience of students is that they now regularly move around, join different groups and there is no single class size."

In many junior colleges, consultations between students and teachers are often one-to-one, he added.

"Let me put MOE's position on class size straight and clear: With good teachers, smaller class sizes help the students. Our teachers can attest to that through first-hand experience," he said in response to a suggestion by NMP Kuik Shiao-Yin for the Ministry of Education to conduct a pilot on smaller class sizes.

Primary and secondary schools here have about 33 to 34 students per class, with lower levels having an average of 29 pupils.

Ms Kuik said this is way above the average Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development primary and secondary class sizes of 21 and 24, calling for MOE to relook class sizes."If it could allow teachers more time and space to train learners in thinking, it would be a luxury worth investing in," she said.

Mr Ong said that while it is a popular idea to have smaller classes, MOE is cautious about the issue because how they are implemented makes all the difference. He cited several studies overseas that were inconclusive about the link between class size and achievement.

For instance, a 2009 study in Hong Kong of 700 primary school classes over three years showed no significant differences in pupils' results even when their class sizes varied along the way.

A study in the United States had similar results. "One reason was that in the US context, smaller class sizes meant hiring of many new teachers who were inexperienced and yet to be effective in the classroom."

Mr Ong also recounted a visit to Finland earlier this year where teachers told him different political parties there held varying positions on class sizes. Whichever party that was elected would then legislate the class size and put it into law.

Teachers in Finland said they prefer not to have the rigidity, he said.

"Grant the school the teaching resources, and give them the flexibility to configure class sizes for different groups of students, for different subjects. This is what Singapore has been doing," he added.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on July 12, 2018, with the headline 'No set way of implementing smaller classes: Ong Ye Kung'. Print Edition | Subscribe