COS 2021: Smaller Class Sizes

Assoc Prof Jamus Jerome Lim (Sengkang): Mr Chairman, Singapore currently has one of the highest average class sizes among advanced countries in Primary and Secondary schools. In 2019, it amounted to 33 students per class. In contrast, the average among industrialised economies is a little more than 20. Even in East Asian economies such as Korea and Japan, student numbers in the Primary school classroom only push a little past 25. 

To be clear, the trend in Singapore has improved over time. The pupil-teacher ratio at the Primary level was around 26 at the turn of the millennium compared to 15 today. But this is hardly satisfactory in light of the fact that these numbers still pale in comparison to countries such as Denmark at 12, Australia at 11 and Luxemburg at nine. While certain banded classrooms are indeed smaller, this does not cover students who are not currently struggling, who arrived there on the basis of supplementary educational support.

Indeed, some may question, why, in spite of these unflattering resource ratios, our students appear to be able to producing some of the best test scores worldwide.

Part of the reason is likely to be our heavy reliance on supplementary education, sometimes pejoratively called the shadow education system, supplied by families directly. Private tuition and other supplementary education expenses come up to $112 out of the household’s monthly educational expenditures, a little more than 2%. This is more than what the average household spends on clothing and air travel and about a quarter of what they spend to be able to put a roof over their heads.

At the national level, we spent $1.4 billion on such additional private tuition. This is around 10% of the total that the Government spends officially on public education and, to the extent that we believe public education should be largely self-contained, represents an additional and implicit tax on Singaporeans.

To be clear, other East Asian societies, including China, Indonesia, Japan and Korea tend to engage more private tutors than other advanced countries. Around 70% of students in these aforementioned countries attend after-school lessons in mathematics, for instance – unsurprisingly, I was one of them – compared to less than 20% in countries such as Austria, Canada, Finland and New Zealand.

 Even so, the disparities between what we devote to public education expenditure is clearly indirectly, if imperfectly, made of four by private supplemental financing. Even setting our “kiasu” mindset aside, most parents do not have any burning to send their kids onto additional tuition if there are otherwise able to cope with the subjects. Consider how our tuition dollars are predominately spent on subjects where students struggle such as math or languages, and less on humanities such as history or geography.

Smaller class sizes can go a long way toward helping the average Singaporean household reduce their perceived need to engage additional private tuition. Perhaps, more importantly, smaller class sizes can also help level the playing field. While the evidence in favour of small class sizes for overall student achievement is weak albeit still positive, it is undeniable that individual students can benefit from smaller classrooms.

A small number of students release the load on our teachers, thereby freeing them up to pay more attention to students that are falling behind and since lower income households are less likely to be able to allocate additional finances towards tuition just so that their children may stay up to speed, this obviates the need for supplemental private tuition which can prevent students from such households from falling even further behind.

To this end, I am suggesting that the MOE, perhaps, consider capping class sizes at 23 which incidentally is the OECD average and, in particular, for the most tutored subjects such as mathematics as well as languages.

Ministry of Education
3 March 2021

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