Parliamentary Replies

October 21, 2013

Class size, student outcomes, and teacher workload

Name and Constituency of Member of Parliament

Ms Janice Koh, Nominated Member of Parliament

Question

To ask the Minister for Education (a) how does the Ministry assess the effects of class sizes and student-teacher ratios on (i) the quality of education and student outcomes including, but not limited to, exam scores and (ii) teacher workload; and (b) what are the current effects of teacher workload on teacher attrition and how does the Ministry track and share such trends.

Response

Ms Janice Koh asked about class size and student-teacher ratio - essentially these measure in some ways the resource inputs.

Let me first touch on the student-teacher ratio - or what is known internationally as the pupil-teacher ratio (or PTR) - as this is a very relevant statistic. We have recruited on average around 2,500 new teachers per year over the past decade, and our PTR has improved from 26 in 2000 to 18 in 2012 for primary schools, and from 19 in 2000 to 14 in 2012 for secondary schools. This is now comparable to the OECD average of 15 and 14 for primary and secondary schools respectively.

But a PTR of 18 in our primary schools does not mean that our class sizes are 18 in our primary schools - it simply means that we have one teacher for every 18 students, or two teachers for every 36 students, etc. The same PTR can result in different class sizes - as it depends on how we deploy our teachers. To illustrate, if we choose to deploy our teachers in classes of 18 students each, it would imply that all our teachers would have to be teaching a class all the time. This is clearly not tenable. Our teachers would need time to prepare for classes, to mark assignments, to guide students who need help.

Ms Koh is right to ask about student outcomes, rather than to focus only on input factors, and to ask about holistic outcomes, and not just limit this to examination scores. Indeed, our approach to improving student outcomes has been to deploy teachers to where they can contribute most to the learning of our students. For example, primary schools may assign one teacher to take a class of 40 students able to learn at a good pace, while the other teacher takes a class of 8 students needing more support, rather than having two classes of 24 students each.

The Learning Support Programme (LSP), for P1 and P2 students with weak literacy skills, is another example, as it is typically conducted in smaller groups of 8 to 10 students to ensure greater personalised attention and support to each student. Many primary schools also organise their P6 students taking subjects at the foundation level for PSLE into smaller class sizes. Some schools may also deploy two teachers in a class of 40 students — one teacher brings the class through the curriculum, while the other teacher assists specific students who may have difficulty understanding the materials being covered.

Ultimately, our goal is to help every student to learn and develop holistically, and we give school leaders the flexibility to deploy teachers to achieve this.

I should add that on a system-wide basis, that is, taking the entire education system and not just the results of specific practices in one or two schools, the empirical evidence on the benefits of smaller class sizes has been inconclusive. Indeed, studies by the OECD suggest that what is important is the quality of teachers. The quality of teachers has been shown to have more important effects, by OECD and in other international studies, than smaller class sizes in ensuring good educational outcomes.

This has been our experience too. Hence, our focus is thus on recruiting and training sufficient teachers of a high quality, to ensure a good quality of teaching and learning in every classroom, to benefit every student.

Hence, despite our class sizes being larger than those of many education systems, our students consistently attain high standards in international studies such as the Trends in International Math and Science Study (TIMSS), Progress in International Reading Literacy Study (PIRLS) and Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA). Our schools also offer a wide range of Co-Curricular Activities that develop our students holistically - unmatched by few, if any, educational systems worldwide. We are also glad that support and engagement levels among parents remain high, and that we have many dedicated teachers.

To enable teachers to focus on the teaching and learning of their students, schools are also provided with Allied Educators (AEDs) and a school administrative team. The AEDs support teachers in teaching and learning, and provide behavioural, social and emotional support to students while the school administrative team assists teachers in administrative duties.

The annual resignation rate for teachers has remained low at around 3% over the past five years. In our exit interviews and surveys, workload has not been cited as a major reason for leaving the Education Service. Nonetheless, we will continue to monitor the workload of teachers through internal employee feedback channels to ensure that workload is maintained within reasonable levels.