Committee of Supply Cuts by YJJ on Ministry of Educatiion
Class size in schools
Most schools in Singapore have a class size of around 40, while Primary 1 and 2 classes have 30 students. This is large compared to the OECD’s average of 21 per class.
There are drawbacks of a large class. Teachers have to deal with more disciplinary and administrative issues, while weaker children risked being marginalised because the teacher’s time is divided amongst many students. MOE has previously said that “empirical evidence on the benefits of a smaller class size remains inconclusive.” 
The Brookings Institution notes that large class-size reductions can have significant long-term effects on students’ achievement. These effects seem to be largest when introduced earlier, and for students from less advantaged backgrounds.
The Tennessee STAR and the follow-up Wisconsin SAGE projects demonstrated the positive effects of smaller classes on students’ cognitive and non-cognitive outcomes. These effects persisted throughout the school life of the students. Other studies also show smaller classes have benefited disadvantaged students.
Class size reduction is not the magic bullet to better student development. It has to be implemented together with other holistic policies.
MOE saw it beneficial to have class size of 25 for gifted students. I hope such benefits can apply to all primary levels. I urge MOE to extend class size of 30 to primary 3 and 4 and eventually across all primary levels.
P. Blatchford, P. Bassett and P. Brown (2008) Institute of Education,
University of London, Paper to symposium ‘Class size effects: new insights into
classroom, school and policy processes”, American Research Association
Annual Meeting, New York
Primary 1 Admission
While MOE wants every school to be a good school, there is great disparity in results between schools. The highest and lowest median PSLE T-scores amongst schools last year are 247 and 160 respectively, a difference of 87. Mr Lee Kuan Yew had observed that admission to primary schools is based on the social class of parents. Six out of 10 pupils in six of the top primary schools live in private houses.
It is useful to review the primary 1 admission system. It is a stressful process for some, shifting house and doing volunteer work to get their children into top schools. I agree that priority should be given to those with siblings already in a school for the sake of convenience. Beyond that, we can consider a system with higher balloting chances for alumni, school volunteers and those living near the school, but it need not guarantee their position over others like in the phased system today.
I feel community leaders need not be given priority. Being a community leader for the purpose of getting into top primary schools does not gel with the spirit of community service.
With the change, we will have a better mix of students of different social backgrounds in our schools, allowing better integration amongst pupils.
I hope MOE can better spread resources across schools, reduce class size and review the need to centralise gifted students in top schools. Then, there may not be as much stress over which primary schools to enter.
Junior College Education
I declare that I am an Advisory Board member of a junior college (or JC). Observations in this cut are not from that JC.
I am concerned with a trend I noted in JC year 1 promotion exams, or the promo. There is no universal standard. Some JCs fail more than 50% of students at the promo. There will be a re-test, of which I found that in some JCs, the number of students retained or left JC after year 1, is very high. The highest I found is around 200 students in a cohort of some 800 year 1s.
Ironically, it is not the JCs that take in the weakest students that have the highest failing rate. Some are mid-tier JCs taking around the 10-pointers. The high failure rate seems not to be about students’ abilities but the standard imposed by each JC. MOE has left schools to decide their promos. Are standards too high in some? Is high exam failure rate consistent with MOE’s vision of holistic development? Is there a need for MOE to moderate?
I also find that there are many who favour the JC route because it seems more prestigious. I commend MOE for making polytechnic into a viable and respectable path for the skills-inclined students to be able to enter universities. Perhaps this can be communicated more strongly to clear some biasness that polytechnic graduates will find it hard to enter university, and for secondary schools to engage in guidance and counseling to better explain the JC and polytechnic options to students.
Secondary school admission
Many see PSLE as a high pressure sorting exam that determines the future of their children. Some will settle for nothing less than the very top secondary schools while others fear their children being placed into undesirable academic streams.
The PSLE T-score is used for admission into Secondary Schools and academic streams, notwithstanding DSA exceptions. I call this the sorting method, using a single score to sort students into schools.
MOE is currently reviewing the PSLE. There are two ways to view this. The first is to explore how to modify exams and results reporting, and how secondary schools will use these for admission. Currently, PSLE is held over a few days. There is no consideration for how the child had performed throughout primary school. One can argue for continuous assessment and add school scores to the T-Score. But some will feel that schools will not be objective.
Or results can be reported as grades only, so secondary schools will admit based on PSLE grades, school leaving testimonials, CCA achievements and other results. Instead of being a sorting test, PSLE then becomes a signaling tool. It signals the ability of the child in each subject and the secondary school has the discretion for other considerations.
The second way is to do away with the need for PSLE. Last year, I proposed for pilot schools with 10-year integrated programme from primary 1. This is to cater to parents like myself who do not think it is critical to send my children to top schools and that students of different abilities can mix together. I am happy to note that Mr Laurence Lien and Ms Denise Phua have made similar calls.
I appreciate that this is an emotive issue. Over the years, we have sorted students finely at various junctures of schooling and branded and banded schools to an extreme. I am for a system like Finland where students of all abilities progress through the same school and all schools are about the same. However, that may take a while for parents to accept. We can have start with 8 such schools; two for each zone. Meanwhile we can de-stress PSLE by changing it into a signaling tool, and spread students of different abilities across schools.
Lastly, I hope MOE can review the DSA system, especially DSA of GEP students into top independent schools.
Student Care Services
Student care services are now in 80 out of some 190 primary schools. It is commendable that MOE has stepped up efforts to have more student care facilities within schools. Student care had been given low priority in the past, and a poor cousin to child care which has more attention and funding support.
With more dual-income working parents, the demand for student care will follow the rise we saw in child care.
Student care has the potential to be a social leveler by providing homework coaching and lessons, as well as much needed nutrition for children from disadvantaged families.
Unlike childcare, there is no general fee subsidy for student care other than for the low income. Also, it is not mandatory for student care teachers to go for training. There is a Certificate in Student Care course but it is not widely promoted or mandatory for centres to have trained staff.
Some schools are constrained by space. Student care facilities should be viewed as essential school infrastructure and factored into the design of all schools.
Schools waiting for such facilities can work with nearby student care centres. MOE and MSF can work together to help secure new facilities if there are no nearby operators.
I hope MOE and MSF can work together, just as they are doing for preschool to provide better accessibility, affordability and quality in student care.