The recent announcement to merge eight junior college came out of the blue, and it sparked a passionate debate about Singapore’s education, and the direction we are heading in. The decision seem to reek of elitism, backed by the fact that the oldest and most prestigious colleges escaped unscathed from this round of consolidations raised eye-brows. Perhaps in a typical case of civil service bluntness, even done with the best intentions, it was poorly packaged.
In this article, I am aiming to wade through the blunt packaging, and situate this new announcement within the context of education policies in Singapore, and what this means for us. I have my personal misgivings about the decision for the mergers, but they are not grounded in concerns over elitism. I believe that this decision to merge the schools is itself a move to fight elitism within our school system.
The Air-Conditioning Chop of 2014
The mergers, officially stated as a move to prepare for shrinking student cohorts in the years to come, have to be understood within the Ministry of Education’s attempts in the past 5 to 10 years to create a more egalitarian education system. This is captured in the much panned “every school is a good school” motto. Rather than reading it as a declaration of fact, it is an aspiration to work towards.
Under the current of derision and cynicism, there have been concrete steps taken to close the gap between teh supposed ‘elite’ and ‘neighbourhood’ schools. Between “every school a good school”, and the current junior college merger buzz, there is the forgotten “air-con chop” of 2014.
While the discussions centred over the privileged schools’ spending on air-conditioning bills, many of us forgotten the other cuts that came along with it. This includes reductions in grants to Integrated Programme schools which shrank their budgets by 8 to 10%, and the concurrent increase in per-student spending in government and government-aided schools in the same year.  This was further backed up by the directive issued to schools to stop fund-raising for non-essential facilities, a practice that disproportionally benefited the oldest schools with the most connections and illustrious alumni.
The current wave of mergers and consolidation sits within such a context, and is an attempt to ensure that government junior colleges can be just as competitive and attractive in delivering the outcomes of education as independent ones. While it is unfortunate that policies often reduces the individual to a mere number, there are also economic realities that have to recognised. A larger student body means that a greater variety of enrichment activities could be provided. Furthermore, the running overhead of a junior college stands around $20 million a year, making consolidation a more sensible move in order to free up resources towards more pertinent issues within our education system – such as ensuring that every student gets an equal shot at life.
Class Sizes and a Recruitment Spree
Another concern about the merger of junior colleges seems to stem from the idea that consolidation of schools meant that class sizes are going to remain large. However, between 2010 and 2015, the teaching service expanded from 27,000 to 33,000 teachers. In 2015, with 454,697 students across all years, this meant that the student teacher ratio stood at 1:14, far above the OECD average of 1:21. Of course, this varies across subjects, schools, and year groups. Music classes would likely have a smaller enrolment than physics in a junior college for instance. The ratio of the junior college cohort stands at 1:9.5 in 2015, enough to rival leading private schools around the world, such as Eton College, UK, and Trinity Pauling College, USA.
The recent merger of junior colleges should not be seen as an attempt to detract from this expensive project to expand the teaching service by 20%. Rather, it is to ensure that this expanded teaching service can be applied in a more effective manner. Concurrent to this expansion of the teaching service was the increasing adoption of new strategies to ensure differentiated instruction in the classroom, such as co-teaching, or subject banding. These are management strategies that would require a larger cohort size in order to bear fruit, and allow for the creation of a more targeted classroom. Therefore, I believe that the mergers as a part of the continued push to improve the quality of our public schools, and to strive towards making every school a good school.
Keeping Options Open
Another common concern was whether such a merger would lead to a decrease in the number of places available to students in 2019. While the Ministry of Education said that all who qualify will be given a place, let’s look beyond that for an assurance. The mergers will not decrease the proportion of students in the 2019 cohort from entering a junior college. The numbers speak, with 15 junior colleges, each recruiting at the standard 850 students, that would mean an intake of around 12,000 students, or 40% of the 2019 cohort. This is consistent with the 2016 intake proportion.
Of course, the further question of whether more than 40% of a cohort should go to a junior college lingers on – and the answer appears to be yes. Between 2006 and 2015, the proportion of a cohort entering junior colleges expanded from 20% to 40%, while the number of university spaces expanded just as aggressively. If this trend is anything to go by, the answer is yes, but establishing universities, training teachers, building schools takes time.
As I said, I have my personal misgivings about the merger of junior colleges. I believe that each junior college is a community that have their own values, identities and networks, and I am extremely upset at how these communities will be destroyed, again in the name of progress. We tore up Bukit Brown, tore down the National Library, and paved over coastal communities. It is disappointing that communities that came to represent the most exciting years of one’s life, adolescence, is being destroyed without so much a bat of the eye. However, I contend that by situating these mergers within the scope of general policies for the past five years, it is not motivated by an elitist mindset, but rather it is designed to ensure that system remains open to all.
The views expressed in this article are the writer’s own and do not necessarily represent the views of the editors
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 All education figures cited from the Singapore Education Statistics Digest 2016. https://www.moe.gov.sg/docs/default-source/document/publications/education-statistics-digest/esd-2016.pdf