Some educators question if mergers are only feasible way to address declining cohort sizes
On Friday, it was announced that 22 secondary schools will be merged into 11 over the next two years to ensure they each have a “critical mass” to give students a good range of educational programmes and co-curricular activities (CCAs).
But The Sunday Times has found that some secondary schools which have already been merged still struggle to attract new students.
In the middle of 2014, it was revealed that starting from this year, Fajar Secondary would be combined with Chestnut Drive Secondary, while Ping Yi Secondary would join with Bedok Town Secondary.
The Sunday Times understands that there are around 90 Secondary 1 students in four classes at the new Ping Yi Secondary. At the new Fajar, there are about 80 students in its three Sec 1 classes.
In comparison, Ping Yi Secondary has eight and 12 classes at Sec 3 and 4 levels respectively, while there are at least five classes at Fajar’s other levels. In popular secondary schools, there is an average of 10 classes at each level.
A Sec 1 student at Fajar who did not want to be named said she had wanted to join the girls’ badminton team but was turned away.
“We needed six people for a team and they said that there weren’t enough because of the small cohort.
“So I had to join netball instead.”
Ryhan Sollihin, 13, another Sec 1 student at Fajar, said: “I thought the school would be big and have many students, especially since it just merged. My teacher gives me more attention in class, as there are fewer students, but I can’t make as many friends.”
The schools did not respond to press queries.
The Education Ministry (MOE) on Friday said 14 schools, including North View Secondary and Balestier Hill Secondary, which did not have any Sec 1 intake this year, will be merged to form seven schools next year.
Another four pairs of schools – Chong Boon Secondary and Yio Chu Kang Secondary, Bedok North Secondary and Damai Secondary, Greenview Secondary and Loyang Secondary, and Bishan Park Secondary and Peirce Secondary – will be combined in 2018 to also arrest their falling admissions.
MOE said the mergers were down to fewer babies being born here over the past two decades, which has led to a “corresponding decline in overall demand for school places”.
This year’s Sec 1 cohort size is about 38,600, down from about 50,000 a decade ago. There are 158 secondary schools here.
The other two schools that merged this year are Tanglin Secondary, which took in Clementi Woods Secondary, and Bartley Secondary, which merged with First Toa Payoh Secondary.
This is already the third merger for First Toa Payoh, while Clementi Woods was initially formed from a 2007 merger between Ghim Moh Secondary and Jin Tai Secondary.
A teacher at a school slated for merger in 2018 said that mergers can become a “vicious circle”.
“If you look at past trends, how many schools that have been merged end up merging again? Parents will assume that the school has a small intake because people don’t want to go there…
“In fact, it’s not really the case,” he said. “The main problem is the demographics of the school’s location.”
Asked whether the latest list of merged schools might merge again, MOE said that the possibility cannot be ruled out.
Meanwhile, some of the schools slated for merger in 2018 will continue to have to deal with small cohorts.
Nicole Descalsota, who is the chairman of her CCA, the St John Ambulance Brigade, at Greenview Secondary in Pasir Ris, said her CCA welcomed a single Sec 1 student this year.
Every other level, from Sec 2 to Sec 4, has about six to seven members.
“It’s hard for us. We don’t have enough people to help the CCA to grow,” said 15-year-old Nicole, who is in Sec 3.
“I don’t know if the CCA might close down by the time we merge and it would be a pity because the students train quite hard.”
The Sunday Times understands that Bishan Park Secondary restricted its new Sec 1 students to just five out of the school’s 15 CCAs to cope with the smaller student numbers.
Greenview Secondary received about 80 students this year, compared with 180 last year. Bishan Park Secondary and Chong Boon Secondary both received about 60 students each.
Dr Stuart Martin, principal of Nexus International School, said that such schools might struggle to offer a broad curriculum with a variety of CCAs due to the lack of economies of scale.
National Institute of Education Associate Professor Jason Tan said the current system in which students can apply for any secondary school after the Primary School Leaving Examination (PSLE) means that “it is inevitable that schools have different levels of popularity”.
So it is difficult to ensure an equal number of students at each secondary school.
Some educators questioned if mergers are the only feasible way to address the issue of falling cohort sizes, given that some schools seem to bear the brunt of the shortfall, while others still see consistent demand, even if they are in mature housing estates.
National University of Singapore Associate Professor Paulin Straughan said alternatives to the “blunt instrument” of school mergers should be considered.
“Has the definition of what is an optimal size been revisited, with new key performance indicators in place?
“The morale of teachers takes a hit when they are in a school that is here today, gone tomorrow.
“When students and staff identify with the history of their school, they feel a sense of pride and do better. Pragmatism only gets you so far.”
On Friday, MOE clarified that it does not intend to reduce the overall student-to-teacher ratio in classes across all schools.
Instead, additional resources freed up by the smaller cohorts are invested in special “levelling up” programmes, particularly in primary schools and in Normal (Technical) classes at secondary schools.
But Prof Straughan urged schools slated for merger to use this chance to pilot small-group teaching programmes that can also level up the masses of students in the middle who have slipped behind their peers during the PSLE.
“This can be an educational experiment for schools to showcase small-group teaching pedagogies.”
She also suggested that schools group with other schools for CCA activities so that children will have more choice and get to build bigger social networks.
Smaller classes: Boon or bane?
There are 36 students in Asher Tan’s Sec 1 class at Greenview Secondary School, and they already make up almost half of his school’s Sec 1 cohort, which totals about 80.
But he spends the majority of time in his class with a smaller group of 18 as the class is split into half for main academic subjects like English, mathematics and science.
The periods when he can meet the other half of the students in his class are during recess and general classes like physical education or Mother Tongue.
Asher says that during classes, he gets called on by his teacher more often.
“There are a lot more students in my friends’ schools. It’s a bit weird knowing that I will be in the same class with the same people for four years, unless some of the students from the Normal stream transfer in,” said Asher, who is 13 years old.
He has band practice sessions twice a week, with about six other Secondary 1 students.
There are about 20 students in each of the other levels in his co-curricular activity.
“I don’t mind merging with other schools,” said Asher. “Maybe we can meet our friends in other schools that way.”
On the other hand, Sebestian Goh, a Sec 1 student at Bishan Park Secondary School, likes the fact that his class has fewer than 20 students.
“Not a lot of people will talk at the same time, so the teacher listens to us more,” he said.
“We get a higher chance of getting a leadership position in school,” said Joshua Orpia, a Sec 1 student at Chong Boon Secondary School.
Additional reporting by Melissa Lin
This article was first published on March 6, 2016.
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