“The Teaching and Learning International Survey, released on Wednesday, found teachers here spent almost twice the amount of time on marking and administrative work than their peers overseas. These duties take up nine and five hours respectively per week here, compared with global averages of five and three hours” (‘48 Hours? It’s More Than That’, Miss Amelia Teng).
While the Singaporean response to a global survey on the learning environment and working conditions of teachers, besides the disproportionately long working hours (ST, June 27) and the relative inexperience of young teachers, has been positive, the shortcomings – especially the student-to-teacher ratio – has been glossed over. Besides closer inspection of the results from the Teaching and Learning International Survey (TALIS), it would appear that the Ministry of Education (MOE) should engage more educators in conversation, more regularly.
TALIS surveyed 3,109 lower secondary teachers and 144 principals from 159 schools in Singapore. A representative sample of 20 teachers was randomly selected from each school. These are significant numbers, given the nearly 16,000 teachers from the 169 secondary and mixed levels schools in 2012. Significant enough for due attention to be paid.
Yet MOE’s press release reads “International OECD Study shows a quality, dynamic, and committed teaching force in Singapore”, even though some findings are not as flattering.
For instance only 36 per cent of principals in Singapore collaborate frequently with principals in the other schools, compared with the global average of 62 per cent. While 45 per cent of teachers overseas report positives changes in their methods for teaching special-needs students after receiving feedback, only 40 per cent of teachers in Singapore feel the same. The typical teacher and principal work in a class and school with 36 and 1,251 students respectively, in comparison to the global figures of 24 and 546 students.
In light of this the focus on the long working hours seems misplaced. With less students in the classroom the teacher can spend more lesson time on actual teaching and learning (71 per cent, with a global average of 79 per cent), and less time on keeping order (18 per cent, with a global average of 14 per cent). Since the MOE has maintained that the demand for the teaching profession outstrips the supply, is the student-to-teacher ratio a concern? Have teachers highlighted the matter? Besides the allied educators will there be more assistance within the classroom? Is the teacher-to-student ratio consistent across the secondary schools?
Primary and secondary schools may have 14 more teachers on average than they did in 2004, but is there room for improvement? What happens if a teacher takes a leave of absence?
The initial response from the MOE is somewhat disingenuous. “We will continue to support our teachers”, Deputy Director-General of Education (Curriculum) Mr. Wong Siew Hoong was quoted, “in terms of providing them work life balance through proper use of their teaching hours”. How does Mr. Wong mean “proper use of their teaching hours”? Does he mean reducing bureaucratic incoveniences, or easing administrative workload?
Take no credit away from the educators, for the student-to-teacher ratio is not in their control. With the responsibilities they shoulder the stretched teachers might elect to soldier on, fuelled by their love for the job. And unless the MOE takes a deeper look at the negatives, to gather and act upon the feedback from their troops on the ground, the problems will only persist.
A version of this article was published in The Straits Times.