LETTER OF THE DAY - Not enough, rather than too many, teachers
The Editor, Sir:
I write with regard to the recent discussions concerning the pupil-teacher ratios of 35:1 for primary schools and 17:1 for high schools, and the conclusion therefrom by the Ministry of Education that some schools are overstaffed by a total of about 1,500 teachers.
These ratios are mathematical or statistical constructs that neither support the staffing requirements at specific institutions nor indicate the number of students being taught in the classroom, even in institutions that fall within the ratios.
I have been a teacher at the high-school level for many years, and also a lecturer in teacher education at the tertiary level. I have had the opportunity to visit several high schools and, based on observation of actual classroom scenarios, it is my conclusion that schools are very much understaffed and would need at least twice the number of classrooms and teachers in order to meet these ratios in practice.
Many high schools have class sizes of about 40 students. Take a walk through any of these schools during class time and what would you see? Even if the school conformed to the ratio, you would see one teacher teaching a class of 40 students. The exception would be in what is called split or shared classes, where students have options among certain subjects such as woodwork (woods) and metalwork (metals), and the class is split in two. but this is not the norm for the majority of subjects such as mathematics or English.
This discrepancy arises because of the number of teachers required to teach the subjects timetabled for the class. For example, a class of 40 students taking eight subjects would require eight teachers at the high- school level. That would be a wonderful pupil-teacher ratio of 5:1, but each teacher would still be teaching 40 students. The pupil-teacher ratio for a school is arrived at by a similar process but compares the total number of students in the school with the total number of teachers.
The pupil-teacher ratio also does not necessarily accommodate the staffing requirements of specific institutions, and could in fact undermine the development of the curriculum and the addition of needed subject areas.
For example, back in the early 1990s, the Ministry of Education was exhorting schools to introduce information technology (IT) to their curriculum but did not make any adjustments to the pupil-teacher ratio to accommodate this. This created a dilemma for a number of schools which fell just within the ratio. If they did what the Ministry of Education wanted and hired a computer teacher, the same ministry would tell them they were overstaffed.
Some schools were able to get around this temporarily by using or hiring a teacher who could teach both IT and another subject.
As the programme expanded throughout the school, however, it became more difficult to do this, and specialist IT teachers would have had to be hired, and voilà, the school would be overstaffed by four or five teachers. Well, according to the ratio, the school would be overstaffed, but by the academic needs of the institution, the school would be adequately staffed.
You can see from this example that schools have to be very careful about adding new subject areas, no matter how important they think they are, for fear of going over the pupil-teacher ratio.
If the Ministry of Education is really serious about education, it should actualise the pupil-teacher ratio by restricting the maximum number of students in high-school classes to 17. A similar exercise should be done at the primary level, but certainly not using 35 as the guideline, but a number closer to 17.
The Ministry of Education should provide the necessary teachers and infrastructure so that a teacher would really be teaching 17 students at a time and not just have the pupil-teacher ratio as a mathematical construct on someone's desk.
I am, etc.,
WARREN B. CHEN SHUI