‘Their best friends are from different streams’: Why this school did away with traditional form classes
At Edgefield Secondary School, Secondary 1 students from the Normal and Express streams are placed in the same form class. While this unconventional class organisation is not without its challenges, the principal and teachers say it is worth it.
SINGAPORE: At Edgefield Secondary’s 1 Euclid class, there are 24 students from the Express stream, 10 from the Normal (Academic) stream and five from Normal (Technical). Each of the seven other Sec 1 classes in the school has a similar mix of students across the three different academic streams.
Students are split into different classes for each subject – for example, Normal (Academic) students taking Express-level science or mathematics will attend classes together with their Express peers. But they attend lessons like art, design and technology and physical education together as a form class.
The concept of a traditional form class – where students are typically grouped according to which stream they are in – is expected to change with the Education Ministry’s announcement on Tuesday (Mar 5). By 2024, the existing system of streaming in secondary schools will be replaced with subject-based banding, where students take subjects at different levels according to their ability.
Apart from reducing the unintended consequences of labelling and stigmatisation, the move will also give schools the opportunity to reshape the social environment to benefit their students. And the classes at Edgefield Secondary, whose "pioneering practices" were mentioned by Education Minister Ong Ye Kung in his Parliament speech on Tuesday, is an example of how this can be done.
The school began offering subject-based banding to its Sec 1 students in 2018, where students in the Normal stream were given the opportunity to take subjects at a higher level if they showed an aptitude for the subject. But the school went one step further this year by implementing this new form class arrangement for its Sec 1 students.
The school’s principal Lee Peck Ping said the idea for the arrangement came about after the school held focus group discussions with its students last year on how they felt about subject-based banding.
“Previously, we had the Normal (Academic) or Normal (Technical) students being inserted into the higher-stream classes,” he said. “The students tended to stay by themselves and they felt the Express class was not as welcoming to them.
“This was not on the minds of the Express students … but by convention, because the Express students were with their form class, they didn’t mix as well with the ‘new’ people,” he added.
“So we thought, why not mix them all together in this new class formation?”
The move was not without its challenges, as Mr Lee noted. For one, he said, teachers' skills in classroom management and differentiated instruction are now “more important than ever”.
“With a diverse profile of students, teachers need to know how they can teach better in order to cater to the needs of every child,” he said. “So for example, how do you stretch the students who are of higher ability, or provide more scaffolding for students who might need extra help?”
This is something science teacher Seow Tzer Yeun, who teaches one of the mixed classes, also pointed out.
“The difficulty comes in terms of preparing (for lessons),” he said. “Previously, I could prepare the same material, or the same worksheet. But now, I have to do double work in a way … I have to change the worksheets. It’s a lot of getting used to.
“Even with work submission, we’re looking at … do they need to submit the same set of work? Or can it vary?” he added. “And when it comes to marking, we also need to come up with a marking rubric to cater to all of them.”
Another major challenge was preparing timetables, where the school had to come up with customised timetables for each student to cater to the different combinations of subjects.
The school’s four-man team for timetables, led by mathematics teacher Peter Ong, also had to work within certain constraints, such as ensuring students’ hours were not extended and teachers’ workloads were not increased.
“It would be very easy to just add in free periods in the middle, but we wanted to keep the day as compact as possible,” Mr Ong said. “We also didn’t want them to move around too much.
“So we came up with this block system, where students are either in the form class or the subject class. We also looked at the ways the classroom blocks were arranged, because we wanted the classrooms to be next to each other,” he added.
READ: Government needs to recognise trade-off that comes from streaming students in secondary school, says Ong Ye Kung
Previously, the process of generating timetables took 20 minutes, he said. With the new system, it took six hours.
It took the team more than a month to come up with the timetables, stretching over the school holidays. But it worked out, and every Sec 1 student in Edgefield now has their own customised timetable, without their school hours being extended.
“It was challenging, but worth it,” Mr Ong said.
THOSE WHO DO WELL MAY NOT BE FROM EXPRESS STREAM
It has been less than three months since Edgefield implemented the new arrangement, but the school is certain of its benefits.
Mr Lee said that even in this short period, the feedback from students has been good, and teachers have observed “encouraging signs”.
“Students tell us they’ve enjoyed mixing with their classmates, and they find that some of their best friends are from different streams,” he said.
“They’ve also found that those who do well may not necessarily be from the Express stream, and they’ve learned a lot from one another.”
This is something Sec 1 Express student Keshav Chidambaram said he likes about being in his class.
“There’s this girl who sits next to me, and she’s from Normal (Technical). She’s really good at art, so she will help me sometimes, and when she needs help in maths I will try and help her too.”
“I made a lot of friends because I’m always changing subject classes, so I get to meet people from different streams and classes,” said another student Javier Peh, who is in the Normal (Technical) stream, but takes three subjects at a higher level. “Otherwise, I’ll just be seeing the same people over and over.”
Teachers, too, can see the difference, with Mr Seow pointing out that the social mixing is “a lot more obvious” in the Sec 1 classes as compared to those at the upper secondary level, where classes are organised by streams.
“The upper secondary students tend to be in their own cliques according to stream, and that’s natural because their friends are there,” he said.
“But now that everyone is mixed together in the Sec 1 class, it’s difficult for me to remember which stream each of the students actually are in.”