Policy prism: Untangling classroom overcrowding (Part one)

Photo used for illustration purposes only.
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Author: Right Dennistoun

The size of a classroom is a critical factor that can significantly impact the quality of education provided to students. Research suggests that smaller class sizes can enhance student achievement, increase teacher effectiveness, and improve overall student well-being.

According to a UNICEF blueprint, smaller class sizes of no more than 20 students can lead to better academic outcomes, particularly for disadvantaged students. The World Bank has similarly emphasized the importance of reducing class sizes to improve education quality and has recommended a maximum class size of 30 students.

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However, the reality is that many classrooms in Malaysia exceed these recommended levels, with overcrowding becoming a significant issue in schools across the country. This issue not only affects the quality of education but also places a considerable burden on teachers and impedes their ability to provide personalized attention and support to their students.

The problem of overcrowded classrooms is a significant issue in Malaysia, with many schools struggling to provide adequate space and resources for their students. In Malaysia, classroom size varies significantly between urban and rural areas. While some classrooms in urban areas particularly in Lembah Klang may have as many as 50-60 students, rural classrooms particularly primary schools in Sabah and Sarawak may have as few as 10 students.

The average classroom size in Malaysia, unfortunately, is around 32 students, which is higher than the recommended size of 20 students or less. One of the primary reasons for this is the increase in student population, particularly in urban areas, coupled with the lack of sufficient school infrastructure and a shortage of teachers (Angrist et al., 2020).

This discrepancy can be attributed to a range of factors, including differences in population density, economic opportunities, and access to educational resources. In urban areas, the high population density and greater economic opportunities attract more families and children, leading to higher enrolment rates in schools. The increase in student population in schools, particularly in urban areas, is one of the primary causes of overcrowding.

The population growth in cities and towns has put a strain on existing school infrastructure, resulting in inadequate classroom space to accommodate all students. The lack of sufficient classrooms and facilities is a significant factor contributing to overcrowding in schools. Conversely, in rural areas, lower population density and limited economic opportunities may result in lower enrolment rates in schools.

Classroom size is a crucial factor that can have a significant impact on the quality of education provided to students. The size of a classroom is determined by the number of students in it, which in turn is influenced by various factors such as population density, school infrastructure, and teacher availability. In this context, it is worth comparing the classroom size in Malaysia, the United Kingdom, and Singapore to understand how these countries are addressing this issue.

In the United Kingdom, classroom size has been a subject of policy debate for several years. The average class size in primary schools is around 27 students, while the average class size in secondary schools is around 20 students. However, there are concerns about overcrowding in certain areas, particularly in London, where the average class size can be as high as 32 students. To address this issue, the UK government has implemented policies to reduce class sizes, including the introduction of smaller class size targets and funding for additional teachers.

Singapore’s average classroom size is quite similar to Malaysia’s, with an average class size of around 32 students in primary schools and 36 students in secondary schools. However, the Ministry of Education (MOE) in Singapore has also implemented a needs-based resourcing approach, where schools with students who have specific learning needs are provided with additional resources.

This approach allows teaching to be conducted in smaller groups based on learning needs or programme considerations, with examples such as the Learning Support Programme for lower primary students conducted in pull-out classes of 8 to 10, and the School-based Dyslexia Remediation programme conducted in classes of 4 to 6 students. Through adopting a targeted and flexible approach, limited financial and manpower resources can be used effectively to ensure quality education for all students.

While Malaysia has also implemented a similar needs-based resourcing approach, providing additional resources to schools with students who have specific learning needs, the country still faces challenges in addressing classroom overcrowding. Despite efforts to reduce class sizes, some schools still struggle with large class sizes due to insufficient teachers and infrastructure. As a result, students may not receive the individualized attention and support they need to excel in their studies.

In light of these concerns, Malaysia must focus on developing its own policies that address its unique challenges. This effort requires significant political will and investment in education, as well as a coordinated effort across multiple government agencies. As Michael Fullan, an expert in educational leadership, once said, “Effective educational change requires that we put collective energy into aligning all of the forces that affect what happens in classrooms”. In this sense, Malaysia needs to innovate and implement right policies that can address the challenges of overcrowded classrooms to provide quality education for its students and secure its future.

UNICEF, K. (2019). Every child learns: UNICEF education strategy 2019-2030. NY: UNICEF, 23-36.
Angrist, N., Evans, D. K., Filmer, D., Glennerster, R., Rogers, F. H., & Sabarwal, S. (2020). How to improve education outcomes most efficiently. World Bank Policy Research WP, 9450.

Right Dennistoun is a member of Kelab PAS United Kingdom. He is also a researcher in Educational Leadership at one of the universities in the United Kingdom. His research interests lie in the areas of educational leadership, policy and practice.

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