Widening gap between the better and weaker performers in school – NMP Viswa Sadasivan

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The following is an excerpt of the speech delivered by NMP Viswa Sadasivan in Parliament on 24th November, urges the Government to conduct a comprehensive review of pre-school education in Singapore.

Mr Speaker, Sir, I thank you for the opportunity to move this motion.

I started formal schooling in 1966 in Cantonment Primary – a typical neighbourhood school where most of us were from lower income families. I didn’t go to Kindergarten, but was fortunate to have parents who emphasised education – even though, and especially because they were hardly educated. More importantly, being the youngest of six children, I had the benefit of being taught how to read at home when I was five. At the age of six, I could count and knew my multiplication table up to 12 and then 16. Yet, when I went to primary one, the teacher worked on the assumption that we couldn’t read or count and so we started with basic lessons on the alphabet and numbers. A handful of us were ahead of most in the class, but we enjoyed the relaxed pace and saw it as revision and, of course, more time to play! Quite a few of those from fairly poor family background, who didn’t attend Kindergarten and didn’t have the benefit of home tutoring before primary school, caught up pretty fast and became star performers in a year or two. This was only possible because the majority of us were from similar socio-economic backgrounds and the pace of teaching was measured, catering to those who couldn’t read or count.

By the time we were in Primary 3, it was more or less a level playing field. The differentiating factors were hard work, parental guidance and, to a lesser extent, intelligence.

We had equal opportunities to do well, regardless of whether we were from rich, middle-income or poor families – essentially because, from what I could see, teaching was benchmarked at the median performer in class. And at that time, there wasn’t much difference between the median and mean because the socio-economic disparity wasn’t significant. And the clear emphasis on merit – where the best performer, regardless of his background, would be rewarded – gave parents from the lower income segment of society enough incentive to push and motivate their children to do their best and have a crack at success in life. And for us, the pupils – because we saw fairly immediate results of hard work, we were motivated to continue working hard. As such, top schools like Raffles Institution and Raffles Girls Secondary School – which had the pick of the top 2% of each cohort – had a significant proportion of students coming from families in the lower income segment of society. Many of these students, such as Mr Lee Kuan Yew and Mr Goh Chok Tong, went on to help lead the country. In fact, many of us of the right vintage would be familiar with the line, “RI ruled the country, and ACS owned it”, because unlike in RI and RGS, students from ACS tended to come from families that were financially and socially well heeled!

This was the strength of our education system. Indeed, this was the strength of Singapore society then – where an enlightened and forward looking government acted on the cardinal twin principles of meritocracy and equal opportunity, to give enough hope to parents, rich or poor, that their children would have a fair crack at success, and with that a good life. And education was the ultimate social leveller.

Seeing how serious the government was in ensuring that this remains sacrosanct – there was a strong buy-in from the ground. This belief, coupled with a deep trust in our political leaders – their integrity and sincerity – proved to be a powerful incentive for parents to be that much more driven to push their children to excel. The rewards of hard work were eminently evident.

Over the years, we have continued to benefit from our political leadership’s unstinting emphasis on education. The result – generations of Singaporeans went to school, got qualifications and skills that meant jobs, and over time, better paying jobs and with that, the opportunity for a better life. We would be remiss if we take this for granted and are not grateful.

A better educated workforce provided the ballast for continued economic growth. This, in turn, meant a more sophisticated populace, which, having tasted the good life started to demand more. The result – growing aspirations.

At the macro level, growing regional and global competition meant that to continue to grow as an economy, we needed more people with better qualifications and skills.

The challenge of managing and maintaining success became acute, especially from the 1980s. This meant having to balance three goals:

• providing a level playing field for all, based on equal opportunities and meritocracy

• fulfilling the aspirations of an increasingly affluent and demanding population, and

• producing more better qualified and skilled individuals as prime-movers of economic growth.

Clearly, economic growth was, and continues to be, a key determinant of our survivability as a country. To a large extent, therefore, economic considerations underpin educational policies. This, in turn, meant that the goals of producing better qualified and skilled individuals, and fulfilling the aspirations of an increasingly affluent society assumed primacy. I believe that this contributed to key educational policies, such as streaming. There was growing pressure to address the needs of more educated and demanding parents who didn’t want to see their children’s performance in school retarded by them having to keep pace with the slower performing students in class.

The socio-economic demographics of Singapore society has also changed significantly over the past 45 years. An outcome of economic prosperity is that the “haves” outnumber the “have-nots” in our society. This means that the gap between the mean and median student has widened. For the reasons I’ve highlighted earlier, if economic growth is an overriding imperative, then the mean student becomes the benchmark. Consequently, helping to propel those above the mean to attain peak performance in school naturally becomes the focus as this is the segment that has the strongest bearing on economic growth.

I’m not suggesting that there is a deliberate policy to ignore the needs of students who don’t perform as well in school. Credit has to be given to the government for continuing to seek ways to lift the overall performance of these students. Regardless, there appears to be a widening gap between the better and weaker performers in school that, in turn, translates to an exacerbation of the widening socio-economic gap in society.

If there is no intervention, by way of policy shifts, the gap between the “haves” and “have-nots” will continue to widen at a faster pace. In fact, the education system instead of being a social-leveller could become an active contributor to the widening socio-economic gap.

Several members of this House have in the recent past raised concerns on this subject. There have been questions about inequality, access to quality pre-school education, whether we should nationalise pre-schooling, and what the goals of pre-school education should be. There is clearly interest expressed in this House to see an improvement in the quality of pre-school education, making it more affordable and accessible to all our children regardless of their socio-economic backgrounds.

It is evident that, for a maximum shift towards a desirable outcome, we need to focus more on early intervention in education. To this end, the introduction of legislation in 2000 to make primary school education compulsory, and the recent PERI report on primary education by a Committee chaired by Senior Minister of State, Grace Fu, are significant milestones. Both have sent powerful and much needed signals to parents and educationalists alike on the importance of early intervention to strengthen the foundation for a child’s ability to reach his potential. I applaud the government for doing this.

It has been 10 years since primary school education was made compulsory. In many ways, during this time pre-school education has come to have the same impact as primary education, in determining the trajectory of the individual over the years, not only in terms of school performance but also the potential to succeed in life. It is in the same spirit as the legislation in the year 2000, and the PERI Report, that I am now urging the government, through this motion, to conduct a comprehensive review of pre-school education.

The aim is for us to examine the state of pre-school education in a deeper, more focused manner: to study its impact on the individual and society as a whole in the context of today’s realities. My sense is that, overall, our pre-school and primary school education systems are on the right track. What is needed is some significant fine-tuning to reduce the incidence of unintended, undesired outcomes. On the other hand, the review could very well conclude that we don’t need to make any significant changes to the system – but at least we will know that we have arrived at this conclusion after giving this important matter sufficient thought. It is also my hope that such a review will be conducted in an inclusive, consultative and transparent manner – very much like how Senior Minister of State Grace Fu’s Committee conducted its study. This is important because there are many stakeholders in pre-school education who have perspectives that are based on expertise and experience. More importantly, I hope that a lively, honest debate in this House, and public participation in the process will help foster deeper awareness of the considerations and importance of pre-school education, especially among parents.

End of excerpt. You read the rest of the speech here -  Viswa Sadasivan 24nov speech.