By Tan Jee Say –
Are we seeing a permanent underclass in the making?
It must have come as a thunderbolt to admirers of Singapore's education system. To be ranked 29 in a global survey of pre-school education in 45 countries and placed together with a number of poor developing countries in the lower half of the table, one wonders if Singapore has gone back to the Third World.The EIU survey was commissioned by Lien Foundation.
The Nordic model again
It is also most unflattering to know that Singapore lags far behind other Asian countries where education is similarly much revered – South Korea (10th), Hong Kong (19th) and Japan (21st). All the top 9 positions were taken by western developed countries where extensive welfare benefits have not lessened the drive for the pursuit of excellence in education, contrary to what PAP propagandists would want us to believe about the de-motivating effects of a welfare state.
Even more remarkable is that all the first 3 places were won by Nordic countries – Finland (1st), Sweden (2nd) and Norway (3rd) with Denmark in 6th position. What an affirmation to admirers of the Nordic model (who obviously do not include PM Lee Hsien Loong in view of his recent remarks to the Economic Society of Singapore)!
When asked by the media to comment on the survey results, DPM Tharman said "more can be done to lift the quality of pre-school education in Singapore and give everyone an equal chance early in life". (todayonline.com 30 June 2012) A day before, he had said that "the Republic must do its utmost to prevent a permanent underclass from being formed," as "… the disadvantages of one generation is (sic) very easily passed down to the children". "We must do our utmost to work against that. Do our utmost to ensure that those who start off behind have the best chance of catching up," said Mr Tharman, noting that early intervention during childhood is important."
When did the honourable DPM acquire this wisdom, one may ask. Wasn't he Education Minister from 2003 to 2008 and during these 5 years did he do anything to improve pre-school education? Obviously nothing helpful if any, otherwise Singapore would not be stuck with its low ranking.
It would seem that he had missed out his chance to prevent a permanent underslass from being formed through " early intervention during childhood". So did his predecessor, the other honourable DPM Teo Chee Hean who was Education Minister for 6 years from 1997 to 2003. One wonders what were PM's criteria for promoting his ministers to DPM. Failure to improve pre-school education did not seem to be an impediment.
The two DPM's have left behind serious problems in pre-school education for the present Education Minister to tackle. These shortcomings were identified in the EIU survey. I would like to touch on two of them. One is class size. There are 20 students to one teacher in an average Singapore pre-school class as against 5 to 11 students for every teacher in the top 10 countries.
This point about the critical need for a smaller class size in Singapore schools was emphasized in my essay "Creating Jobs and Enterprise in a new Singapore economy – Ideas for Change"; it was also highlighted by us and other opposition parties in the GE2011 campaign.
The second serious gap is that pre-school in Singapore is not covered by any Government programme. Government support and funding of pre-school for kids is fairly common in developed economies and also in some developing countries. In Singapore, it is provided by private organisations which charge commercial fees that children from low-income families can hardly afford. As a result, many of our children are ill-prepared when they enter primary school.
There should be in place a Government-subsidized and MOE-developed pre-school programme accessible to all children age 2 to 6 as it is key to levelling the playing field and preventing a permanent underclass from taking shape. This issue was highlighted a year ago in the following report of a conversation I had with a Singaporean economist working in the World Bank.
I do hope that the current Education Minister will act upon these two and the other shortcomings identified in the survey without any further delay.
Note of conversation with World Bank economist on 5 July 2011
Pre-school non-coverage surprised World Bank economist
While Singapore’s schooling is fairly well developed, pre-school is not covered by any Government programme, a phenomenon that surprised a Singaporean economist, Dr J P Tan. Dr Tan works in the World Bank’s human development division and was home recently for a family visit. Government support and funding of pre-school for kids is fairly common in developed economies and also in some developing countries.
In Singapore, it is provided by private organisations which charge commercial fees that children from low-income families can hardly afford. As a result, many of our children are ill-prepared when they enter primary school.
We advocate a Government-subsidized and MOE-developed pre-school programme accessible to all children age 2 to 6 that will teach children basic skills in social interaction, singing, physical movements and develop a love for reading rather than emphasizing force-fed book-learning and written work.
In a social conversation with Dr Wong Wee Nam, Michelle Lee and me, Dr Tan expressed the hope that the Government will extend coverage to pre-school with active support. We support her idea as it is key to levelling the playing field, as some parents are unable to provide a stimulating learning environment for their young children as they work long hours and may lack resources to do so, and this may hinder their children’s progress once they enter Primary One.
TOC thanks Tan Jee Say for his contribution. The article first appeared on his Facebook here.