Education: Charting our education reform

By Richmond Lee

It is strange in a way how the primary education has been politicized for education belongs to everyone. With the haze encapsulating our city state, we are too fumbling with a flurry of hazy views to best proceed with our education reform.

PLSE is the only current yardstick for categorizing kids at the age of 12 into different academic moulds. When I say ‘categorize’, I mean it in a very condescending manner: I mean how fair is it to put a kid at a tender age of 12 into a crucible to decide his or her success in later life and force them to excel in subjects that are considerably boring?

I empathize with myself when I was 12 I had to go through this system. Thinking back, I was oblivious of what PSLE had intended to bring. Throughout the six year primary education, I was at the backseat of an express train riding through for academic success and grades meant little to me. Or rather I had little bearings of my future.


‘Halo-ing education’

Education is sacred to society and this is my belief: it brings out the common beliefs and expounds shared values which the society would want to foster their young.

I would like to mention Ken Robinson as an inspiring person whose unimpressive job title as educationalist believes that schools should do away with industrialist notions of education. The way our education system has been modeled could be connected indirectly to training our progeny to fill future positions in our industries. The content of our curriculum are thus dosed highly with hard subjects (mathematics and science) to gear them for an unimaginative future in our workplace.

The industrialist education system is purposeful, but it lacks the human touch to education and that is to instill in students creativity and the appetite for learning, rather than the hunger for success to climb ladders solely. Robinson believes that in the modern world, innovation is more highly sought after than fulfilling factory manpower quotas.

However, I do not hold grudges against the industrialist education system. Given our precarious position in the world as a resource bereft city, we must carefully mould our resource to bring in the best for everyone. This is a hard fact that we must swallow that our only resource is people.

Thus the current discourse for education reform is timely called for. But the crux of the debate must be how one can revamp the current education system and raise children who are much more worldly and value-centric without losing their appeal to industries and how we add that halo to education.


‘Fault finding and cracks in the system’

Critics quickly find fault that our education system is too stressful and elitist. This is a generally well perceived problem. Yes, removing PSLE may root out elitism and some other of the unwelcomed aspects in the system, but it will lead us nowhere because it is still deeply entrenched in people due to strong Confucian convictions. From a historical perspective too our education system evolved from the old British school model which was elitist.

Parents still lead in the thought that having strong academic credentials will enable their child to have a better stead in society. This is not wrong as education could is a leveler of social classes. Students from poor families will still have a chance at education to move up with social mobility. The question then leads to ‘how about kids who do not succeed in studies?’ 


‘Parents are still the best educators’

Kids who do well in studies and do not come from a great spectrum of family demographics: from the well-to-do to splintered single parent. The complex issue of how further a child will go later in life (not merely in studies) lie in the values that their parents impart and inculcate on. In other words family is one of the key factors in their success. Parent(s) are after all a child’s first and foremost important mentors and children their disciple.

Generally, kids from broken families (or even well-to-do ones) and do not perform academically must not be stigmatized by society first. It is important to remove the stigma that academic ability equates to doing well in life. A person could be intelligent enough to be a Mensa candidate but lacking emotional intelligence. Of course we do not wish to raise didactic robots in our child who are of Mensa caliber but lacking social graces and good values.

Parents are still rigid in the regard of praising their child’s creativity. From a very tender age and it is very important to allow them to explore and find means to suit their interests. Exploration and creativity work hand-in-hand and is not detrimental to a child who is beginning to gauge whether education and learning is fun or not. Hence we should not judge others by the merit of their papers; the root goes back to elitism which is a barrier holding our thoughts back and how we measure achievement socially. 

But all this is a tall order and idealistic: but how can we achieve total equality when the yardstick is still causing biasness?


‘Ability differentiation’

The education situation in South Korea and Taiwan bear similar resemblance in their liberalized university sector and common ills of most graduates having depressed wages and facing a tight graduate labor market. Thus many degree-holders are working jobs that do not commensurate their degrees. The realities of economics are harsh and the key to problem is supply.

Because of the large numbers of universities competing for a small pool of students, some private universities would go on to lower admission standards and admit students who are not yet ready for a university education. Lowly ranked universities offer easy courses to attract paying students and thus short change students in equipping them with the best mental training that a university should offer. As a result, companies like the Chaebols in South Korea and MNCs in Taiwan typically hire graduates from their country’s top colleges.

On the contrary, our system is differentiated as with the German’s. This would come to the point of ability differentiation as opposed to the rather singular educational approach of South Korea and Taiwan.

In Germany, students after primary school have varied choices in their secondary education streams and not all end up in a university. Some may go to vocational institutes and be employed as a technician but still enjoy a level of high regard in the society because of their professionalism and training which the institutes endow. A German friend once told me that graduates from the vocational institute can still go to a university if they show similar academic accomplishments.

In the same token, at one track of our education pathway our students from the Normal technical stream will proceed to the vocational institute (ITE) and then further to polytechnics and finally to our public universities. This is possible because of the bridges that are made available; a longer route but still necessary. I would be interested to see repurposing ITEs so as to refresh our education system to include vocational training as an important member of society that is still relevant.


‘Not all can fit into a mould, so why not more?’

PLSE is outmoded in the aspect that it is a measurement solely of academic achievements. If we only blindly pursue excellence in grades and not a holistic experiential learning, we would have missed the essence of education and that is to foster our child to become useful members of the society and hopefully making them independent learners.

Implanting and allowing creative thinking to blossom in a ‘new PSLE curriculum’ would enable innovation to calibrate the economics to shift to favor the demand curve rather than supply. Thus our future industries would actually rely on the creative and inventive environment that our young will build and realize. Ability differentiation should also be reinforced and elitism waned to create respect for people of varying abilities and contribution.

The recent addition of two newly minted universities will not result in such an impasse as Korean and Taiwan if the entering students are able to receive good quality instructions. In fact coming from a renowned or unknown university does not matter as long as a person is able to grasp the essence of university education and that is to learn how to learn.

People do not attribute success to a coveted university degree but rather it is the intrinsic values in them that will drive them to scale greater heights. Thus expectations should veer towards students achieving positive values like in sports and healthy competition.

Of course changes take time to bear fruit and changes should also take place cautiously lest we bump into a wrong turn and cannot back-track. So are the parents’ anxiety to send their kids to a top school and cramming them with unnecessary tuition. As academic expectations slowly devalue, we should see a shift of mindset from getting to elite schools to schools which will ‘get you there’. It may not be in this generation that we see the shift.

Education is an ever revolving door as different people with different expectations enter and exit. Our reforms should take heed of our societal changes and in the macroscopic scale world developments to change if necessary to keep up with the times. This will take forever.