By Howard Lee
Around this time next year, I would be looking at registering my son for primary school.
I would likely be the envy of “most” parents – I am alumni to a “branded school”, although that term probably meant very little in my time.
Ironic as it seems, I worry still. My old school runs the Gifted Education Programme (to be perfectly honest, I cannot even recall if it was offered in my time). I’m worried that in the time that my little boy spends time away from me in pressure-cooker school, he would be made to somehow feel less capable than his friends simply because he is not a GEP kid, even if he has done his best.
So I sound like an ex-delinquent expecting the same of my offspring. But I do not believe that in the heart of every parent lie a pure and unadulterated ambition of sending their children to a branded school, to the exclusion of all else. I believe all parents want one thing for their children – to be happy.
How has that happiness translated into going to a top primary school?
I should be jumping for joy when the Prime Minister dismissed the alleged blind ambition among parents at his National Day Rally.
I did not because I could not see any direct action from him to say that he takes his own words seriously. I was hoping for the PM to announce a major move in our education policies that would finally put the value back into each school, into each student. I was massively disappointed.
Yet again, we saw minor policy tweaks – banding primary schools like we did secondary schools, and the allocation of 40 places in each primary school for parents with no prior connection to the school – that do not answer the fundamental concerns that parents have.
How would removing listing of the PSLE T-score make parents and students less stress, when it makes no difference to parents or students hell-bent on mugging just to get into the top band? Why would setting aside 40 places for non-affiliates be of any comfort to parents why are already set on finding their affiliations?
Back to my fundamental question: How has happiness in life translated into going to a top primary school?
Parents are not dreaming of sending their kids to the best school because they relish the pressure – if they did, no policy would make a difference. They are also not trying to get them into the best school because they think their kids are way too gifted to be left behind in a “neighbourhood school”, for they would never know that as a fact.
Parents do it because they believe it will stand their children in good stead for a good future, a future of less stress as the education system continues to knock down the “less able” or “slower learners” at each step. And there are too many steps.
A parent thinking long term for their children would know that the stress they feel at primary school enrolment is directly related to the stress they would feel at PSLE, streaming, and at every other examination level.
The education system as we currently know it is a pressure cooker. The current tweaks do nothing to relieve the pressure. All they do is suggest a different way for parents and students to hold the pot.
We hear no policy change to suggest that the way we evaluate and understand students would change.
Early in life, some of our children were made to think they were academically inferior to their friends. For some reason, no policy maker at the Ministry of Education seemed to have known about the VARK learning model (or the dozens of other models that education experts have come up with) when dreaming up the streaming model, which should be taken to mean the allocation of students into classes based on their abilities. If they did, then the current system we have, based on a lineal evaluation of abilities, emphasising speed of learning rather than methods of learning, is an atrocity.
I have met too many ITE students to know that our streaming system does not work. The fact that they are able to find their potential is credit to ITE, but it speaks of a great disservice that has already been dealt them when they were in secondary school.
We are too busy producing a hierarchical educational model to fit a hierarchical economic model, without thinking that it puts a damper on the spirit of many children, and make parents go into a frenzy over acing a system that, oddly, they are all too familiar with.
This is perhaps the “no compromise on education quality” that PM spoke about.
But a quality education is not defined by the results of each stage of education, benchmarked erroneously against some international standard. A quality education needs proof in its eventual aim: A thriving economy that makes best use of the talent in each of us, where the individual is valued rather than force-fitted into a model.
And this is a model created not in the minds of parents, but the realities that lie at the core of our education system. If the government is sincere about making our education system better, that is where it must first look.
Meanwhile, parents will continue to fret over entry into the best schools, because they see no other way ahead where their children can find happiness, even if the happiness at hand is an easier time at the next examination.