Any parent who has a child in primary school, of is going to send one there soon, would no doubt have waited with anxious anticipation when newly minted Education Minister Heng Swee Keat took to reforming the much vaunted education system in Singapore following the last general election.
Concerns about our education system generally fall into two diverse camps. The first would like to see less pressure on our children, with the ardent hope that they will be allowed to enjoy their childhood without feeling that they are a failure in the system. The other camp would undoubtedly be anxious about maintaining standards, that their child, if an A-star hopeful, would not lose out in the ensuing attempt to de-stress our education system.
It would also be just as fair to say that there were parents who wished for a bit of both, and another groups who agonise over which is the greater evil.
To his credit, Heng has delivered certain changes to the system that would otherwise have taken years to even propose, given the nation’s innate fear not to upset the status quo. We have persistently scored high in international education rankings for mathematics and science, so why change a good thing?
Heng was instrumental in pushing ahead with two broad objectives that can be said to have defined his effort as Education Minister: Making every school a good school, and strengthening character building in students. But if we were to examine them closely, neither of these efforts can be seen as either complete or successful.
Every school a good school – and who is supposed to believe?
Heng’s first attempt at making every school a good school was to remove the school ranking system – or at least, at the surface of it. At the announcement of Primary School Leaving Examination (PSLE) results, the Ministry of Education (MOE) did not disclose the T-scores of students by the end of 2013, but instead graded students according to bands.
The move did not necessarily go down well. Parents had their way of finding out the top-scoring schools and were more than adept at sussing out which school was the best to send their child to. Parents also expressed concern that such a move would lead to a lowering of standards, odd as that might sound.
In reality, the removal of T-scores from the annual announcement of results actually does nothing to allay the concerns of parents, who if they so choose would be adamant at filtering the “good” schools from the “bad” schools using their own resources and sources. There is still a fundamental belief among parents that not all schools are equal – and by all counts, they would be right. Heng’s insistence that “every school is a good school” is little more than an artificial illusion, doing little to reduce the level of competition among parents for the best slots.
This competition is perpetuated by the phased system for enrollment, which remains today although it’s complete removal would have been the best way to level the field. Heng, however, stops short of taking this important step. Instead, his counter was to introduce a reserve of 40 places in each school for open ballot, with the view that it would produce a more egalitarian system where admission is based less on social standing and parents’ contribution of money or time to school “volunteer work”. In reality, such a move only pushes more spillovers from each phase further down the phase ladder, with the key beneficiaries being those who live near the school of their interest.
Character, the alternative curriculum?
The next major change was the introduction of the Character and Citizenship Education (CCE) programme. It is not clear how it can effectively bring about a less stressful schooling environment for primary school going children. What is clear is that the programme, affectionately called the “Swiss roll” by some teachers, seeks to impart certain values that aim to build students who are responsible and loyal citizens, both to Singapore and the world. In effect, CCE sound vaguely like an extension of the former National Education programme.
With limited time in a day, the trade off was the removal of the Programme for School-Based Excellence (PSE), better known as the niche CCA initiative that was meant to differentiate one school from another. More emphasis would now be placed on Learning for Life, a component of the CCE programme.
The net effect of CCE and the removal of PSE would likely have a leveling effect on schools – less emphasis on schools competing to distinguish themselves and get the grants for PSE, and a slightly more across-the-board CCE system where each child is given an equal chance to develop.
Does it work? While CCE is compulsory, it does not affect school curricula directly, which means to say that so long as standards are maintained, students will be expected to perform for the exams at peak, while still inculcating this extra bit that is an expanded NE programme.
Does CCE lead to what has often been seen as lacking in our schools – that is, creativity and independent thinking? Hardly. As international education experts would say, “It’s hard to have a creative culture if schools are pumping people out in a standard shape. You need good colleges where people are given the skills they need to think differently.”
Unfortunately, Minister Heng does not seem to see that. In fact, it would seem that he has more recently suggested that the expanded National Education programme be incorporated into university level – that hallowed ground of knowledge where students should, at last, be given the liberty as adults to explore new ways of learning and discover future possibilities outside of the confines of what they know.
The creativity limiters that MOE has placed on our education system can probably best be summarised by Senior Minister of Stare for Education Indranee Rajah, who described creativity development as such:
“First, all students can develop good thinking. Next, good thinking should be deliberately developed within the context of subject disciplines and the total curriculum. Finally, schools and classroom culture must consistently support and develop students’ thinking.”
Alternatively, the Singapore Democratic Party had earlier published an education policy paper that proposes various measures to create a less stressful and more creative early schooling environment, which includes steps such as removing streaming, broadening curricula while reducing syllabus (which sounds similar to the government’s earlier “teach less learn more” mantra), remove ranking, reduce class size, and having a dedicated teacher for the first three years of each primary school class (similar to the Finnish system).
Will such proposals work? The removal of the streaming system has been a major bone of contention, and is definitely worth exploring. Given that our education system has hardly evolved, where minor additions and tweaks are the current staple, it might be time to take some bold new steps, as what Heng should have done when he first became Education Minister.