Minister for Education Ong Ye Kung made a Facebook post on Friday (27 Jul) defining what makes a good school. In his words, a good school is one where the teachers were good, helping their students to learn, and the students enjoyed going to school every morning.
The Facebook post was an excerpt from his Keynote speech at the Economic Society of Singapore Dinner two days earlier. There, he set a vision for Singapore’s education landscape as Education Minister: To place less emphasis on rote learning, an emphasis on flexibility, and focus on skills and lifelong learning.
“We have to strike these balances right… If we recognise that and make the necessary adjustments, we will raise the quality of our education system further, such that it is not just strong academically, but also instills the joy of learning and an enterprising spirit in our young”.
These are by far, sound principles which apply to an education system which has been continuously ranked top in world rankings but has been criticised for route learning. But he also acknowledged that there were limitations: “But if our definition of a good school is Nanyang or Raffles, then the vision will never be fulfilled”.
That is perhaps the very irony of his speech. Whether a school is good or not is entirely a matter of relativity; a school whose average O-level score is 12 would be “good” compared to one whose average is 20 but “bad” compared to another whose average is 6.
While he aims to make every school a “good” school, the irony here was pointed out by Jurong West Secondary School principal Pushparani Nadarajah: “How many of our leaders and top officers who say that every school is a good school put their children in ordinary schools near their home? Only until they actually do [that] parents going to buy it.”
Indeed, one would be hard pressed to find a child of a cabinet Minister choosing a neighborhood school over a brand-name one. Many of them have even gone on to win prestigious scholarships despite not needing someone to fund their studies.
For example, blogger Jess C Scott has highlighted in a blog post that Lee Hsien Loong’s son Li Hongyi himself is a Colombo Scholar. Tony Tan’s son Patrick Tan is a recipient of the President’s Scholarship, Mah Bow Tan’s son Warren Mah is the holder of a MAS Scholarship, while Grace Fu’s son Marcus Lee is a SAF Overseas Scholar.
What diversity within the cabinet! No surprises, given the elite genes they have and their ability to afford expensive tuition. Unfortunately, not everyone has a million dollar salary – the hawker would not be able to afford $150 an hour for a top private tuition for his son to clarify doubts. There are success cases, but this is the exception rather than the norm.
In the long-term, it is not hard to see how this impacts his grades. For the working class and lower income, they have little choice but to help supplement family income and settle for less in terms of their academic progression.
As the Minister himself noted, “Don’t cap the top, but lift the bottom”. No matter how much the bottom is lifted, the bottom will never be good enough for the very own flesh and blood of the children of Cabinet Ministers.
And if that is so, then it is hard to buy the Minister’s speech as more than mere fluff.