The pandemic has laid bare the realities of the inequities in children’s lives outside school, said Straits Times senior education correspondent Sandra Davie in an opinion article yesterday (28 May).
In the article titled “Covid-19 pandemic shows children’s well-being and success depend on more than just what happens in school”, the journalist stressed a new sense of urgency to address these inequities in order for Singapore to realise its “ambitious goal of enabling all its citizens to realise their fullest potential”.
Ms Davie’s opinion echoes that of Singapore playwright and senior research fellow at the Singapore Institute of Policy Research, Tan Tarn How, who explored similar thoughts in the Singapore Democratic Party’s virtual forum last Saturday (23 May) titled “The World has Changed with the Pandemic. Can Singapore?”
In her article, Ms Davie noted that the pandemic has brought to light certain gaps in Singapore’s education system, specifically that while schools are staffed and resourced well and fairly, children come from different backgrounds and have varying access to resources, opportunities, and support outside of school.
Looking holistically at the needs of children beyond school
The journalist suggested that one way to close this gap is to shift the way we look at how education is provided in Singapore, namely by accepting that children’s success and well-being depend on more than just what happens in school.
“To help lift children from disadvantaged homes, we need to look holistically at the entirety of the children’s lives,” Ms Davie wrote.
She suggested that the Government’s KidStart programme for children up to six years old from low-income families be expanded to primary and secondary school children as well.
On whether schools should bear this burden of attending to students’ needs beyond the school such as providing food to families and looking into stressors over parents losing their jobs or even abuse, Ms Davie asserted that there is no way around this.
“If we want children to learn better, schools, and other agencies helping children have to find ways to help their families.”
She added, “A child worried about food or safety, or the loss of his parent’s job, is not going to be able to absorb much learning, online or offline.”
While the Ministry of Education (MOE) has staffed schools with counsellors and welfare officers in recent years, other organisations like family service centres and voluntary welfare organisations should also be resourced to work hand-in-hand with schools, Ms Davie wrote.
She also emphasised the need for this sort of help to be maintained in the long run instead of one-off for it to be effective at lifting children out of the cycle of poverty.
Narrowing the digital divide
The second aspect the ST’s education correspondent looked at was in closing the digital divide. Specifically, Ms Davie looked at the Government’s efforts in providing resources to help students stay on track as schools transition into home-based learning.
More than 1,200 routers and 20,000 laptops and tablets were lent to children islandwide to help them with home-based learning. However, Ms Davie proposed that this should be done on a long-term and permanent basis.
“After all, 21st century learning requires technology and Internet access. We can’t leave this to chance – or worse, another pandemic – before taking action,” she asserted.
Mr Davie argued, “Students and workers unable to navigate a complex digital landscape will not be able to participate fully in the economic, social and cultural life around them.
Without the right skills, she noted that these young people will face difficulty dealing with the challenges of the future world of work.
Subsequently, Ms Davie stated that the proposal by Nominated Member of Parliament Anthea Ong in parliament earlier this week for the Government to offer free WiFi to all rental flats “merits consideration”.
She highlighted that some schools provided parents with tips on how to support children with learning at home, adding that more schools should offer such support on a sustained basis.
Ms Davie went on to suggest that the “patchwork” of social service organisations along with the Ministry of Social and Family Development should come together with the MOE and schools to build on one another’s programs which would serve to increase the benefits for children.
Similarly, Mr Tan Tarn How said last Saturday that the inequality in terms of technological aspect has a snowball effect on students.
“Poor students with insufficient material and social resources will start primary school behind and will eventually end up even further back by the end of their school years,” he stressed.
To address this, Mr Tan proposed that the MOE provide these “fundamental tools”, as well as important ancillaries such as software and repair services, to all students in the country free of charge and with no questions asked. He described this digital package as the “basic income equivalent for education”.
He elaborated, “Of course there will be a minority who will abuse it as in any system, right. But we should get rid of the mindset which we often have in Singapore that because of a bad one or two percent of the people, we deny the 89 or 99 per cent the benefit that comes from it.”
In terms of financing this digital toolkit for students who need it, Mr Tan suggested that it would not add much to the total cost of education that the Government is already spending, which in 2018 was about S$12,000 per primary student and about S$15,000 per secondary student annually.
Now, beyond providing digital resources to students, Ms Davie also said that it is important to supplement parenting resources.
She said, “The most effective programmes to help disadvantaged children are those that supplement the parenting resources available to the children and provide “scaffolding” for them by giving them the same sort of nurturing environments available to children in more advantaged families.”
Ms Davie further remarked that the capacity and quality for care at student care centres “can be boosted further”.
She concluded by stating that the ongoing economic recession triggered by the COVID-19 pandemic has added urgency to the task of addressing these inequities.