SINGAPORE: Minister for Education Ong Ye Kung on Tuesday (May 15) outlined Singapore’s next phase of education policies while stressing the need to be wise about “bold changes” as alluded to by President Halimah Yacob at the opening of Parliament last week.
To do this, the Government needs to listen to the voices of all segments of society, he said, while noting that there is not a singular message from the people. Instead, there is a "a diversity of views, conflicting and complex, even as they remain compelling".
For instance, he said the call to abolish streaming assumes students all want to be in the Express stream. "We also need to put ourselves in the students’ shoes ... Some prefer the pace of learning in the Normal streams. Many will tell you they prefer to be a big fish in a smaller pond, rather than a small fish in a bigger pond," Mr Ong noted. "Many students in the Normal (Technical) course also like the more applied and hands-on curriculum, which they feel plays to their strengths."
A similar call for the PSLE to be scrapped also ignores parents who in fact support the system, he said.
"Because the PSLE experience teaches their children to work hard, and to demonstrate what they have learned throughout primary school years," Mr Ong explained. "Many parents are also not overly stressed by it, because they don’t see PSLE as an exercise to chase for high marks, but rather as an objective and transparent way to decide which secondary schools their children will go to. The alternative, which is to go by residential location, is even more unfair."
In any case, the PSLE T-score system will be replaced from 2021 with wider Achievement Levels - a change which Mr Ong called a "big step" in reducing academic stress and helping students enjoy learning more.
Moving on to pre-school education, Mr Ong noted how Singapore has been growing the sector’s capacity and quality with the likes of MOE Kindergartens, where one-third of places are set aside for children from low-income families.
He said the Government has also responded to calls for a programme rather than class-based approach, by ensuring more porosity between classes and streams.
“For students in the Normal stream, we introduced subject-based banding where they can attend certain classes together with students in the Express stream,” said Mr Ong. “We introduced the Polytechnic Foundation Programme where good performing students can articulate directly to Polytechnics. I think more can be done in this area.”
And to address feedback on stress and rote learning, non-essential curriculum has been cut down drastically, he said, adding that “long gone are the days where children are expected to do well just by memorisation".
To help the young from vulnerable families, policies like KidSTART are in place and aim to help 1,000 children over three years. Weaker students also receive aid through the Learning Support programme. Mr Ong also promised student care centres in every primary school by 2020.
On admission policies, from 2019, secondary schools with affiliated primary schools will have to ring-fence 20 per cent of places for students without affiliation. This is on top of primary schools setting aside 40 places each for children without prior direct connections.
Mr Ong then described SkillsFuture as “one of the best counters against inequality”.
“If meritocracy is confined to academic excellence; success is defined narrowly as being a university graduate holding a professional or managerial position; then pathways will be limited, possibilities reduced and opportunities curtailed,” he said.
“In Switzerland, 35 per cent of youths go to universities, while two-thirds of youths enrol in upper-secondary vocational and apprenticeship training. Children, together with their parents, make those choices at a fairly young age, based on their talents and interests, with little or no stigma associated with any of the choices. Society respects everyone.”
Singapore has made some progress in this regard, said Mr Ong, but he added that “a lot more needs to be done”.
“We will have to develop even more pathways and opportunities in our education and training system,” he commented. “Employers’ hiring and human resource practices have yet to wake up to this new mindset. Some employers have and I applaud them.
“Societal mindset will take even longer to evolve. We will continue to improve our policies and we will not stop at these measures.”