Good measures launched by MOE, but ‘insufficient’ to transform society’s addiction to paper chase: Denise Phua

Good measures launched by MOE, but ‘insufficient’ to transform society’s addiction to paper chase: Denise Phua

In a wide-ranging interview with Channel NewsAsia, MP Denise Phua, who is also chair of the Government Parliamentary Committee for Education, said the job does not belong to MOE alone, and everyone needs to chip in.

denise phua
File photo of Denise Phua. (Photo: Central Singapore CDC) 

SINGAPORE: The Education Ministry (MOE) has launched “good measures”, but they are insufficient to transform society’s addiction to the “proverbial paper chase”, said Member of Parliament and Mayor of Central Singapore Denise Phua. The job, she stressed, is not that of MOE alone, and everyone else has to chip in. 

Responding to the recent announcements made by MOE in their Committee of Supply debate, Ms Phua, who is also chair of the Government Parliamentary Committee for Education, added that the 21st-century competencies in the MOE model and additional education trends result in an urgency to consider other “bolder and transformative measures”.

Citing recent changes like abolishing the PSLE T-score, ensuring Applied Learning in classrooms and subject-based banding and even specific measures like outdoor education for students as “steps in the right direction”, she credited MOE for recognising the need to correct the over-emphasis on academic achievements, and for the direction it has taken to “re-calibrate the needle”.

But she said that while the previous method of “fine-tuning” and letting the system evolve could still work in the past, it still seems to be “business as usual”.

“There did not appear to be a tangible decline in the way parents, students and some educators fret over the PSLE and fear how PSLE results will reflect their standing and limit secondary school options for the student,” she said.

“Some sacred cows have to be slain, and one obvious one that heavily occupies the minds of many stakeholders in schools is the PSLE.”


Ms Phua was responding to questions from Channel NewsAsia on her recent call in Parliament to scrap the PSLE, and request to pilot no-PSLE through-train schools. She had spoken in Parliament last Monday (Mar 5), during MOE’s Committee of Supply debate, questioning if it was sufficient to simply make tweaks to the system.

“Are we merely re-arranging the chairs on the deck and not making deep enough changes?” she asked. “In this age of disruptions, do we dare proactively disrupt our current education systems by slaying some of the sacred cows that we inherited from the proverbial third Industrial Revolution when we are already in the fourth?”

In response, Minister for Education (Schools) Ng Chee Meng had said he understood her intentions, but does not think this is the way to go. Describing the PSLE as a “useful checkpoint” at the end of primary school, he said removing it would only transfer the stress on parents and students elsewhere, and make the O- and N-Level exams more stressful.

But Ms Phua pointed out that much time is still spent preparing children for the “very high-stake” exam that is the PSLE. “Despite MOE’s good intent via the Direct School Admission (DSA) exercise, the majority of secondary school admissions are still based on one’s academic scores,” she said. “Worse, the DSA at one point became another competitive gateway to popular schools by nurturing or 'hot housing' some children from young by families who are more affluent .”


Ms Phua pointed out that for some parents, “what gets measured still gets to be done most”, and unless there is a “systemic intervention”, doing well in the PSLE to beat others in the race for one’s preferred school choice remains the only goal they know.

But there are others, she said, who see the value of a “more holistic education”.

“Out of these are the decisive and bolder ones who take the path less travelled by not excessively fretting over the PSLE,” she added.

Ms Phua also referred to an “inspiring” story that Minister for Education (Higher Education and Skills) Ong Ye Kung told Parliament, of how he had taught his daughter to ride a bicycle by not being overprotective and letting go. Drawing from Mr Ong's appeal to parents to know when to let go, and what to let go of, Ms Phua added: “I hope more will heed his advice.” 


Ms Phua, who is a long-standing activist for those with special needs, also credited the Government for providing “a lot more attention and resources” to the Special Education (SPED) sector. “Gone are the days when I had to contemplate selling my home to pay for the operational deficit when Pathlight School was first set up,” she said.

But she pointed out that there is still a stigma against special schools, and a “big gap” in the service model and staff expertise in supporting mainstream students with special needs.

The raising of salaries of SPED teachers and other professionals – announced by the Ministry of Social and Family Development (MSF)’s Committee of Supply debate – is “always welcome”, she added, but also stressed the need to raise the level of expertise and build this category of professionals to be respected by all stakeholders.

“In other models, the SPED educator, for instance, is first trained in generalist education and adds a layer of specialist expertise in disability,” she explained. “They are regarded as even more proficient than general educators, and highly respected.”

“We need to move toward this direction.”

She added that the existing support models in mainstream schools must be further enhanced.

“We had made the first move by strategically placing allied educators, training some mainstream teachers in special needs at a general level, and directing IHLs to set up special needs learning support departments,” she said.

But she noted that in general, the support level and expertise available is “inadequate”. She called for a task force to be set up to study the gaps and look into enhancements to ensure an “optimal level of support” from pre-schools, to the primary and secondary schools and Institutes of Higher Learning (IHLs).


But even out of school, learning still goes on, and Ms Phua stressed the need for adults to ensure their skills remain relevant, so they will not find themselves in a situation where they have to stop work earlier than they want to.

“The SkillsFuture team is racing against time to up-skill our adult workforce, and it needs all the help it can muscle from the employers, the unions, help agencies, and most importantly the very members of the Singapore workforce itself,” she said. “The need to be equipped with the new literacy in this fourth Industrial Revolution is critical, and cannot wait till it is too late.”

Describing the upcoming changes in the IHLs as “exciting and transformative”, she noted – as Mr Ong had said in his speech – that the horizon of IHLs has been expanded from the typical four years to a few decades, with the IHLs prioritising continuous education and training.

She also gave her take on some measures that could potentially cause concern, like the cutting down of polytechnic courses that are deemed over-specific. This, she said, appears to be the wise direction to take, as "major disruptions are surfacing in some sectors, and going too deep in the wrong direction is risky".

“Employers are also concerned that we are still short of graduands who do not possess the right skills for jobs that have emerged in this era – in cybersecurity, data analytics and computational thinking and skills.

"In high demand is also the ability to integrate cross-discipline skills such as creative and marketing skills with the more technical ones,” she said.

But to address the potential concerns on course cutting, she suggested that a “deeper round of analysis” be conducted before the proposed cuts. Another proposed measure, she said, is to be flexible enough to install more specialised narrow skills courses which are in demand. “The close partnership between industry and IHLs must remain and in fact be further strengthened."

Source: CNA/lc