SINGAPORE: From colourful learning tools to having extra teachers in class, Education Minister Heng Swee Keat has announced a slew of measures to help students -- from kindergarten to secondary school -- build a stronger foundation in Mathematics and English.
Mr Heng was speaking in Parliament on Wednesday during the debate on his ministry's budget estimates.
For example, math teachers at Bedok View Secondary School have started using games and learning aids like the "Algedisc" to help students in the Normal (Technical) stream understand mathematical concepts.
The "Algedisc" is a set of cards that helps students to visualise the difference between variables and numbers.
Secondary Two student Chan Jun Rong did not like complicated mathematical concepts in primary school, but he is now seeing the subject in a new light.
He said: "We can touch the 'Algedisc' and we can use, hands-on, and we can do it ourselves, rather than the teacher writing it on the board while we listen. So I find that it is easier for us to understand the topic."
Mdm Tan Siew Li, a math teacher at the school, said: "We found that because they have different learning needs -- they're not the usual kind who like a lot of writing with pen and paper or the teacher teaching on the board -- so we found that when we engage them (using) manipulatives, like the 'Algediscs' and the Snakes and Ladders game, they were more interested and they wanted to do more."
To accommodate the use of such learning aids however, Mdm Tan said the school has added two extra periods of mathematics to the students' timetable -- up from three periods a week to five -- to ensure there is enough time to cover all topics.
Mdm Tan added that teachers try to engage the students by injecting an element of daily life to the lessons to help them see the relevance of mathematics.
She said: "When we were teaching them decimals, a very simple topic, we brought in the McDonald's menu. So we asked them to make a few choices on what to order and then sum them up. And they were very, very interested."
In addition, there is now a second teacher in the classroom who can walk around, tracking the progress of students or help answer students' questions when the main teacher is teaching.
Mdm Tan said this is helpful as she may not be able to pay attention to all her students in the classroom.
"He's able to explain on the spot whatever I said and then they didn't catch. Some of them are also afraid to raise their hands and ask. So with the co-teacher standing next to them, they are more willing to ask him questions as well," Mdm Tan said.
These measures are part of the ministry's effort to provide more resources and support in Mathematics classes for Primary One to Secondary Four students.
In some schools, it may come in the form of extra lessons after school for a small group. For other schools, they may integrate such resources into the curriculum of specific groups of students.
Other than Mathematics, MOE is also providing extra support for Primary One and Two students who are struggling with the English Language.
It is targeted at those who do not need to attend the Learning Support Programme -- an early intervention programme for Primary One students with weak English language and literacy skills.
Students will attend extra classes outside curriculum time to help them catch up with their classmates.
At Da Qiao Primary, students write a composition with the teacher's help. The teacher then cuts it up, turning it into a jigsaw puzzle, which students have to put back together.
Mrs Sangeetha Sivanesan, an English teacher at the school, said: "It's basically giving them the ownership for their own learning, so when it comes to the group writing, they are the ones who contribute the ideas, so the ideas come from them.
"They feel a sense of pride and take ownership -- 'hey, these sentences are mine' and so on. So that really boosts up their confidence levels. And also when they go about rearranging the words to form the sentences, as well as rearranging the letters to form the words, so that again is like self-directed learning."
As these programmes will not benefit students who are about to graduate from secondary schools, the ministry said it will pilot the Extended Nitec Foundation Programme (e-NFP) in 2014 to help students from the Normal (Technical) stream build better literacy and numeracy foundations.
Those undergoing the e-NFP will spend three years at ITE for their Nitec programme, instead of the usual two.
There is also more help at the preschool level. The English Language Literacy Assistance will be offered in 100 more pre-school centres, up from the current 250.
MOE said this programme will reach out to a larger number of children from lower-income families, especially those from a non-English-speaking home environment.
Education system must provide "opportunities for all"
Mr Heng said: "Our education system must continue to provide opportunities for all, regardless of their parents' position.
"When fully rolled out, these comprehensive programmes for levelling up students will ensure that any student who needs additional help to achieve a strong foundation in numeracy and literacy will get it."
At the post-secondary level, the ministry will do more to ensure a range of options for students.
Mr Heng said: "We are further diversifying options for university. The Singapore Institute of Technology (SIT) will become an autonomous university, and SIM University (UniSIM) will start to offer government-funded full-time degree programmes. They will have many new programmes to suit different interests, passions and learning styles."
Senior Minister of State for Education, Indranee Rajah, said: "We will add 3,000 publicly funded full-time degree places by 2020, growing the university cohort participation rate to 40 per cent. This translates to about 16,000 publicly funded full-time degree places each year from 2020."
Teachers will also have their skills upgraded, and schools with a greater need will have more teachers deployed to them.
The Education Ministry will also launch special training programmes for teachers leading the levelling-up effort.
"We recognise that students often improve because they are motivated by their teachers who also provide them with socio-emotional support," said Mr Heng.
"Teachers who are deployed to teach N(T) students will be provided a range of pre-service and in-service training, both at The Academy of Singapore Teachers and through peer learning via Professional Learning Communities in and across schools. We will continue to study how we can further improve this."
The ministry will also deploy 600 more teachers.
Mr Heng said a "whole-school" approach will be adopted to support students from less-advantaged families. These include enhancements to the MOE Financial Assistance Scheme, the Edusave Merit Bursary, and the School Breakfast Programme.
Student care centres will also be expanded in schools.
Mr Heng said the ministry's aim is to help every student complete at least secondary education. He said less than one per cent of each cohort do not complete secondary education, compared to five per cent ten years ago.