SINGAPORE: The Singapore Democratic Party on Saturday (Jul 13) called for smaller class sizes, the nationalisation of pre-schools and the scrapping of Primary School Leaving Examinations (PSLE) and school rankings in its alternative education policy.
The opposition party's Dr Paul Tambyah and Benjamin Pwee presented its paper at the SDP office in Ang Mo Kio, where the topic of a potential opposition coalition was also discussed.
Speaking on the PSLE system, SDP chairman Dr Tambyah said that many parents see the national examination as the gateway to a “chosen path” to an elite school, and choose schools that will help their children do better in the PSLE.
Some parents even go to the extent of taking a year off work to help their children prepare for the exams, while those who can afford it opt for tuition and enrichment classes to give their children an advantage, said Dr Tambyah.
As a result, he pointed out, children from affluent families were more likely to end up in Integrated Programme (IP) or Gifted Education Programme (GEP) schools.
In the same vein, Dr Tambyah also said that pre-schools should be nationalised to ensure a level playing field and that Singaporean children from all walks of life have access to such education.
Currently, parents who can afford it are able to enrol their children in private preschools, which may have better standards, he said.
BROADER CURRICULUM, SMALLER CLASS SIZES
In its alternative education policy, SDP also proposed a broader curriculum for primary and secondary education.
The curriculum, it said, should include more “student-collaboration projects, speech and drama, and humanities and the arts” and less of traditional subjects such as mathematics and science.
“Such an approach will enrich the educational experience of our students and prepare them for a future that will require them to be well-rounded, intelligent individuals,” according to the paper.
Dr Tambyah, who is also Professor of Medicine at the National University of Singapore and Senior Consultant at the Division of Infectious Diseases at National University Hospital, used a medical observation to illustrate the importance of skills outside of academics.
The best surgeons in Singapore, he said, are not those who obtained distinctions in school, but those who played billiards late at night.
“They are the guys with very good hand-eye coordination and they also have the social skills, they can hustle a game of billiards from anyone," Dr Tambyah said.
"To be a good surgeon, you need people to refer to you, and you need good hand-eye coordination, so it is the other aspects, the so-called soft skills that are really far more important in life,” he said.
READ: Levelling the playing field key in drive for better education system: MPs, NMPs
In proposing class sizes to be reduced to a maximum of 20 students, SDP said: “This will enable teachers to pay more personal attention to the development of the students”.
The party also called for the education system to enable each teacher to follow the development of his or her student for a longer period of time, in order to encourage a deeper understanding of each student's progress.
SCRAP SCHOOL AND CLASS RANKINGS
SDP’s education policy also suggested the scrapping of school and class rankings.
“Education is not about competition with one’s classmates but learning through collaboration and teamwork with one’s peers. The competition for top-ranked schools is unhealthy and has inflicted serious psychological damage to our children,” it said.
In explaining the issues in the current education system, Mr Pwee, a business strategy consultant who has done educational consultancy for Governments both here and abroad, said that it suffers from two major deficiencies.
The system is unable to educate a nation to meet the challenges of a 21st-century global economy, which increasingly demands creativity and innovation, independent thinking and inquiring minds, he said.
Schools continue to steer state resources disproportionately to the better performers, or the elite, thus widening inequality in Singapore, he added.
“There is a lot in the system that still continues to reinforce elitism in education defined by grades,” he said.
The focus on year-end examinations and grades makes teachers race to complete the syllabi, while parents who can afford it pay for their children to have private tuition and enrichment classes, thereby maintaining class divisions based on who can pay more, he said.
School today is also heavily content-driven, teaching students what to think, instead of how to think, he added.
The system instead needs to focus on how students learn, instead of what they learn. This will enrich the mind of every learner, not just those who are doing well or are better-off, and provide equal opportunities to learn and excel, he said.
OPPOSITION COALITION STILL IN DISCUSSION
Speaking to reporters after the presentation about a potential opposition coalition in Singapore, SDP secretary-general Chee Soon Juan said that discussions are still underway among the seven opposition parties.
SDP had announced in July last year that it and six other parties had come together to discuss the possibility of forming a coalition to contest the next general election. This coalition would be led by former People's Action Party MP Tan Cheng Bock.
While he said that “everybody” knows that there should be a streamlining of the message and that they must be united, there is a challenge in making sure everyone is on the same page, be it on policy, operations, or potential constituencies for fielding candidates.
“All these things can be resolved only when there is cross-talk, communication, there's discussion and that continues to take place,” he said.
Mr Chee said that while it is premature to make any decisions, given that electoral boundaries have not been announced, he said that Mr Pwee, 51, is “certainly one of many” candidates being considered.
Mr Pwee is no stranger to the local political scene. Before joining SDP, he was the secretary-general of the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) for six years and prior to that, he was a member of the Singapore People’s Party (SPP) that was headed by veteran politician Chiam See Tong.
Mr Pwee had been fielded as a candidate in the previous two general elections. Mr Pwee resigned from DPP earlier this year and officially become an SDP member in March.