EDUCATION Minister Heng Swee Keat's recent call for a transformation in Singaporeans' attitude towards learning has resonated with many.
Mr Heng, who was speaking at the Ministry of Education's (MOE) Budget debate in Parliament earlier this month, urged students, parents and employers to move their focus away from exams and grades towards acquiring deep skills.
He said this was necessary as jobs will keep changing in the future, and people will need to keep learning, mastering skills and learning for life.
He warned that not doing so could lead to a dystopian future where stress levels climb, and "the system churns out students who excel in exams, but are ill-equipped to take on jobs of the future, nor find fulfilment in what they do".
Several parents who responded to his speech agreed with his predictions, and said there was an urgent need to transform the system.
However, more than a dozen parents who e-mailed and wrote in to The Straits Times Forum Page also pointed the finger at MOE, commenting that several of its policies - such as the continuation of the Primary School Leaving Examination (PSLE) - are partly the cause of students' and parents' "obsession with grades", as Mr Heng termed it.
A typical comment came from Madam Carrie Tan, who said: "It is one thing asking parents, students and employers to change their mindsets. But what is the ministry doing to encourage this change? It should lead the way in relooking some of its policies."
To give the ministry some credit, over the past decade it has changed - and even done away with - some policies that skewed priorities in education.
Two notable changes were dropping the ranking of secondary schools and streaming of children in primary school. From 2008, pupils were instead banded according to their strengths in different subjects.
In recent years, it has also done away with exams for lower-primary children. It is in the process of making further adjustments to some policies, including how the PSLE is being used for progression into secondary school.
But perhaps the ministry could go further and be bolder in bringing about the shift that Mr Heng called for.
I am reminded of a comment made more than a decade ago by then Education Minister Teo Chee Hean when he changed the way schools were appraised by MOE: "Unless we change what counts, it will be difficult, if not impossible, to change the orientation and focus of our education system."
GEP ripe for changes
SO, WHAT are some of these policies and schemes that can be revisited?
First, there is the three-decades-old Gifted Education Programme (GEP) that, through a screening test at the end of Primary 3, selects the top 1 per cent of the cohort - about 500 pupils a year - for a special scheme that aims to stretch them to the fullest and make them "responsible leaders" of society.
GEP pupils are supervised closely by teachers in smaller classes.
They cover the same syllabus as their peers in the regular mainstream programme, but in greater depth and with more emphasis on creativity, critical thinking and problem-solving.
However, a Straits Times report on the programme last year revealed that the majority of primary-level GEP pupils were taking supplementary tuition lessons outside of school.
It led to many asking if the scheme just served to extend the advantages of these bright pupils, most of whom came from well-off backgrounds.
One must question the relevance of a scheme that applies the term "gifted" to 1 per cent of students - and only to those who are academically gifted.
It skews the perceptions of children and parents that academic achievement is the only measure of "success".
This goes against the grain of what Mr Heng is pushing for - to recognise the unique gifts inherent in all children, in other areas such as music, the arts or sports.
Many have suggested that the programme can be broadened to nurture talents in all fields and be made available in all schools as enrichment programmes.
Another often-heard criticism of the GEP is that it has become a conduit for the Integrated Programme (IP) in the top secondary schools.
Most GEP pupils gain places in the IP at such schools through the Direct School Admission scheme, even before they take the PSLE.
This, in turn, has partly fuelled a demand for GEP preparation and tuition - that is, the idea that a child can be "drilled" into being "gifted".
This leads to another policy that needs to be reviewed - the Direct School Admission scheme.
Here, MOE has already taken steps in the right direction.
Currently, students get in for exceptional academic ability, or for sports or artistic skills.
The ministry has said it will broaden the scheme to include pupils with special qualities such as resilience and character. While this is a good thing, it needs to go further.
It should return to the core objective of the scheme, to recognise a diverse range of talents in non-academic areas.
The way it has been implemented by top schools, it appears to have become yet another route that gives the academically bright an advantage.
Parents are right to ask: "Why should children in the gifted programme compete for places through this scheme when, by all accounts, they would do well enough in the PSLE to get into the secondary schools of their choice?"
The ministry also needs to be bolder with the changes to PSLE.
In recent years, more parents have called for it to be done away altogether, saying it just places extra stress on pupils.
However, MOE, which announced a review of the PSLE two years ago, said the exam is still needed to assess pupils' educational standards and provide a fair basis for secondary school admission.
It has not said exactly how the exam will change, other than saying the PSLE T-score would be replaced by wider grade bands similar to the A1 to F9 grades for the O levels. These grades will be converted into points for admission to secondary school.
The problems with PSLE
WHILE this is a step in the right direction, it does not go far enough.
MOE should look at ways in which the exam can be made less of a high-stakes exam. Right now, for most pupils, the PSLE aggregate score is all that counts in determining which secondary school they will go to.
A child may perform well above average throughout the year, but if he is unable to handle the stress of the exams, he may end up in a school or even a stream he may not be suited for.
Perhaps MOE should consider including continual assessment test results, project work and co-curricular activities as a component of the PSLE score.
A more holistic PSLE assessment would encourage children to develop all-important life skills such as communication, creativity and teamwork.
But all these tweaks still mean that the PSLE remains.
The big question, of course, is whether a national examination at age 12 is necessary at all.
After all, Singapore is one of the few countries in the world to have such a crucial exam for children as young as 12.
There is sound research showing the negative effects of test-taking on young children.
High-stakes tests do not promote curiosity or critical thinking, but instead engender a narrow focus on getting the right answer, as well as curricula tailored to deliver that.
Subjects such as art, music and physical education, which education experts see as vital to growing 21st-century skills such as teamwork and thinking out of the box, inevitably get sidelined.
Indeed, as Mr Heng said, a transformation of the education system is required. To make it happen, the ministry must change what counts in the PSLE and what it counts for.
But even if the ministry shows the political will to slaughter more scared cows in education, nothing will change unless parents play their part.
I am reminded of the MOE's announcement in 2010 to do away with exams for children in lower primary.
It said children would instead go through "bite-sized forms of assessment" such as "show and tell", drama sessions or journal writing.
While many parents welcomed the move, many others went into panic mode, fearing their children would not study as hard, and began buying up the soon-to-be-defunct exam papers of top primary schools.
Some parents even enrolled their children at tuition centres that conducted mock exams.
This one-step-forward, two-steps-back dance cannot continue.
The bold transformation of the education system, as Mr Heng said, will need the collective will and action of employers, teachers, parents and students.
Parents will need to recognise their children's strengths and build their character instead of being preoccupied with grades; employers will need to hire based on skills, not degrees; and teachers should strive for all-round development of their students.
The Government must adjust, tweak and even do away with policies that stand in the way.
All must be ready to take the necessary steps to forge a new school system that will serve Singapore - celebrating its golden jubilee this year - for the next 50 years.
This article was first published on March 19, 2015.
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