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Cookie-cutter school system not enough for future

Education system must be tweaked to develop diverse range of talents. -ST

Fri, Apr 23, 2010
The Straits Times

By Sandra Davie, Senior Writer

SINGAPORE'S widely revered education system has come a long way - but it has an even longer way to go. And the first to admit it is Education Minister Ng Eng Hen.

Giving a refreshingly candid assessment of the system here in a two-hour interview last week, he acknowledges that it is too 'efficiency-driven' and 'cookie cutter', and that this is a legacy of how it has evolved.

In 1960, the pass rate of Singapore's very first cohort to sit for the inaugural Primary School Leaving Examination (PSLE) was 45 per cent. 'We had to ask whether we could, in double-quick time, get the educational standards up to support the economy so that we could make a living.

'That was the imperative that focused all minds, and therefore a lot of things were centralised: curriculum, national standards, exams, teacher training, English language.'

The resultant one-size-fits-all system worked to raise education standards quickly. Today, PSLE pass rates are near 100 per cent.

But Dr Ng doubts if such a 'survival-driven' approach can continue to work for long into the future.

Since he took over the portfolio two years ago, he has been working on identifying gaps in the current system and seeing how they can be closed to better serve Singaporeans.

The system right now, he says, does not optimally develop the diverse range of talents here. 'People are different and they have different strengths. Your system should seek to optimise and play up all their strengths, as well as not make it a break point for any one particular weakness.'

The system, he feels, is not 'contextualised' to today's youth, their aspirations and learning styles. 'When adults talk about what education system they want, we refer to our own school days, but sometimes this discounts the nature of today's youth - how they learn, their environment and what their future will be.'

Next: Education regime to be contextualised to today >>

At the macro level, the education regime first needs to be contextualised to today's society.

'We should be bold because our world is changing... The texture of our society has changed, the shape of industry has changed, the global financial crisis has rewritten a lot of rules and we have to position for a future that's a decade or two away.'

Take the parents of pupils entering Primary 1 today. As children of the 80s, they grew up in a 'prospering' Singapore, travelled widely and have different aspirations for their children. 'Their children will have many more opportunities to plug into the world. Many of them of course will grow up here, but throughout their working life, they may be working in different places and we need to prepare them for that future.'

To shape these children for the new workplace - here or overseas - Singapore cannot just count on literacy and numeracy alone. 'Students from China, India and Vietnam will be just as literate and numerate, if not more, so Singapore has to value add so that its workers will continue to have that edge,' he says.

Increasingly, the new edge will come from critical thinking, good communication skills (both writing and verbal), leadership, innovation and the entrepreneurial spirit.

As such, he says the importance of building 'soft skills' or '21st century competencies' in every child, a topic he dwelt on at length in his parliamentary speech last month, cannot be over-emphasised.

'I think no one would disagree that soft skills are required in the workplace, all of us know it. And here I'm signalling to say yes, it's important, we should pay attention to it.'

Schools will soon put greater emphasis on physical education, art and music so that students develop a range of 'social and emotional competencies', as well as acquire 'global awareness and cross-cultural skills, civic literacy, critical thinking, information and communication skills'.

He says: 'We have reached high standards in the other areas, such as maths and science. So we have the capacity to strengthen the system by developing other aspects in our students.

'Also, our population is less homogenous than it was 40 years ago. And a reiteration of these fundamental skills and values, the shared experiences, is an important one.'

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Against this backdrop, he says that Singapore's language policy also needs an update. That is why the Education Ministry is now reviewing its mother tongue language policy - in particular, the 25 per cent weighting given to mother tongue languages at the PSLE level.

The key question here, he says, is whether we keep the old norms and assumptions and ignore global trends and the new language environment.

His conclusion: 'I say we will need to update it and we have to take these factors into consideration.'

But some pet peeves, such as regular tests and assessment, won't change.

Amid all the changes, he stresses that the baby shouldn't get thrown out with the bath water. 'As we change, and we certainly must change, we don't want to unwittingly or inadvertently remove the pegs that make our system strong,' he says.

These pegs include the importance placed on 'learning and hard work', literacy, numeracy and science. There is merit to a system which gives a realistic assessment of a student's potential and doesn't attempt to 'perch everyone on a narrow academic peak in university'. Instead, it allows youngsters to reach for peaks by taking different routes, such as those offered by the Institute of Technical Education and the polytechnics.

Also, regular testing and assessment is another peg that is here to stay. Some countries, he notes, experimented with moving away from tests in the belief that children should study in an 'unfettered environment' but eventually went back to it.

Summing up, he says the Singapore education system is robust and mature enough to take into account the different aspirations of different groups. 'It is when we have more confidence that we can actually re-arrange the boxes without taking away the moorings.

'If it's possible to have a system that accommodates more, why shouldn't we do it? Especially if it doesn't hurt us and as long as we keep the fundamentals. I think we won't go far wrong if we create space and a system that maps itself to the different talents of our population.

'If I can create space for a child with high linguistic ability, if I can create space for a child who can be a wonderful dancer... and I can support a child who's slower, but can build in 21st century competencies to make him a productive citizen, then I think then we will all be richer for it.'

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On mother tongue, uni places for poly grads and more

Q How would you respond to worries that mother tongue languages, including Chinese, could be taught as foreign languages in the future?

The question must be, as an educator, how effective am I? It's like asking, will I be worried if one day maths is taught a particular way, say using the model method?

So, the right question to ask is how effective is the method?

China's Hanyu Shuiping Kaoshi, a language proficiency examination, uses different levels. At level two, you should be able to understand simple language and at level four, you should be able to read newspapers. That's very sensible. The system is geared towards non-native speakers, but suppose we find that it is more effective. Are we then going to say, well, no, that's not the way to teach. My point is we shouldn't be conscribed by labels. The more important point is: Is it effective?

In the same way, we could argue about how we teach English. Previously we thought that we could get away from grammar and syntax, but found that that was really wrong. So we had to come back (to grammar and syntax).

Maybe we should quote Deng Xiaoping: It doesn't matter whether the cat is white or black, as long as it catches rats. We should be happy that it can deliver.

Q How would you address concerns that the Ministry of Education (MOE) is setting the bar too low for mother tongue languages?

All of us understand why mathematics and science is needed. English will be required in the workplace. Chinese, for some, will certainly be an asset because China is rising.

But, if you were to ask whether someone with no language ability - but who excels in mathematics and science - can progress, the answer must be 'yes'.

So we must support those who have good language abilities to go as far as they can in their mother tongue language. But, to meet the diverse talents of our population, we may want to see whether we can have a system that also meets the needs of those who have no language ability but have strengths in other areas. I'm not sure whether the either-or construct has been just or relevant for tomorrow - whether that's the best model for our children.

Q Even with the additional university places that will be offered through the Singapore Institute of Technology (SIT) and Singapore University of Technology and Design (SUTD), only 20 per cent of polytechnic graduates will win a place at the local universities, while 70 per cent of junior college students will get a shot at university education locally. Why the gap, and do you see this gap closing as the calibre of polytechnic graduates improves?

Our planning norm has always been to set the standards and then see if you can meet them.

Because Singapore is small, to keep it up there, we need to set appropriate standards for university admission.

So, if students meet these standards, they get in. Obviously, sometimes this translates into percentages.

It is not our aspiration to send 70 per cent of our population to university, because countries that have done that have found, at the tail end, that employers know which universities are not up to mark.

We have expanded university places with SIT and SUTD. And, as I have said, as long as standards are kept, I'm prepared to review the number of places in SIT, which we can expand.

If polytechnic students perform better, more of them should qualify for university - and why not?

Just as our ITE (Institute of Technical Education) students are doing better and going to poly.

Previously, one in six ITE students went to poly. Now it's one in five, and the way they are performing, it will soon be one in four. So, if they're doing better, we will admit them.

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Q What do you think of Dr Tony Tan's suggestion to the National University of Singapore that it offers a liberal arts programme, which requires students to study varied fields from the humanities and the hard sciences before they go on to specialise?

It's a timely idea but not for everyone. We must recognise that industry, parents and students still subscribe to the value of professional degrees. If a child were to tell his father that he wants to go and do a liberal arts degree, he'll scratch his head and say: 'Well, what is this? What do you work as when you finish with it?' And then industry will ask: 'What are you trained in?'

It adds diversity to the system, just like SIT and SUTD, which fill different gaps. There's a group of people who want to have the broad liberal arts educational experience.

But some other students may say, look, don't waste my time, I want to be a lawyer or a doctor or accountant. I'm going to spend six years studying deeply so that I can be a very good accountant or very good lawyer, and then, after that, I can think in broad terms.

Q Recently, the Government announced that those entering SUTD will have to pay higher fees. The other three universities then announced fee hikes. Will the Government continue to subsidise tuition fees generously?

We will still have huge subsidies for university education - 75 per cent for general courses. This works out to $80,000 to $100,000 for students taking up general degrees.

The second policy that stays is that no student who is deserving of university education will be denied it because he cannot afford it.

As our universities move up the ranking, they're hiring top-notch faculty staff who cost more.

With SUTD, which has the Massachusetts Institute of Technology as one of its partners, you have a different model, which adds diversity to the system. But it will have more lecturers per student and state-of-the- art facilities, so obviously the cost goes up. Students who enter a top university will benefit from the education, have more successful careers and and better starting pay. Hence, they are the prime beneficiaries and should pay higher fees.

<< Previous: On mother tongue, uni places for poly grads and more | Next: A veteran at shaping education policy >>

A veteran at shaping education policy

EDUCATION Minister Ng Eng Hen, 51, is no stranger to the shaping and implementation of education policy.

Dr Ng, who is also Second Minister for Defence, was previously minister of state and then second minister at the Education Ministry from 2002 to 2005, where he oversaw technical education and university issues, among other things.

Two years ago, he left his post as Manpower Minister to take over the education portfolio from Mr Tharman Shanmugaratnam, who became Finance Minister.

Dr Ng, who studied at Anglo Chinese School and then National Junior College, studied medicine at the National University of Singapore. He was a cancer surgeon with a private practice at Mount Elizabeth Hospital before entering politics in 2001.

He is married to paediatrician Ivy Lim Swee Lian and has two sons and two daughters.

This article was first published in The Straits Times.

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