Life lessons from my mother

Life lessons from my mother
Senior Minister of State for Education and Law Indranee Rajah lives with her 91-year-old mother, Madam Ng Yew Keng - also known as Mrs Mavis Thurairajah - in a flat originally built as Civil Service housing on the East Coast.

SINGAPORE - As a former school netball player, Ms Indranee Rajah knows this: "You cannot stand flatfooted in court, you have to be on the balls of your feet." And she hopes to take this fleet-footedness to education today.

The Senior Minister of State for Education and Law, who is leading a national review of polytechnics and the Institute of Technical Education (ITE), wants to help "future-proof" the next generation's education in an increasingly volatile world, where change lurks around every corner.

Paraphrasing American futurist Alvin Toffler's book Future Shock, the 51-year-old notes that "we teach our kids to prepare for their careers, but one of the things we don't really do is prepare them for future change and how to handle it".

The best way to do this, she feels, is to ensure that students get real depth and substantive knowledge, along with portable skills to prepare them for the future, like communication, leadership, resilience and adaptability.

Back from a recent study trip to Switzerland and Germany, the chairman of the Applied Study in Polytechnics and ITE Review (Aspire), which has 98 members on various committees charting future directions for polytechnic and ITE education, is expected to present its recommendations in the second half of the year.

One of the early directions she is looking at is introducing more apprenticeships to deepen students' practical knowledge. That means industry taking on an educational role, as in Europe, instead of placing the onus on educational institutions to produce graduates "all ready to be plugged into work".

She cites how 10-year-olds in Germany choose either the academic or vocational path. If they choose the vocational path, leading to a wide variety of occupations from IT to banking and engineering, they join a company, not a school.

It is the company that pays them as an apprentice, then helps them find their school. From age 15, they spend three days a week at the company and two days in vocational school.

Sixty per cent to 70 per cent of every cohort in Germany and Switzerland chooses the vocational route, and Ms Rajah notes that most people view it as being on par with the academic route.

"To them, it is choose one or the other, it doesn't really matter because they are both equally good routes in their eyes," she says.

What struck her afresh is that an economy needs - and has room for - all sorts.

"You need academically strong people who like research and the theoretical part. But we also have a need for people more comfortable in a hands-on environment," she says.

She is also looking into how to improve the prospects of those with skills and leadership potential - but limited education - to move up.

"Just because somebody does not have a degree does not mean that the person cannot be a good supervisor or manager, or climb up the organisation. The question is what opportunities are there for the person to do so through alternative means, such as professional exams or certifications recognised by the industry," she says.

Another big push she is likely to make is for more career guidance, starting in secondary school.

In Switzerland, career guidance sessions are mandatory from age 13. They are geared towards not just burnishing university applications, but helping students discover their area of interest through a whole suite of personality tests and career coaching, which enables them to take full advantage of industry demand.

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