The yearly rush for popular primary schools

Every year in July, there will be letters to newspaper forum pages asking for changes to the Primary 1 registration system. Parents are anxious that their children enter the most popular primary schools. There will always be a group disadvantaged by the rules and wants it changed or the enrolment of popular schools enlarged to give their children a better chance of enrolment. 

Here are 2 letters in today’s Straits Times:

  1. Enlarge popular primary schools
  2. Trimming the alumni advantage

Being actively involved in the school education field for the past 11 years, I am acquainted with many educationalists. I have helped friends enter popular schools as volunteers (some schools are so popular that there are limited vacancies for parent volunteers). Some succeeded eventually to get their children into their choice schools while some were disappointedly turned away after a year of volunteering when they missed out in balloting due to limited vacancies.

My wife and I had decided we need not put our children into the ‘best’ primary schools. We chose to put our children into our alma matar, neighbourhood schools within minutes of our home.

Forum writer Chong Foo Sin suggested that enlarging popular primary schools will allow more to benefit from holistic education system.  Being active in the education field, I have seen neighbourhood schools with good holistic programmes as well. Students in popular primary schools may seem to do better for a variety of reasons, including having parents who could afford to send children for more tuition, the streaming policy that put in additional top students into schools with gifted programmes or the schools subjecting students to a lot more examination drill-and-practice to produce better PSLE results.

I have reached a personal conviction that a good set of academic results does not conclusively determine the eventual success of a person. I have also decided to redefine success to be a variety of other achievements beyond academic success. The self-worth of a person should be beyond academic and monetary success.

A true holistic education should not just focus on examination results. Many schools do try to provide holistic education, including popular schools and neighbourhood schools. However, parents tend to measure schools by the PSLE results. Schools know this and have nice banners on their fences announcing the top PLSE scores of their best achievers. Schools that do not achieve outstanding PSLE results are shunned at primary 1 selection.

We complain about Singapore’s education system being stressful but we are unable to let go of an overdependence on using performance at high-stake examinations as the sole measure of success. Parents will say that’s the way society measures success. We glorify scholars and fast-track them in their careers. It is the best way for success as our society knows it. Schools therefore push students hard academically as they currently do.

The debate will go on each year. There will be more forum writers expressing views over primary school enrolment. In October, there will be parents writing to the forum pages upset over unfair difficult examination papers. Each year, there will be anxious parents looking for every bit of advantage for their precious little ones.

Change is a process. Hopefully over time, we can understand success beyond academics. Over time, our society can accept different routes of education and different forms of assessments beyond high-stake standardised tests.

Educating in the 21st century

Secondary 4 student, Janelle Lee wrote passionately about the education system from her first-hand experience.

In her post, she spoke about the heavy emphasis on factual memorisation, drilling to give standard answers in examinations and lack of cultivation of curiosity, imagination, creativity and character development in students. It was a brave call for change by a passionate young lady.

Amongst various things, I run a visual art-based creativity development programme. Participants are brought through various techniques to turn random squiggles into meaningful drawings. We run the programme for children as young as 4 years old, for older students and even for adults. With young children, we have no problems getting volunteers to come to the whiteboard to doodle on random squiggles made by the instructor. Sometimes, half the class would want to run forward to grab the chance to express their ideas through drawing. When it comes to older students and adults, they seem more conscious of themselves, more mindful of being right and less eager to try. After training thousands, I have made many anecdotal observations to suggest that there may be a correlation between the creative energies of children and age. I observed that the innocent creative energy so abundant in young children diminishes with age.

This is not just my observation. Renowned education and creativity expert, Sir Ken Robinson observed from a longitudinal study of 1,500 children over 10 years that divergent (creative) thinking decreases with age. Over time, students are taught there is one correct answer and it is at the back of the book. They become less willing to think of other solutions. He observed that our current education system was invented during the industrial revolution but has not adapted to fit the fast changing dynamic world that bombards us with loads of instant information and is paved with uncertainty.

The big challenge facing us is how to educate students for jobs that do not yet exist. A child today will typically go through 10-16 years of formal education before entering the work force. No one can be certain what the world economy will be like 10-16 years later nor know what sort of jobs exist then. The education model where there’s only one right answer to each problem cannot prepare students to be adaptable to future challenges.

Singapore’s education system is based on having high stake examinations at various milestones of the students’ life. The majority of tests are based on standard correct answers. From the examinations, students are classified, streamed and moved into institutions best suited to their abilities. Their abilities are measured based on standardised tests. It may not be a true reflection of their real intelligence or capabilities. Some students are late bloomers, some are suited for other forms of learning and some may face environmental factors that impede their progress.

Singapore has developed to a level where we place a great deal of importance on a single measure of students’ worth, which is their examination results. This is further perpetuated by our strong scholarship culture. Nearly all government organisations today award scholarships and some schools set themselves targets to churn out scholars.

Parents are often called to meet with teachers. Sometimes, they might be told their children are not meeting up to their potential. They could get better grades but were not. School examinations are typically made more difficult and marked more strictly to pressure students to work harder at high stake examinations.

What do most parents do under such situation? They send their children for tuition, and more tuition. The schools would not tell you to send your children for tuition. But the expectations are for that if you want your children to keep up with their classmates. With the large class size in schools, teachers cannot give attention to just your children.

The danger in over-emphasing high stake examinations and scholarships is that students find their personal worth being linked to standardised measures of their abilities. It does not build up a resilient generation that can handle problems of varied sorts. Some who cannot do well academically give up and lose interest in school. Some may develop inferiority complex. Even those who can do well academically may be be able to cope with other pressures in life later, such as national service or work stress.

The problem does not lie with just the Ministry of Education and the education system alone. Society itself has a lot to play in this. We complain that our system is pressurising but parents are unwilling to give up high stakes examinations and are the ones pushing their children to perform at all cost. This mindset has been developed because our government service has placed a big premium on those who have succeeded on their measure of success. Scholars are fast tracked in their careers. Parents worry that if their children do not succeed academically, they have no chance of success in life. Do our government organisations seriously need so many scholars to fill up their positions?

In reality, there can be other ways to succeed. But parents are unwilling to risk their children going down the unproven track. Hence, most go along with the system and push their children as hard as they could to succeed in standardised tests.

Are we willing to help our children find their passion instead of pushing them to get good grades at all cost? When my daughter wanted to get holiday work, I gladly supported her. Letting her face difficult restaurant clients and slogging long hours is useful learning not available in school. I recall when my daughters were young, like other wishful parents, we put them through piano lessons. It became a daily struggle pushing them to practice. They hated it. We paid a lot and wanted them to excel in it. After nearly 2 years of stress and not going anywhere, we felt it was not worth it and stopped the lessons. Surprisingly a few years later, they asked to start piano lessons again on their own. They can now even download music scores of their favourite songs from the Internet and played on their own. I don’t care what grades they make it to as long as they are enjoying it.

Once when organising an event that needed accompaniment music, I asked a friend with grade 8 certificate to play the piano. She told me she only plays examination pieces and nothing else. Since passing all the music examinations she was required to take, she has stopped playing the piano. I find it sad that we learn just to pass examinations. Even for something non-academic like music, shouldn’t we learn because we love it rather than to pass examinations to make someone else happy?

A friend was stressed with her only daughter, whom she had sent to get a good degree from America. The daughter wanted to start her career as a social worker in China with a non-profit organisation. My friend was furious. To her, it was such a waste of the education and her life doing a career that cannot pay. To many, education is about getting a good degree, so that one can get a good job and earn a lot of money.

I am reminded of Dr Tan Lai Yong, a Singaporean doctor who spent 14 years organising medical support for remote villages in Yunnan, China. He and his wife brought up their two children in basic conditions. I consider his work to be a success even though he forfeited monetary rewards. Dr Tan brought blessings to poor villagers in Yunnan. His children received a form of life education not possible with schools in Singapore.

I have come to a personal conviction that there is more than one way to succeed. A primary school classmate of mine joked that he used to prop up the class by being amongst the bottom few at every examinations. Today, he is a highly successful entrepreneur with net worth of over hundreds of million, probably the most successful financially from our class that had produced many doctors, lawyers and engineers.

In his book, “The Element: How Finding Your Passion Changes Everything”, Sir Ken Robinson listed many people who found success after finding their ‘element’. Not all have what it takes to succeed academically. Some became hugely successful in the arts, in business, in writing, and in a variety of other ways. They may not have succeeded academically but once they found their ‘element’, their passion drove them to success.

In the children classic, “The Wonderful Wizard of Oz”, Dorothy followed the yellow brick road to Oz, a road less travelled with her companions the Scarecrow, the Tin Woodman and the Cowardly Lion. Through the journey, the Scarecrow discovered his brains, the Tin Woodman found his heart, and the Cowardly Lion uncovered his courage. These qualities were in them all along but their self-doubts had kept these away.

Are we prepared to let our children walk the road less travelled? Are we prepared for an education system that breaks away from high stake examinations and streaming? This is a journey that the MOE, society and parents must be prepared to take together to make changes work. Revamping the education system is a challenge with many issues to tackle. While there’s room to allow greater diversity in learning paths and alternative forms of assessment, we must also be prepared to change the way we view success. We should allow our children to explore their world bravely.

Helping SMEs manage costs

Two days ago, I met a high-flying corporate executive-turned-entrepreneur. He summed up the challenges of doing business with a story. At the peak of his business, he had 35 executives. Each day, he was the first person into office. As he switched on his lights, he tells himself he has to find $10,000 today just to pay for costs. He used to travel first-class as a corporate executive but he chose to start his own venture to fulfil his desire to create something new of his own. Since his venture, he has become conscious of saving every bit of money.

I recall the early days of my new business where we were constantly tight on cash. Once we had  a $30,000 burn-rate per month and just sufficient cash for the current month’s operations. We received a series of investments despite the dotcom crash of 2000. When we used up this series of investments over the next 2 years developing new products, we trimmed headcount to survive the poor business environment. For a whole year, we operated with just enough to cover the next 1-2 months’ of operations until business conditions improved. I kept a close monitor on the company’s liquidity and pushed constantly for new sales to keep things going.

There are 2 key challenges to Small and Medium Enterprises (SMEs) in Singapore. First is a small and competitive domestic market that prevents economy of scale. This is not helped at all by government-linked companies and cooperatives fighting for the small market pie with SMEs.

Second is business cost, with rental and manpower usually contributing the most to this. Recently, manpower cost has been pushed up due to tightening labour supply and increased levies on foreign workers. A friend of mine closed her café at Biopolis as the staff levy jumped from $100+ per month to $450 per month for each staff from 1 July 2011.

A 5 July 2011 investment recommendation by DBS Vickers Securities recommended buying Mapletree Industrial Trust (MINT). In this report, amongst other reasons for the ‘buy’ recommendation, it cited:

Creating synergies from latest acquisition from JTC.  Mapletree Industrial
Trust (“MINT”) has been awarded tranche 2 of the latest JTC tender exercise
of 11 properties (8 flatted factories and 3 amenity centers) of over 2.1m
sq. ft, increasing its total portfolio size by 18% to S$2.6bn. A key
advantage is the ability for MINT to create operational efficiencies given
its leadership & experience in managing the flatted factory space.  MINT is
expected to extract the embedded earnings growth from this target portfolio
through (i) improving current occupancy level, which is at c95%; (ii)
higher rents as the current passing rent is more than 30% below JTC’s
latest posted rents
as at 1st July’11; and (iii) asset enhancement works on
certain assets to improve efficiency and/or GFA. This implies further
earnings upside in the coming years when these expiring leases are renewed

With the transfer of factory ownership from JTC to MINT, MINT will be able to push up rental yields. JTC may find it politically sensitive to increase rents for SMEs. The problem is passed on to a commercial entity so that it can raise rent to the higher recommended market rate. Market rate itself is subjective as the government is the biggest landlord in Singapore. Rental rates and land costs are very much under its control.

While higher rent on flatted factories is good news for shareholders of REITS such as Ascendas and Mapletree, it is more bad news for SMEs. They already face challenging market conditions and rising manpower and utilities costs. It will be hard for them to cope with increases in both manpower cost and rental cost at the same time. No doubt productivity needs to increase but when business owners are distracted by simultaneous rise in costs from many areas, they can be distracted from pursuing measures to increase long-term productivity such as investing in training and equipment as they are cash strapped.

As we aim to transit our economy and build up productivity, we should help businesses by slowing down some of the cost increases. Rental is one area the government can help. However, with more JTC spaces pushed into ownership and management by commercially-driven REITS, rentals are bound to go up.