Parents’ role in educating children

 Two articles caught my attention in today’s newspapers. The first is a ST special report on page B6, “Creating a conducive learning environment”. It talked about how neighbourhood schools have also created their own niches of learning and are also well resourced to be good schools. The second is “Teachers, don’t leave the kids alone” on TODAY which reported on Dr Tan Lai Yong’s speech at the inaugural Character and Citizenship Conference. Dr Tan spoke about the important role parents play in their children’s development. He urged parents to look beyond studying to also spend time with children at play.

Each year, we see many parents up-in-arms against MOE over primary 1 school admission, protesting over various criteria used for admission. There is no shortage of letters to forum pages of newspapers and online comments each year with differing opinions on what a fair criterion should be. We see parents stressed up over schools selection from the time their children were born. Some relocated their homes to be near choice schools. A year prior to primary 1 selection, parents would have to start to serve as volunteers to move to a higher priority for selection; and even so, there is no guarantee volunteer work will secure a place for the child in the desired school. Even getting to be a volunteer in a popular school is a challenge. Popular schools often turn away volunteers because they want to be fair to volunteers, as an oversupply of volunteers may mean more volunteers being disappointed if they have to ballot for the limited vacancies in the school. Indeed, I know of friends who had volunteered in vain due to unexpected high demand for places in the school from those higher up in the priority queue.

Being active in the schools industry for over a decade in various capacities, I had the chance to observe this annual ritual replayed many times in many schools. The process for my own three children was simpler. My wife and I decided to put them in our alma mater, which were also located within short distances from our house. One is an all-girls school and the other an all-boys school. The alumni priority did not matter anyway. The schools we chose did not have a queue, so it did not require priority to enter. It did not matter to us as well that these were not the much sought-after branded schools.

I believe parents play a bigger role in their children’s success than the school. No matter which school we select, there is no short-cut to the parents’ role in educating their children. Having worked with many schools, I find neighbourhood primary schools are not disadvantaged when it comes to physical resources. Each may have different facilities to cater to different niches, but basic and sufficient facilities are available in all schools.

The main difference between neighbourhood and branded primary schools is in the parents’ profile. Schools with higher proportions of middle and higher income families will tend to have more competitive parents. Most of these families spend a lot on tuition, so the better overall results of a school may not be due only to the school. Well-to-do parents impose tighter supervision and make additional resources available to their children outside of school. The differences in schools become more marked when it comes to secondary school due to streaming, when students are sorted out according to their academic abilities. The difference though, is less because of physical resources, but from the cohort of students the schools receive.

Parents should not think that getting their children into a popular primary school is the answer to their children doing well, nor should those that did not manage to land their children into popular schools despair. Parents hold an even more important role than schools in educating their children.

What is doing well in education? Is it all about examination results?

I share Dr Tan’s belief that there is more to learning than studying.  I have written and spoken previously about hyper-meritocracy, where we chase measurable academic indicators and rely on them to the extreme. It is unfortunate that over the years, we have gradually transformed our education system into one that seems overly concerned about sorting out students and identifying the top achievers in examinations, as if that is the only thing that matters. We find ways to sort out students at various intervals, from as young as nine years old. We provide top scholarships and top jobs for those that do well academically as proof of our meritocracy. This has led parents to over-emphasize academic results, leading to a highly stressed situation over schooling.

While academic results are important in our society, parents should not ignore opportunities to provide guidance in life skills to their children. Dr Tan raised his two children through their early studying years in mountainous rural Yunnan in China, returning only when this children are into their secondary school years. It is interesting that a Singapore-trained medical doctor would let his children live and study in a rural place without the advantages of ‘good’ Singapore schools. I believe there are must be valuable life lessons his children have learnt that cannot be taught in schools. I think these life lessons are as valuable as academic achievements.

I hope parents can see that educating their children is very much in their hands. Education includes examinations, which are necessary for the child to move on to a further stage. Education also means character and values development. While schools play an important role in character and values development through CCAs and through teachable moments in school, parents must see they have an even greater vested interests in ensuring their children grow up with the right attributes in life. Children are only in school for a few brief years but they are with their parents through life.

Values such as respect, courage, resilience, integrity, diligence, adaptability, discipline, independence are important for your children as they go through life. Parents are in the best position to impart these values to their children. Invest your moments with your children. Invest your time in their studies. Even more so, invest in their character development as well.

The journey to develop character and values in students

 There has been much talk recently about Character and Values-based education after it was first announced by new Education Minister Heng Swee Kiat. On Tuesday, a little more details were announced at the first Character and Citizenship Education Conference :

In Monday’s Straits Times, it was reported that schools will be brainstorming to look at how CCAs can be further harnessed to develop character (“Schools look at using CCAs to teach values”, ST Nov 7, 2011 Page A9).

CCAs are certainly good places to start in. I have fond memories of my school days when I started becoming active in ECAs (now called CCAs) from upper secondary and especially in junior college. Back then, schools did not strictly limit the number of ECAs we took. I had three formal ECAs and two informal ones in college.  I also took part in various competitions as well. It was through these activities that I developed self-confidence. I had gone through primary school and the early part of secondary school as a quiet person, conditioned to think I was in school only to prepare for examinations.

Looking back, my confidence in being able to take on new and varied challenges started with my ECAs. I learnt how to deal with responsibilities when these were entrusted upon me. Perhaps for this reason, I have been willing to contribute actively to my alma mater, serving in various capacities over the past 22 years because school was where I discovered myself.

I would like to see CCAs playing more important roles in schools. A problem I foresee is that school environment is no longer the same as before. I took six subjects at junior college (Four ‘A’ and two ‘AO’ level subjects) back in the 1980s. Today, top students are taking up to 13 Academic Units at the ‘A’ levels. I know of many schools who allow students only one CCA and a second CCA on exceptional grounds (e.g. becoming a student councillor). Being active in the schools scene in various capacities, I have sat through award presentation ceremonies at many top schools over the past 11 years. I have seen the number of subjects being offered by top students rising. I hear of schools pushing top students to take more subjects to stand better chances of winning scholarships.

CCAs are often for winning awards, not for participation. I know of schools that have dropped popular CCAs because they cannot win awards or competitions at inter-schools or national levels. I had written on this to ST Forum before (Change This Attitude – School sports is about winning, not passion ).

I spoke about hyper-meritocracy in my maiden parliament speech. The education reforms started by the late Dr Goh Keng Swee in the 1970s has been good and necessary for their times. However, we have increasingly stretched the academic reforms to tighten the pressure on schools and on parents to churn out elite academic performers, as if it is the only thing that matters in life. In our eagerness to measure results, we count awards won, forgetting what CCAs can do for the learning process. We rank schools by academic performances to push for measurable results. Schools feel pressured to deliver hard academic numbers and can end up drilling students for examinations rather than educating them. Schools will tend to fine-tune their offering of CCAs, not based on students’ interest but based on expected performance at competitions. We had the “Teach Less, Learn More” initiative promoted even by the Prime Minister, but its effects have been muted under this hyper-meritocratic environment.

Eminent education thinker, Sir Ken Robinson spoke of having an agricultural approach to education rather than manufacturing. He urged educationists to take a more nurturing and less structured approach. With a manufacturing mindset, we assume a linear path, promote conformity and batch people together. With an agricultural mindset, the process is more organic and harder to predict. We provide all the ingredients and right environment and let each plant develop itself. The outcome is not always easy to predict. In his book, The Element, Sir Ken Robinson also spoke about how people began to excel when they found their passion in various areas.

For character and values education to work, whether through CCAs or through incorporating into other subjects, we must take a long and hard look at how we have shaped our educaton system into the highly stressed and elitist current state. It will be useful to reflect if we have become too examination-centric and awards-conscious because of the need to measure results so precisely. As long as we continue to measure schools the same way we have done so in the past, I am not certain if much will change.

Some areas I like MOE to look into are:

1. Allow a greater variety of CCAs in schools, even those CCAs that schools cannot win at the highest level. Provide the budget to support this as schools often say they limit the CCAs offered to those they can win awards in because of limited budget to offer more CCAs. Create more sports competitions at the school level and other forms of competitions and events not at the highly competitive levels. These will allow students to experience teamwork and the joy and agony of victories and defeats.

2. Review the examination culture. Perhaps a good place to start will be at the ‘A’ levels, since most of the top 10% of each cohort would soon be on the integrated programme system, bypassing the ‘O’ levels. Is it necessary to push students to take so many subjects? Would it not be better to let students take more CCAs if they wish to, instead of more Academic Units? We need to ask why more subjects have become necessary. Is it to feed into a competitive scholarship system? If so, should we review our scholarship culture and criteria for award of scholarships?

We also need to help students and parents understand there is more than one way to succeed in life. I had written to ST Forum to applaud Raffles Institution student Stefanie Tan quitting school to focus on playing tennis professionally. We can review the schools culture and government culture to encourage different ways for people to find their passion and succeed.

3. Broaden scope of education. I like to see a broader based education that increases the breadth of learning. Subjects that are more ambiguous and subjective, such as literature and history should not be avoided by schools for fear of pulling down overall grades. Such subjects also lend themselves better to incorporating in character and values compared to hard sciences. I recall being moved by my literature book, “To Kill A Mockingbird” and learning about the wicked ways of the world through “Animal Farm” and “Great Expectations”. Stories to learn values can also be incorporated into language lessons from a young age, and teachers equipped to deal with the issues covered.

In my parliament speech, I had also suggested incorporating political education from secondary school. I was referring to understanding our constitution, about role of the president office and about other essential aspects of our democracy. We need to embrace ambiguity in the 21st century because we will face an increasingly uncertain world. Values education can also be incorporated into political education as we help students understand and appreciate diversity in views.

4. Review the teacher-student ratio.  While this has been reduced to 30 in a class for primary 1 and 2 classes, it is still 40 or more students per class from primary 3 to secondary 5. Teachers often find themselves spending a lot of time controlling the class rather than teaching. With large class sizes, it is difficult for teachers to spend more time with individuals to work on imparting values. Having dedicated mentoring time where form teachers can be one-to-one or in smaller group settings with students will also be useful. However, with current administration workload and large class sizes, this is difficult to achieve. 

5.Review the way we measure and rate schools. Currently, the schools appraisal exercise is rather onerous and time consuming. The way schools are ranked and the type of information published of schools have a bearing on how they behave. I understand a review is underway to simplify schools appraisal, and I hope it can result in positive changes for a more conducive and nurturing environment. We should find ways to reduce unhealthy stress for both students and teachers so we can channel the energies towards creating positive platforms for Character and Values-based education.

I support Character and Values-based education. We need people of good character and strong resilience to steer us in this new millennium. We need strong values to guide us in an ambiguous and constantly changing new world order. I hope to see the education environment being changed to ensure these can be properly realised.

My debate in parliament on 19 October 2011

(Text of debate from the Singapore Parliament’s official records. Debate took place after my maiden parliament speech)

The Senior Minister of State, Prime Minister’s Office (Mr Heng Chee How): Mr Speaker, Sir, I would like to seek clarification from the hon. Member Mr Yee. When he referred to the NTUC group, was he saying that the NTUC group is a government-linked company or a grouping?

Mr Yee Jenn Jong: I am not referring to NTUC as government-linked. I am aware that it is Union’s. I am mentioning in my point that it as GLCs and cooperatives competing with local enterprises. It is “and”.

Mr Heng Chee How: Mr Speaker, Sir, may I remind the hon. Mr Yee that NTUC is not the only organisation that can form cooperatives. Anybody can form cooperatives. It is a legal form of business, and you can also do that and compete on an equal basis. I just also to want ask Mr Yee whether he is aware that NTUC co-operatives do not enjoy any special privileges.

Mr Yee Jenn Jong: Mr Speaker, I beg to defer on some areas from Mr Heng. There are certain areas I am aware about that NTUC do have privileges; for example, in the industry that I am fairly well acquainted with, the pre-school industry. Childcare spaces are given to organisations like the NTUC at a very highly subsidised rent. So, it is not true to say there is absolutely no advantages at all.

Mr Heng Chee How: Mr Speaker, Sir, I do not wish to belabour the point but with regard to the NTUC co-operatives of any sort, I wish to ask Mr Yee whether he is aware that these co-operatives have all been set up in relation to societal needs that have to be addressed and that this has been the Labour movement’s contribution to addressing and helping to address our nation’s needs. Where he referred to any perceived privileges that co-operatives might enjoy, that is because certain conditions might have been placed for community organisations that meet certain criteria and that it is not unique to the NTUC.

Mr Yee Jenn Jong: Let me just clarify that I am very well aware of the progress of NTUC and how it has provided many businesses from cradle to grave literally. And it has benefited perhaps many citizens. Today my speech is about the economy and about the impact of SMEs like organisations such GLCs and co-operatives. Sir, I will leave it to a future point where I will debate further about whether certain of these approaches by the co-operatives may be necessary. But today my speech is basically about the impact of SMEs and for the Government and even the co-operatives to consider whether they should play a smaller role in some of these areas because their presence has truly impacted SMEs.

BG [NS] Tan Chuan-Jin: Just two small points, Mr Speaker, related to the impact on big government, small government. For HDB public housing, the Member cited the example of DBSS to illustrate how that has gone awry. I am indeed puzzled as DBSS forms a very small percentage of what we are providing. A large bulk of our public housing is provided by HDB. So, that is a small point of clarification.

The other one is a small point on health care. We can agree to disagree, but the total expenditure of inpatient care for residents in 2009, for example, Medisave and MediShield financed 23%. About 51% was borne by Government and the remaining 27% by employers and patients. We could disagree whether 51% is significant, big or small, but I think that is something that we are looking at and that is the commitment of the Government on some of these areas.

Mr Yee Jenn Jong: Mr Speaker, the essence of what I was trying to say is that basically over the last decade, the Government has deliberately chosen a free-market approach. Now, there are certain merits in whether we use a free market approach or a planned, regulated approach as we have done so in the past.

By allowing the free economy to dictate things, you will over the long run let demand and supply sort itself out and things will eventually match up. But we have seen over the last few years that there are big problems in the three areas that I have just mentioned: housing, transport and healthcare. My premise for this that when you leave things to the free market, things do not catch up and people may be unwilling to take risks because having unsold flats, for example, does not look too good, and you will be questioned by the Auditor-General and so on. So, yes, on the DBSS, I am aware that there is not a big portion. I am citing it as a case that when you go too far and let the private economy take over the running, then there will be at some point in time when the profit elements from the private developers will set in and push things up. I do recognise that HDB provides the housing. What I am saying is that there is not enough drive by the Government to take a bigger responsibility, to take bigger risks to absorb more of these things, to plan the capacity ahead of time even if it means that it might not look so good on the books.

BG [NS] Tan Chuan-Jin: Mr Speaker, I think it is important to make this quite clear. Our commitment is to provide public housing for our people at affordable rates. We have acknowledged that demand exceeded supply in the last few years, and we will make that right and indeed with few subsidies. The Government plays a significant role and I will speak on behalf of my colleagues in HDB who, I think, have done a fantastic job of housing the bulk of population in good quality housing. We stepped in to provide a whole range of subsidies for our people. That is not the market. If we were to leave it to the market, we should just take a step back, close down HDB, let the market decide and you pay whatever price you deem fit for a country and city. That is the basis upon which we are committed to providing for our people and that is important to clarify.

Mr Yee Jenn Jong: Sir, I would thank Brigadier-General for clarifying. Yes, I am heartened to know that HDB has indeed done more and I believe it reflects that the Government has started to listen to the voices of the people after the last General Elections.

BG [NS] Tan Chuan-Jin: I fail to understand how as a result of your entry into Parliament, we suddenly started responding on that front. We have been providing good public housing for our people for many years. And, in the same vein as I responded earlier — perhaps imitation is the best form of flattery, and if you feel that it is important to take credit, it must be something good. So, thank you very much.

Mr Lawrence Wong: Mr Speaker, Sir, if I may seek clarification from Mr Yee. If I am not mistaken, he mentioned earlier that GLCs have been growing in size in the economy and that is crowding out SMEs. Then I would like to know: first, what is the basis for saying that the GLCs’ share of the economy has been growing over the years? Because the Government has been divesting. So, I would like to know what is his basis for saying that?

Secondly, because of the divestments, some things are now being done by the private sector but Mr Yee seems to think that that is not a very good thing and he cited the case of JTC Industrial Estate going out. He said that this is negative from the point of view of the SMEs. It seems to be conflicting because on the one hand Mr Yee advocates divestment, smaller GLCs, but on the other hand, when there are companies that are divested by the Government, Mr Yee mentions that it is not such a good thing. Perhaps he would like to clarify on these points.

Mr Yee Jenn Jong: Mr Speaker, I thank Mr Lawrence Wong for bringing up the case about JTC. I observed from JTC’s website whom they have divested to. I noticed that it is mostly to Mapletree. When I checked the shareholding of Mapletree, I think I would consider it as also a GLC. Some of it may have gone to Ascendas. So, while we may have moved it off a statutory board, we have actually moved it into a government-linked company of some sort.

The observations that I mentioned are just not my own observations. As far back as 2002, there was an Economic Review Committee that made various recommendations and I was very happy with those recommendations. But over time I have not seen many of them implemented especially on the SME space. I would like to see more aggressive moves to implement some of these measures. I am aware that perhaps a competition council has been set up. But in the areas of, for example, providing more support for the SMEs, I think that is also quite lacking. And the observation then in this report was that the GLCs have grown too big and that is also time for them to divest.

Mr Lawrence Wong: Mr Speaker, Sir, Mr Yee has not answered my first question: What is the basis for his claim that GLCs’ share is growing? As he said, in his speech, GLCs are growing in the economy and crowding out SMEs over time.

Mr Yee Jenn Jong: Sir, I think I have answered the question. It is not just my observation but in this particular report it did mention that the role of GLC has grown big and it is time to divest. This is a Government Economic Review Committee report.

Mr Lawrence Wong: Mr Speaker, Sir, the ERC was many, many years ago.

Mr Yee Jenn Jong: If the Member can share with me data perhaps at some other date, I would be happy to be proven wrong about GLCs not being big.

The Minister for Trade and Industry (Mr Lim Hng Kiang): Mr Speaker, Sir, on the clarification of JTC divesting in industrial properties. In the latest exercise that JTC did so, it was opened to everybody. JTC awarded half to Soilbuild which is a private company, and the other half to Mapletree which is also a private company.

The Senior Parliamentary Secretary to the Minister for Education and Minister for Law (Ms Sim Ann): Mr Speaker, Sir, as the Vice Chairman of Compass, I am always on the lookout for interesting new ideas from parents and the community about how we can improve our education. And I notice in the hon. Member Mr Yee’s speech just now that he introduced several ideas which we have also heard from lots of parents. We share these concerns but one idea so far which I have not come across from parents is the introduction of political education in schools. I find this very interesting and I would like to seek a clarification. Does the hon. Member think that our schools are an appropriate platform for us to introduce politics and, if so, what form should such education take and from what age?

Mr Yee Jenn Jong: Mr Speaker, on the question of political education, I think something very simple that we can start with is, for example, to understand the Constitution. So, perhaps, at the secondary schools, we can start looking at what does our Constitution mean, what are the roles of the Parliament, the Executive and the Judiciary. I am pretty surprised myself, talking to even students at university level where I used to teach at the start of my career, that there are actually many people who are totally politically apathetic about the environment. And one business leader I met several years back, who gives out scholarships, told me that he was rather disappointed with the quality of discussion with the university scholarship holders that his company has given out the scholarships to, because they cannot hold a proper discussion with him about ASEAN. So I feel that, yes, we should start. On exactly at what level – at secondary, it would be appropriate; at primary, perhaps, with some simple introduction.