Extract from Singapore Parliament publication on Committee of Supply debate on MOE (8 March 2012). I had spoken on 5 separate issues in the MOE debate but with the limited time left for further questions, I had decided to seek clarification only on the following two issues. I subsequently spoke with Ms Sim Ann during tea break time on what I meant when I proposed the Special Needs Innovation Fund (see item 3), which I had intended to be a special fund rather than for schools to use a generic fund like the Schools Innovation Fund. I had based on my proposal on the LEAD ICT fund model which MOE had set up for all schools to apply to which can only be used to drive innovative / niche ICT programmes. A similar fund can be established to support special needs intervention activities in mainstream schools or to fund innovation programmes to get mainstream students to interact more with the special needs people within and around them.
Mr Yee Jenn Jong (Non-Constituency Member): We started the Integrated Programme (IP) in 2004 to allow higher ability secondary school students to skip the “O” levels into the “A” levels or its equivalent. I wish to propose an alternative IP, from primary one to secondary four. The current system puts huge pressure on students, parents and teachers in primary schools to prepare for the PSLE. Various Members in this House, including myself, had spoken on the excessive pressures in our school system. A Straits Times article last month reported more parents taking their primary school kids to see psychologists after doing badly in school tests, some as young as Primary 2. The purpose of PSLE and other major exams appears to be to sort students into different streams and into different schools. Our highly competitive examination-driven system has resulted in high dependency on tuition and drilling for exams rather than education for the joy of learning.
Sir, I understand this is a difficult and emotive issue as there are parents who may feel a competitive system is desirable. However, there are parents, like myself, who can accept that our children need not fight to be in the best schools. The current system offers us no choice at all because of the dreaded consequence of the child doing badly in a major examination at aged 12. Many parents feel their child’s future is determined by the PSLE. Many private schools globally already through-train students from primary to secondary, including overseas schools based on the Singapore curriculum. Some of these schools have done well in international tests despite not subjecting students to standardised examinations at Primary 6. Finland switched to such a through-train system nationwide with encouraging outcomes. Its PISA test scores are comparable to Singapore’s.
I would like MOE to consider piloting primary through secondary IP schools with the same level of funding per student as any Government or aided school. With such schools, primary education need not be focused on grinding out results just for PSLE and schools can spend more time on values-based education. The post-primary section will eventually prepare students for a recognised examination, namely “O” levels, “A” levels or even the International Baccalaureate. By that time, students are more mature and better able to handle stress. Existing school groups may opt to run such a programme. There are already aided schools in Singapore with affiliation schemes where the majority of primary students enter the affiliated secondary schools. Such schools have long histories and are trusted education brands. They are potential candidates to kick-start the programme. MOE has implemented holistic assessments since 2010. The experience of holistic assessments can be incorporated to ensure the rigour in learning throughout the years of studies in such pilot schools.
Sir, I believe we have the calibre of management and teachers in Singapore to achieve this. I hope MOE can do a serious study on making this option available.
Gifted Education Programme
Mr Yee Jenn Jong: Before I talk about gifted education, I must say I support Mr Laurence Lien’s call as well. (remark: NMP Laurence Lien had also made a similar call for independent primary schools that do not require students to take the PSLE. He spoke right after I delivered the above speech.)
The Gifted Education Programme (GEP) was implemented in 1984. Primary school GEP starts the child at Primary 4 in one of nine designated schools. Schools are identified after a nationwide test at Primary 3. Centralised secondary school GEP was scrapped in 2008 following the low take-up rate after the introduction of secondary school IP.
I would like MOE to consider scrapping centralised primary school GEP, too. Currently, a nationwide effort is required to identify just 1% of the cohort. With centralised GEP for secondary schools already scrapped, much resources are now spent on a small group of students in the programme that lasts only three years. Based on the figures provided by MOE in a Parliamentary Question (PQ) last month, the past 10 years’ performance of GEP students did not suggest that centralised GEP had generated better examination results at PSLE and at “A” levels. We can continue differentiated learning to develop students with stronger learning abilities. In place of the current GEP, we can implement the following:
(1) Encourage all schools to do their own subject-based accelerated learning. Giftedness is often specific to subjects as the child may be strong in one subject but average in others. Schools can have their own methods to identify students who are stronger in specific subjects and run accelerated learning for these students.
(2) Further support can be given through the cluster system. Learning camps, workshops or talks involving special lecturers to challenge higher-ability students can be organised by the cluster.
(3) Schools can be supported by the GE branch with learning resources distributed to them for use or schools may prepare their own contents. Selected teachers in all schools can be trained on how to guide students with stronger learning abilities.
We can spread accelerated learning across many more schools. Parents need not transfer their child out to a gifted school at nine years old. MOE wants to convince parents that every school is a good school. Separating gifted students into special schools undermines this message. Retaining good students in their current schools provide better integration of children so that children of all abilities can learn from one another in a natural and authentic environment. I hope MOE will consider this request.
The Minister for Education (Mr Heng Swee Keat):
… (other replies) …
Members have, in this debate, made interesting suggestions for more pathways and options. Mr Baey Yam Keng, Mr Yee Jenn Jong, Mr Laurence Lien have suggested more options. Mr Yee suggested having an integrated programme starting from Primary 1. My concern would be that far from removing pressure at Primary 6, you will now transfer the pressure to Primary 1. South Korea have abolished national examinations at the equivalent of Primary 6 but that has not taken away the pressure. Mr Laurence Lien and Mr Yee Jenn Jong spoke about Finland – 40% of the students move on to vocational track at Grade 9, equivalent to ITE.
While Mr Laurence Lien, Mr Baey Yam Keng and Mr Yee Jenn Jong asked for diversity, Ms Denise Phua was concerned about segregation and how that might have unintended consequences. So did Dr Intan Azura, who raised concerns about segregation. I agree with Mr Teo Ser Luck who said that we should not be apologetic about neighbourhood schools. The truth is our schools are geographically sited in our neighbourhood, so naturally they draw students who are living in the neighbourhood. So we have to ensure good schools in every neighbourhood and not use the term “neighbourhood school” as an apology. So we must collectively change perception and change mindsets as Mr Edwin Tong mentioned.
Mr Yee Jenn Jong: Thank you, Chairman. I have two sets of questions for two of the cuts. The first is regarding the primary to secondary integrated programme pilot. The Minister said that “we will be transferring the pressure to Primary 1” – does the Minister not agree that when that happens, it means that this pilot is very successful and it is time to actually open more of such pilots, just as we have done so when we did the secondary to college integrated programme. Minister also said that in Finland, 40% of the students go to vocational stream at Grade 9. I am not sure why this was raised as a problem by the Minister. Is it because the Minister thinks that going to the vocational stream is actually under achieving?
In speaking with Finns, I actually found that parents and students, they choose the vocational track by choice because in Finland, the salary differential between the vocational stream and professional stream is not as great as in Singapore. So, the higher percentage may not mean that they are under performing. Is the Minister open to dialogue with schools and parents to see if they actually want such a track because when I did my survey, I found that there is significant number of educators and parents who are interested and I heard that – perhaps Minister can confirm that — one aided school even approached the Ministry for discussion on this several years back.
The second is related to the GEP cut. Minister questioned my use of the Primary School Leaving Examination (PSLE) and GCE “A” level scores as a means of assessing the performance of GEP students. I would like to ask the Minister, are these not the same data the Ministry of Education largely relies on currently to channel our students into different academic streams and into schools and also in the Award of Scholarships? Does the Minister not agree that parents today perceive, the nine GEP schools as being “the” good schools as evident by the rush for places in these schools?
On the point that we need critical mass to put them into the centralised nine GP schools, I want to clarify specifically that I am not asking for GEP or accelerated learning per se to be abolished but I am asking for centralised GEP to be scraped, and in place of it, being disseminated to different schools. Does the Minister think that we can actually make use of our cluster school system to achieve that critical mass?
Mr Heng Swee Keat: I thank Mr Yee for his follow-up questions. First, on your point about your proposal for an integrated Primary 1 to Secondary 4 programmes, I have made two points. First, that you will be transferring the pressure to Primary 1. Second, you mentioned my point about Finland, that at the end of Grade 9, 40% are on the vocational path. I want to use that to illustrate a very basic point which is that in our system, we have many pathways and many options. This has been enhanced over the years and the results have been very good across the entire system. In the last few years, MOE had done major review of primary and secondary education. In fact, Senior Minister of State Ms Grace Fu who is here led the review on the primary education. That is after very extensive consultations with educators, specialists, parents and the broader community.
As a result of the review, you will find that in all primary schools now, we are implementing a very wide range of very important and interesting programmes. I mentioned about PAL, the Programme for Active Learning, I mentioned about the learning support in order to raise numeracy and literacy. With the additional bilingualism effort at pre-school, we will continue to enhance that. Schools are given a lot more resources to level up. I also announced earlier that we have now five major measures to level up the lower and middle income families. And I have also announced significant changes to Edusave.
So, across the entire system, changes are being made. All these are part and parcel of our entire effort to provide opportunities for all Singaporean students and at the same time, these are in line with our shift towards holistic education and values-driven education.
Now, it is very important for us to look at how we design our system in a way that maximises the opportunities for every child. At this point, with so many initiatives, we must focus on good implementation. I have also mentioned how in our system, that over 93% of our students are moving on to post secondary education. In my second set of remarks, I also mentioned how vocational pathways and technical pathways are very important. In fact, I deeply believe, as Mr Zainudin Nordin has mentioned, that the ITE and Polytechnics are crown jewels of our system. We have a system that works very well and a system that has served all Singaporean students very well.
Now, on the Member’s question on GEP, he asked whether that is the way that MOE assesses the success of GEP. The answer is “No”. In fact, it has to be a holistic assessment —
Mr Yee Jenn Jong: That is not my question. My question was: is this the way that MOE currently relies on to channel students to different academic streams, schools and in the Award of Scholarships, that is, by relying on PSLE, GCE “A” level grades and so on?
Mr Heng Swee Keat: Well, a large part of it, “yes”, in the form of examinations results at PSLE. But we must also recognise the changes which have been made over the years. Schools now have Direct School Admission (DSA), in order to recognise a wider range of talent; in order for us to develop a whole slew of different skills and aptitudes and talents. That is how we have been doing it. Admission into schools like SOTA, for instance, requires students to show the aptitude and interest in the arts, similarly admission through sports. So, if you look at the entire system, we have created many, many more options, pathways and opportunities for our students. We have to recognise all these very important changes which have taken place and I think we have to go out and communicate better with our parents on all these changes.