Suggestions for our mainstream education system by a Singaporean student

The following is contributed by an undergraduate reader of my blog. He prefers to remain anonymous for this post.

I am currently a final year undergraduate student in one of the local Singapore universities. I have a typical sandwiched class education profile, completing my non-tertiary education in neighbourhood schools. Just before I enter the workforce, I have some suggestions for improving our education system, mainly to enhance the quality of the neighbourhood schools, which form the bulk of the education system

Firstly, during my exchange studies in Europe, I found out that most European students are able to speak 3 or 4 languages. The native language, English, and one other language, usually an european language although Mandarin is becoming more popular. This has put the students in Singapore at an disadvantage among the global stage, especially when the government encourages the young workers to venture overseas in securing new opportunities for Singapore.

Although English is the unofficial business language, many of the european companies often communicate in their native languages, or French/Spanish/German at their workplace. They will be very impressed if someone from Singapore, is able to communicate with them, in one of these languages, and I think this is an very important soft skills in the corporate world, to establish a relationship. In addition, EU is one of the biggest trade partners of Singapore, and languages like Spanish, and French are also commonly spoken around the emerging world, such as the South American Continent, and certain parts of the Africa Continent.
Singapore is a very small city state. With the speed of globalisation, there is a need for Singaporeans to be equipped beyond 2 languages. Introducing a third language in Singapore education will enhance the competitiveness of the local students. In Singapore, there is a minority of students, usually from the good schools, who study a third language. Hence, I feel that there is a need for Singapore to enhance the accessibility of a third language education to the masses.

We could introduce basic third languages as an elective at 15,16 years old level, with the option of taking A1 level examinations at the end of the electives. Two hourly lessons/week, over 40 weeks will give an total study time of 80 hours. A1 level requires 90-100 hours of contact time. Hence, a two year elective should give the students more than enough time. During the course of study, they will be able to understand and converse in simple terms, as well as introducing the cultures of the native country. This will expose the students to the language for a start and encourage them to continue learning them at higher level, in poly, jc, or University after graduation. At the same time, capable students could even stretch their ability and interest, by completing the A2 level certification at O level, which would give them the necessary skills to communicate on a personal interest level.

With a ready pool of workers who are able to converse in other languages will attract more MNCs to set up offices in Singapore. In addition, Singapore companies are able to send Singaporeans to manage overseas market if Singaporeans are able to converse with the local market.

I believe that hiring foreign language teachers for every school can be expensive and challenging. MOE could expand the network of MOE language centre by establishing one language centre in each cluster of schools, and allow more students from the neighbourhood school to be exposed to the third language.
The second issue which I would like to raise is the actual teacher to student ratio. In a comment by the previous MOE minister, the teacher to student ratio is below 1:20 in secondary schools. However, a check with my former teachers who are still in the system, they still face a class size of 1:35 and above. One of the reason which we discussed, is the lack of facilities for the schools, as they are built with the model of large class sizes. I hope that MOE could look into this, and look at ways to improve the infrastructure of the school so that the class size could be reduce to smaller actual class size. Personally, i have benefitted from smaller class sizes in JC, with 1:20, and in university, with a maximum size of 45 for my modules.
I understand that it is impossible to expect drastic changes for the education system in a short time, a fine system which has worked well and serve Singapore well for the past decades. With slight modifications, I have confidence that Singapore will be able to enhance and cement its position as one of the top education system providers of the world.
(comment by Yee JJ: The ratio that the Minister referred to is typically based on the number of teachers in a school to the number of students in a school, which will be a much smaller number compared to what the author refers to as class size. So both are correct in citing their statistics.
I also clarified with the author what he meant by the third language suggestion, which has been in existence for over three decades as an  O / A level subject. I was actually the first batch of students on a third language, although I dropped it after a year because of inconvenience of travel to another school for twice weekly lessons. He replied as follow:
My point was to introduce third language, not for the O level exam load, but for the external qualification test according to European Comission Guidelines of A1,A2,B1,B2, C1 and C2 levels. Typically, 1 level takes about 80-100 hours of contact times, and just a passing grade of 60% would be sufficient for each level. A2 level would be more than sufficient for communication with the native speakers. A couple of my friends have attained A2 levels before moving to Germany and start their own businesses there. Hence, it would be a good start for our students to be exposed to different languages during secondary school education as enrichment program. I think when a language is taken as an exam-able subject, it takes the fun out of learning a new language and culture. This is similar to our MT education when we study for the exams, but rarely use it or engage it outside school hours. 
My main motivation is to make languages more accessible to students in neighbourhood schools, outside the top schools. Currently, these students are not given the opportunities. While not everyone in the school is up to it, from my own experience and observation, the top express class of every neighbourhood school typically attained a university education, and on par with those of top schools. As families of these students tend to be from the lower strata of the society, their parents might not be able to afford these extra enrichment for them.
One suggestion would be for MOE to have more language centres to cater to every area, such that every 8-10 secondary school can share a language centre so that capable students from these schools can learn a third language or have enrichment classes to expose them to different disciplines. These centres could function as enrichment centres as well to provide “modules” such as robotics, aerospace classes.)
(Additional notes by Yee JJ – 14 March 2012: A newspaper reporter called me yesterday to ask about this post and if I agreed with the article’s author. He said I posted it up, so I must have agreed. Just wanted to clarify that just as newspapers accept forum letters of various opinions, I allowed posts by contributors to be made to encourage discussions on various issues by readers. Told the reporter that I agree with smaller class sizes. It’s also in WP’s manifesto and it is my personal opinion too, having conducted or observed classes in many schools. Smaller class sizes will allow better interaction and attention. While some schools may now have a senior educator and an allied educator or a new teacher in a class of 40+ students, it is different and not as effective as having say 1 teacher to 25-30 students.
On the third language issue, I have no strong views on this. While it is useful to learn an additional language, I think operationally it will be difficult to do as what the author suggested as schools will prepare students for O / A levels. Anything that is enrichment-based by the schools will just be surface deep unless we change our system to be modular examinations, like in the polytechnics and universities. In the polytechnics, students can select a language course to various levels of proficiencies as elective modules. In the secondary / college system, there is a big major examination at the end, so schools would not want to be burdened by modular programmes. So this idea is hard to implement unless there is a major structural change to our secondary / college system, which I do not see will happen anytime soon.
I recall an interview by my friend A/P Lubna Alsagoff, Head English Language and Literature Academic Group of NIE last November in Berita Harian. Dr Lubna can speak English, Malay, Mandarin and Hokkien, and had previously studied Tagalog, Thai and German languages. She said that one’s mindset and worldview would be more open if one knew more languages, as it would allow the person to understand and learn different culture. That’s very true. Just that in Singapore schools context, it is not easy to fit that into the existing rather rigid system. And yes, we need not learn just European languages. Asian languages to better interact with our neighbouring countries will be very useful to our students too.)

One comment on “Suggestions for our mainstream education system by a Singaporean student

  1. Having look at more and more mainland Chinese picking up English and their command of the language is steadily improving as compared to HK’s decline, I’m of the opinion that our bilingual in English and Mandarin may no longer gives us a competitive edge.

    Long long time ago, our grandparents used to have this ability to speak lots of dialects plus Malay, but don’t understand why in recent years, we have been steadily losing this exceptional capability since the launch of Speak Mandarin Campaign which only succeeded in destroying our dialects but did neither to improve our Mandarin, making our place looks more like a monolingual society.

    I fully support the idea of Singaporeans been able to speak as many languages as we can because basically we have to link up with foreigners in order to survive. Though this student stated some European languages, I don’t think we should just limit our choices to just European languages, in fact, it can be any other Asian languages. All along, we have been trading a lot with US/EU but not enough of trade with our neighboring Asian countries. We need to have sort of balance with maybe around 20-30% of our total trade to be within Asia to capture this opportunity of a steadily rising Asia.

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