What does it take to educate our children?


Recent moves by the Ministry of Education to reduce competition

MOE had just announced that with immediate effect, it will stop the practice of announcing the top-scoring students at all national examinations. This includes the practice of naming the top student for each ethnic group.

This change appears to be another in a series by MOE recently in an attempt to reverse the over-emphasis on academic results. In September this year, MOE ended an 8-year old practice of banding secondary schools based on academic results. Prior to banding of secondary schools, there was an even more competitive system of ranking schools since 1992 by the average L1B5 (for Express stream) and L1R4 (for Normal streams) scores of their graduating cohort. The difference of up to the decimal point will affect the rank position of a school. A separate list was also maintained ranking schools by value-add to students’ academic results.

At the same event in September, MOE had also declared that it will remove the Masterplan of Awards and reduce the number of school awards.

Last week, MOE announced that the bi-annual Singapore Youth Festival (SYF) will no longer have the usual highly competitive classification categories. That change, while not directly related to measuring academic achievement, is consistent with the ministry’s current stance to make schools less competitive.

Streaming and highly differentiated schools: The source of stress

I was asked by the press if I thought the latest move to not announce top scorers would reduce the excessive stress at PSLE. Taken by itself, this measure would definitely not reduce any stress. Few aim to be the top scorers in Singapore so the change will not bother them. Informed parents know which are the desired academic streams and choice schools. They also know which academic streams to avoid for the negative labeling of their child and possible bad influence of peers. Parents also know which schools are better resourced. PSLE is still THE sorting exercise for secondary schools and for academic streams.

The current stress at PSLE is due to the many years of branding and ranking of schools, and streaming of students. Since the Goh report in 1979, initiated by the late Dr Goh Keng Swee, Singapore had adopted an increasingly competitive system of sorting students out at various intervals in their course of study, starting from 9 years old. That was done with the belief that students need to be identified based on academic abilities and be put through academic streams and schools that best fit them. This is coupled with a system that seeks to identify top academic performers for scholarship and subsequently into a fast-tracked career. The rewards for doing well academically are often disproportionately large. It can lead to a winner-take-all situation which Education Minister Heng Swee Kiat had described as ‘extreme meritocracy’.

The potent combination of school branding, streaming and extreme meritocracy has generated what I feel is an unhealthy level of stress. Many parents feel the overriding purpose for their children’s education is to score well in examinations. This has led to a flourishing private tuition market. The well-resourced are able to tuition their children to better results. This is leading to lower social mobility in our society.

While MOE does not have a system of ranking primary schools, parents have their means to know which schools are the ones that have produced better PSLE results. I conducted a focus group discussion on education with a group of concerned parents some months ago. One came with his research that ranked top primary schools by the number of their pupils who produced T-score of 250 or better at PSLE. A T-score of 250 or higher puts the pupil into the top 10% of the cohort. It is also the approximate score needed to get a student into an Integrated Programme (IP) secondary school.

The parent said he obtained the data through the website of schools or by visiting the schools to get information. Primary schools that do well at the PSLE were happy to publicise such their top performers on website and on banners across the school. Some schools produced class-loads of pupils with 250 and higher. At the opposite end, some schools struggled and produced none or just a handful of such pupils. He had questioned that if every school was a good school and if primary schools truly took in pupils at random from the population at primary 1, why should the academic results of schools be so different?

This led me to recall how some 20 years ago, a teacher told me of the great pupil exchange that took place yearly between her neighbourhood primary school and the popular school next-door which had a gifted programme. Schools then had the 8-year monolingual stream which was later replaced by the EM3 scheme. The popular school did not offer the 8-year monolingual or EM3 programme. Hence, each year, the gifted students in the neighbourhood school would swap into the popular school while the monolingual and EM3 students from the popular school would cross over into the neighbourhood school. She described the sense of gloom in her school, seeing their best pupils leave and then having to deal with an increased cohort of weaker pupils. Over time, fewer children opted for her school due to decreasing performance at PSLE. Eventually her school was merged with another neighbourhood primary school due to declining enrolment.

That issue prompted me to file a parliament question in July on the percentage of graduating cohort of the top 10 and bottom 10 primary schools that obtain T-score of 250 or higher. From my own anecdotal observation, I believe it would show a very wide gap. The purpose of my question was to probe how we can narrow this gap, perhaps through better resourcing of neighbourhood schools or even to review the centralised gifted education programme that transfers higher performing pupils out of neighbourhood schools into top schools.

The written answer from MOE provided no data. The reply stated that MOE did not maintain such a ranking and that it was moving away from focusing too narrowly on academic success in education. The reply also said, “The Ministry shares these concerns (of a narrow definition of academic success) and is taking steps to broaden the definition of success, and to emphasise holistic education, with character and values at the centre. Ranking schools based on the number of pupils with high PSLE scores will undermine these efforts, with potentially adverse impacts on our schools and our students.”

I certainly did not ask for primary schools to be ranked nor did I ask for the top 10 and bottom 10 schools to be named. I wanted to understand how different the academic performances across primary schools were and to explore what could be done to narrow this. However, I appreciated the recent efforts by MOE to expand the definition of success and decided to wait for further announcements of how MOE will implement their objective of a more diverse celebration of achievements.

Tuesday’s announcement appears to be another of the changes towards this implementation. It is a baby step. There are much more to be done to reverse our highly stressed and winner-take-all culture that had developed under previous education policies.

Moving forward with our next phase of education

It is good that MOE desires for every school to be a good school and wants to celebrate diverse forms of achievements. The road ahead is still long.

The main culprit is the sorting of students into schools and academic streams, with important consequences for their future. Hitherto, PSLE has been a sacred cow. It is an important piece of a society that believes in meritocracy. The country also counts on the education system to sieve out top performers to feed into the civil service and into the political system. This issue was highlighted by former permanent secretary Ngiam Tong Dow.

The way to apply meritocracy so far has been by examination scores. Hence, even though there have been renewed calls recently for the PSLE to be reviewed, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong has been quick to say that PSLE is needed to select students into secondary schools.

Tweaking the PSLE by having some weightage for school’s continuous assessments will not work as yet, as it will be deemed not to be objective. Removing T-scores and relying on academic grades at PSLE could help to allow more diversity of students into each secondary schools but the intense competition at high stake examinations will continue.

There is now a big difference in expectations by MOE and by parents. MOE believes every school is a good school, so it does not matter which primary or secondary school a child get into, or if the child goes into junior college, ITE or polytechnic. The child will be given an appropriate education. Parents today are much more informed than before. They know the difference between the different academic streams. They know which schools are better and which schools are the best. Data has shown that there is not a great deal of mobility between academic streams in secondary schools. Around 6% of students change academic stream at the end of secondary one, and very few thereafter. Hence, the sorting exercise at PSLE is taken very seriously by many parents.

To reduce current excessive stress and over-emphasis on academic results, we need to blur the distinctions between schools and academic streams. However, with more IP schools and new specialized schools for Normal Technical students, the distinction between schools has been accentuated.

There is no easy solution to de-emphasize academics so as to encourage holistic education. Our current system has been deeply entrenched in our psyche since the last major overhaul in 1979. There has to be a national buy-in to accept whatever changes are to come.

It is useful to study the experience that Finland went through. They had a dilemma forty years ago. Their education system then was not producing results. Their subsequent overhaul of the education system and their rise to the top in international rankings of their students are well documented. Here is a good article that captured the essence of the transformation: Why Are Finland’s Schools Successful?

What struck me about Finland’s transformation are two things. First, they decided on a central key philosophy – “Whatever it takes to takes to help each child.” They agreed on a more egalitarian system of public education. They removed all but one standardized test, streaming and differentiation of schools, and put students of mixed abilities together. They put resources into having more qualified and motivated teachers. They instilled an attitude in teachers to do whatever they can to lift every child up.

Second, Finland got together as a nation, people and politicians of all parties. The changes were difficult and needed time to work through. They stuck with their philosophy through various change of governments and change of education ministers.

I am not advocating a blind copy of the Finnish education system. A study of the process they went through is useful.

While we had many education policy changes over the years, the last major revamp was the Goh Report in 1979. Then, Singapore was still a developing nation with an economy in need of an educated workforce to be an attractive investment destination for multinationals. The sweeping changes in 1979 were an urgent fix to stamp then-massive wastage in the system through high dropout rates. We are having a national conversation now. Education has consistently surfaced as one of the top concerns of Singaporeans. Given the changed times of an already developed Singapore in a rapidly changing 21st century, what is a philosophy of education that we can agree on to take us forward. How determined are we to stick through with any change as a nation? Thirty-three years after the Goh Report, perhaps it is time to have a serious look at our education system to see what it will take to educate our children well for the future.

Note: This post was written for Singapolitics.