National Day Rally (NDR) 2013 was much anticipated by many. It followed a year-long nation-wide conversation, termed as Our Singapore Conversation (OSC). OSC was announced at the previous year’s National Day Rally. Then, PM Lee Hsien Loong highlighted the need to use the exercise for the nation to ask itself “fundamental questions” and to seek Singapore’s future directions. PAP Members of Parliament and OSC committee members had joined in the call that there should be no sacred cows in the review. MP Inderjit Singh urged the government to be willing to make radical changes. He said that “If the committee comes out with incremental changes which are not significant, we would have wasted our time with this exercise.”
The public was let in on sneak previews of what would come out in the run-up to NDR 2013. Public expectations were high. I was awaiting eagerly to hear what the impending changes to education would be. This is an area I had championed for change even before I had entered politics.
Changes to Education
Four changes were announced that night in education:
(1) Reserving 40 places for primary one admission for those with no connections to the school,
(2) Removing PSLE T-Score, with results being reported in bands like in the O and A-levels,
(3) Secondary 1 students will be allowed to take a subject at a higher level if they have done well in that subject at PSLE, and
(4) Broadening of Direct School Admission categories for selection of secondary schools.
These changes were said to be made in order to move education into a more holistic form, to move away from an over-emphasis on examinations and to put focus to learning. This is something the Workers’ Party had been calling for as well (pages 30-33 of the 2011 manifesto).
The right topics were touched on, but I had expected more. The anticipation was built up through the year-long exercise with the promise that there would be no sacred cows The steps taken in education seem incremental to me. They are nevertheless steps in the direction I wish to see.
On primary one admission, I was told 40 is about the typical number of places left in some popular schools currently after those with connections were admitted. In a way, it would check a slow decline to zero places if nothing else was done. People who could afford to would still shift house to be near to popular schools. Grassroots leaders and parent volunteers gaining priority will still exist. Some schools will still be more popular than others. The yearly rush for primary 1 places in perceived better schools will still be there. We may still hear of stories like what the Prime Minister told of the mother who shifted home four times to get her child to be in her preferred school.
PSLE remains the sacred cow. T-score is removed but will pressure drop? Will parents continue to take leave to coach students for the PSLE? Will tuition business continue to flourish? Details were scant last night. We were told that it will take several years for the changes to take place. MOE will announce more details over time. I suspect the PSLE results will still largely determine the academic stream and the type of secondary schools students go to. How much would have changed to the pressure at PSLE?
No much details were released about the DSA process. The challenge will be how we can make the implementation fair. Primary schools will need to be pushed and equipped to cultivate students with character, resilience and drive and to find ways to substantiate these values so that secondary schools can make better selection. Secondary schools must be prepared to accept students with qualities other than academic abilities and to find ways to develop them differently. How prepared will our existing top schools be to change their current practices?
I had hoped to see bolder moves. One is to have several primary to secondary through-train schools which I had called for several times in the past. Other MPs such as Laurence Lien and Denise Phua have also called for this. I think there can be scope to have several of such schools for parents who are prepared for their children to go through a 10-year holistic development at the hands of educators who also believe in this cause. We can leave out the existing top schools so that we do not allow people to shortcut the system to put their children into top secondary schools. Then only those who truly believe in having 10 years of continuous development in a single school can opt for this.
A issue that was not touched on is class size. I think the current class size of 40 (30 for Primary 1 and 2) is too big. It leaves weaker students with insufficient attention from teachers. Many students felt it necessary to go for tuition to catch up. In the process to make every school a good school, MOE could work on reducing class size. For a start, that can be reduced for all primary school levels. With smaller class sizes, teachers can better handle each student and work on developing the individuals holistically, all part of being a good school.
Ultimately, all the pressure that is currently in our school system is because some schools are perceived to be better and some academic streams are desired, while some are to be avoided. We can never make all schools the same, but we can narrow the gap. More resources and autonomy could be given to neighbourhood schools to bridge the gap. The way we celebrate success as a society has to be changed too.
A shift for the betterment of Singaporeans?
The Straits Times today has an article by Ms Chua Mui Hoong entitled, “Seizing back the political initiative.” Ms Chua said that for the first time since GE2011, she had the sense that PAP is seizing back the initiative after relentless hammering by citizens on many policies. To her, the previously ‘welfare-allergic’ PAP has started a new mid-term election pledge wrapped with a lover’s promise: “You are not alone, the State (with all its resources) is by your side.”
Some of the policy changes announced such as in healthcare seem to be more radical shifts as what Ms Chua had described. If it was indeed so that the ruling party has shifted policies to the betterment of the people, it is something Singaporeans can be happy about. I joined the Workers’ Party in 2011 because I identified with its cause to champion for a more caring and inclusive Singapore. I hope to see the commitments made by the Prime Minister being realised through concrete implementations. As long as Singaporeans benefit, this can only be good for everyone.