Think big, start small, act fast – here’s something for the Minister to consider

The speech by the Minister for Education, Mr Ong Ye Kung on the annual promotion exercise for the administrative service caught my attention.

Mr Ong was encouraging the public servants to offer bold policy suggestions, rather than “second-guess the policy preferences” of ministers. Amongst other things, he also had said that sound policies must take into account ground realities and constraints, and also that “there is no perfect comprehensive grant plan. If we over-plan, we run the risk of paralysis by analysis.”

I totally agree and so I wish to offer again a suggestion that I had mooted for many years already, both in and out of parliament. In his speech, Mr Ong had covered various initiatives in the domain of other ministries. I wish to suggest one that is for the ministry that Mr Ong is in charge of.

I had called for pilot through-train schools from primary 1 to secondary 4, extending to college even if necessary. We have often talked about our stressful education system; how our children are subjected to pressurising various high stake examinations early in life. Many have talked about our our students being exam-smart but lacking in creativity and imagination. Much hope was offered during the national Singapore Conversation exercise and when the Prime Minister said in his National Day speech that the PSLE will be changed. The changes though, after much anticipation, will not make any significant impact towards reduce the stress.

The suggestions for the through-train school that I had made can be found in the selected links below, so I will not elaborate in this blog.

a.  Committee of Supply debate on MOE, Mar 2012

b. Scrapping the PSLE, blog post, Sep 2012

c. Committee of Supply debate on MOE, Mar 2014

d. WP proposes small start for through-train plan, CNA 5 Sep 2015

e. Singaporeans need a bolder look at how to change education system, Feb 2017

Being involved actively in the K-12 education sector for over two decades, I do understand the challenges faced if we are to change the current education system too quickly. Having gotten so used to a competitive system with high stake examinations, constant streaming and highly differentiated schools, it will be hard to immediately switch to an alternative. I too understand that as then-Minister for Education, Mr Heng Swee Kiat said in 2012 in response to my proposal for such a through-train scheme, that pressure may be shifted to primary one. Hence, my suggestion was to avoid involving top schools for such pilot schools, and to also start small with a limited number of such through-train schools.

Attitudes need time to change. Right now, there is no alternative for parents who do not wish that their children be caught in this rat-race of constant high-stake streaming. There have been many good policy initiatives in the past, such as Thinking Schools Learning Nation, Teach Less Learn More, Every School a Good School, etc. Set against the overarching policy of having to differentiate schools by resources and students achievements, as well as high stake examinations to sort students into schools and academic stream, these good policies end up being sidelined. Tuition continues to flourish.

Having just a few pilot through-train schools, preferably neighbourhood schools or schools with existing strong primary-secondary affiliations (again, I emphasise excluding top schools and schools already on 6-year IP), will allow parents who believe in 10 years of holistic education to commit their children to the same school. Over time, perhaps we will have a chance to shift Singaporean mindsets to accept that we can develop successful students without competitively sorting students through high-stake examinations, and even allow students of mixed abilities to learn effectively together in the same class.

It is a big dream, but we can start small, and perhaps act faster too. Meanwhile, other messages that MOE sends must be consistent with what the minister is saying too. For example, two years ago, MOE totally took away the autonomy of principals to allow appeal by students into secondary schools and junior colleges, even if they had missed the cut-off by just one point for whatever reasons. It basically promotes a top-down approach to getting things done, which quite contradicts what we now often hear that there should be more autonomy and initiatives from bottom up.

Sending the right signals

We have often heard, “Do what I say, but don’t do as I do.”

Sometimes the messaging can be quite subtle. Those in leadership positions may not realise it if we are not sensitive enough. The recent viral publicity over flyers by a Residents’ Committee touting the benefits of serving as grassroots volunteers such as car parking privileges and priority registration in primary schools for their children, comes to my mind. (http://www.straitstimes.com/politics/flyer-listing-benefits-for-grassroots-volunteers-draws-response-from-wp)

The issue of priority registration for primary 1 for community leaders is something that I had been concerned about, and had raised in parliament several times. In 2012, then-Education Minister Heng Swee Keat had a written reply for my question on this privilege for grassroots leaders. He said that an average of 330 children were admitted yearly under the active community leaders scheme, just less than 1% of the primary 1 cohort (we have around 30,000 babies born each year). They only need to have served for one year as a community leader.

In 2013, I joined in the debate on this issue with a supplementary question for then-Senior Minister of State for Education (SMS), Ms Indranee Rajah. I had asked if the Ministry has done any survey to see how many community leaders have actively contributed to the schools that their children are enrolled in, and ‘if it can be a criterion for community leaders to have first made specific contributions to the schools before they are being considered for priority’. The reply was that the SMS was not aware of any such survey and that the criterion is based on contribution to the community, as opposed to contributions specifically to the school. In other words, the community leaders need not contribute any time or service to the school the child is enrolled into under priority registration. This is strictly a reward for ‘contribution to the community’.

During Committee of Supply debate in 2013, I had also spoken on the topic as I asked for a general review of the Primary 1 admission system. Specifically on the issue of community leaders, I had said I feel community leaders need not be given priority. Being a community leader for the purpose of getting into top primary schools does not gel with the spirit of community service.”

I felt so because they do not necessarily add value to the primary school, unless they are also actively helping in the school in their position as a community leader. It becomes very transactional; the priority is a reward for the community leader, and a backdoor to get an edge to enter desired primary schools.

MOE has been touting that “Every School is a Good School” for several years already. So every school should be good enough for the community leaders’ children. Yet allowing for such privileges sends exactly the wrong signal, even if in a subtle way. That’s the same way ordinary folks will feel when a leader says that every school is a good school but they see that the leader’s own children are in preferred schools.

I agree with Former Nominated MP Calvin Cheng, who as reported in the Straits Time article of this Flyers episode, had left a pointed comment on his Facebook saying: “‘Selfless dedication’ does not need to be rewarded by preferential access to primary schools. Just saying.”

I think it is time to do what we say.

 

 

 

Pathways to success

Last month, my daughter came home from her holiday work with a story. The cleaning/cooking aunty at the preschool centre told the teachers that she was angry at her son who was studying in a polytechnic. She said that instead of studying hard, he was working every day till late at night at some events company. She showed my daughter the recent Whatsapp messages she had with her son.

From those messages, my daughter gathered that Aunty’s son was working because he wanted to be financially independent, so he had taken up a part time job managing sound systems at events. Events are typically held at night and hence he had to work late. He had also explained that he was still able to cope with the demands of his polytechnic studies.

My daughter and another teacher told Aunty that it was good that her son was being independent and working hard, and was not loafing or partying around or addicted to computer games, as some young adults his age may be. My daughter had friends who were good with sound systems and explained to Aunty that people often had to pay to learn how to manage those expensive sound equipment. She told Aunty that her son was now even being paid to learn how to be a sound engineer – a good skill to have. My daughter too started doing part-time work actively since she was 14 years old, so I guess she could speak with some assurances for Aunty.

I think my daughter and the other teacher managed to convince Aunty. She said she would go home later that day and talk to her son.

The Aunty’s concern is typical of the average Singaporean parents. We have been conditioned that the pathway to success in life is to score in exams. When you are studying, do not waste time on other things, even if these are useful skills to have or can help one to develop their character. If you are a student, just study. In many parents’ minds, grades are what matters.

Recently, I had a long conversation with a former high-flying government servant turned entrepreneur in a developing country. We all shared our concerns of Singaporeans being exams-smart but lacking the ability to cope in the new economy requiring innovation, creativity, resilience and many skills that one cannot train through the books. When I mentioned about us consistently scoring tops in PISA assessments, he remarked that our education advantage like those measured through PISA often disappear in tertiary studies when one has to go beyond knowledge. My former civil servant friend also shared his concern about high-flyers taking very safe paths. We will end up doing very safe things to meet short term KPIs, and not do things that are necessary for essential disruptive changes.

Several years ago, policy makers have said Singapore will embark on many pathways to success, beyond measuring by exam grades. That is highly necessary but the implementation will continue to be challenging. Mindsets of parents like Aunty need to change. Mindsets of employers, especially those in the civil service will need to change. Policy makers must dare to make bold changes where needed.

This is the year-end results period. We had the PSLE results released several weeks ago. O and A levels results will be out soon. As it is every year, parents will scramble to enrol their children in what they consider as good schools. Some will be disappointed that their children did not get the grades necessary for the targeted top schools.

We will need more young people to be like Aunty’s son. Some part-time work or active involvement in community work outside of school is good. It trains up resilience and time management. We will need our people to be more than exams smart if our economy is to do well in this new global economic climate.

To seriously innovate or not, that is the difficult question

Two news related to education in the last 2 days caught my attention.

Recently appointed Acting Education Minister (Schools) Ng Chee Meng had in his first major speech outlining his vision for schools yesterday, said that schools must go beyond teaching students to be good at solving problems, but help them develop the instincts and ability to be value-creators. He called for schools to encourage students to “have the courage to try, fail, try again, fail again, and eventually succeed.” He had urged for students to be innovators for Singapore to succeed.

I agree that’s needed. There is nothing new in the statement though. Every Education Minister since RADM Teo Chee Hean had been calling for greater innovation in students. Google search with the name of every Education Minister since 1997 together with keywords “innovation”, and “students” and you will get many hits. Then-Education Minister Teo had said in 1998, “Innovation will be absolutely critical to the creation of wealth in the 21st century … To develop an innovative work force, we will need to start in school by training our students to be enterprising and creative thinkers. The education system in Singapore has thus far emphasized the acquisition of factual knowledge. We will need to shift our focus to creative thinking skills. Instead of just being followers, our young must be prepared to experiment, to make mistakes, to learn and to innovate, in order to be leaders in their own fields.”

Schools have indeed tried different ways to get students to be creative and innovative since this push in the late 1990s. I have seen quite a number of these myself first hand. The difficulty is in how to make it systematic and lasting, in the face of other more important KPIs that schools must achieve and which parents expect schools to achieve. Innovation is usually not one of the key things in the mind of parents for their children to get out of schools. They worry about how to make it through our tough national streaming examinations, getting into what they consider as “good” schools (which tend to differ from MOE’s wish for ‘every school to be a good school’), getting the grades to be good enough for scholarships, and so on.

Innovation (or variations of it) is already one of the several values in most Singapore schools today. Efforts are already there, for nearly two decades now, on and off. The trouble with innovation or creativity, is that it is difficult to quantify. It is messy to encourage. It is not objective. It is hard to put a score to it like how you can put a T-Score to students for their PSLE results. T-Scores are objective. Deciding what is innovation is often very subjective. Teachers, most of them who have come through our education system and our society’s way of thinking, will often find it hard to deal with this as a subject or something to do in the classroom.

There are also the society’s expectations. We want students to try, fail, try agin, many times over. How many parents can accept that? How many students can accept that? Should we expect them to accept that, when our system try to measure things objectively and put scores to different things to make sure we are objective? These measurements usually have important implications, like the secondary schools and academic streams students will go to. It might even affect qualification for scholarships and jobs later in life.

The second piece of news, seemingly unrelated to the first, but which I consider is relevant, is that of schools being told not to take in transfer pupils whose PSLE scores did not meet the schools’ cut-off point during this school transfer period.

Each year, right after the PSLE results are known, students choose their secondary schools. MOE will run the applications through a computerised system to assign schools to students, based on the PSLE T-Scores. After that, there is a couple of weeks where students can appeal to schools they did not get into, subject to vacancies and to the discretion of principals. If successful in the appeal, students get to start within the first few days of the new year in the school of their appeal choice. Usually, only a handful of appeals are successful per school anyway, because not that many would get to move out of a school to create the vacancies for others to come in. This year, the directive appeared to have put an end to this appeal process.

In a reply to the press, MOE said students are posted to schools based on “objective and transparent measures of academic merit” and appeals afterwards “should be aligned to these same principles, to be fair to the other students”.

It is often hard to argue against the principle of being objective and transparent. We do not like mess. Appeals are messy. Some parents will cry foul when they see someone of a lower T-Score getting into a school when their children could not.

Well, innovation is messy too. We want kids to try, fail and keep trying. Innovation sometimes involve trying unconventional ideas, often doing things differently. As a school system, however, we try to make things standard, measurable and objective.  Otherwise there will be many complaints to deal with. Such desire for objectivity does not stop just at the schools. Hence as a society, we end up being obsessed with academic results and awards, because these are measurable and objective. We end up with “extreme meritocracy“, where academic grades achieved early in life can determine a lot of the person’s success later in life.

Should we give back that autonomy to principals to decide on just a few places in this short transfer period, together with all the messiness it will bring? I think the implications may be beyond just the few places per school today.

Two years ago at NDR 2013, PM Lee Hsien Loong announced that the PSLE T-score, long a stress point for parents, will eventually be removed and replaced with bands similar to those used for O’ and A’ levels. We have yet to hear definitively how and when this implementation will take place. Without T-Score, it will become even more subjective on how to post students. If we attempt to once again be objective, T-Scores may still be kept for students but will not be known to them. When they apply for schools, the computer system can check the ‘hidden’ T-Scores and determine how to place students “objectively”.

Or we can leave it more open to principals to decide by looking at the grades achieved together with other holistic considerations. We will end up with students with say three A* (or even two A*) making it into a top school while other with four A* may not. I can already hear some readers crying foul over this.

If we are to expect principals to make such decisions in a few years, assuming we get to eventually carry out PSLE without T-Scores, will they be ready to make such decisions if they cannot have the autonomy to decide on a few post-PSLE results transfer places from now onwards?

There is a dilemma, whether we like to acknowledge it or now. Can we accept a messier and hopefully more creative and innovative society, or are we such strong believers in measurements and objectivity? Acting Minister Ng cited the example of Steve Jobs enrolling in a calligraphy course when he was young and that helped him later in life with Apple’s distinctive typography. Well, Steve Jobs had quit college because he questioned if the degree would not be helpful to his life. He however, continued to stay on in the same college to take random courses, including the course on calligraphy . How many parents will accept that for their children in Singapore?

Acting Minister Ng also threw down the gauntlet for nay-sayers to be proven wrong that our education system and teachers are conservative and risk-averse. As a policy, are we prepared to be more risk taking? The latest announcement to disallow principals the autonomy for appeals does not seem to suggest so.

I think we can even go beyond allowing these sort of autonomy in school places and changing from T-Scores to subject banding, depending on how big our appetite for moving away from conservatism is. I had for many years, called to start pilot schools that allow through-train from primary to secondary, with ‘O’ levels as the first major examinations for these students. I had already put out various ways this can be done in a gradual manner more acceptable to society, so I shall not elaborate in this post. Here’s just a funnier recent report of that proposal from Mothership. I think gradually moving away from early high-stakes examinations can contribute to an environment where innovation can be allowed to flourish.

To seriously innovate or not, that is the difficult question.

 

 

 

 

Yee JJ’s Rally Speech – 4 Sep 2015

各位义顺的居民,亲爱的马林百列集选区选民,来自新加坡各个角落的工人党支持者,晚上好!感谢你们今天成千上万地来到这里,来表示对我们的支持。

4年半前,我与工人党展开了这段旅程。虽然我当时是新晋的候选人,选民们还是给了我非常强烈的支持。

我成为了非选国会区议员。我在4年的任期中在国会里提出了许多方面的课题,其中就包括了教育、商业、人力、环境、幼儿教育、经济等等。我和我的同事在国会上提出课题时一直都按照着工人党 理性负责任互相尊重 的信念。我们会继续这么做,因为我们都热爱新加坡。

我为什么会在2011年加入工人党?因为当时我觉得,一党独大是不健康的,人民应该可以选择另外一个有实力的团队。 我相信新加坡人非常有才华。行动党低估了我们。我们的国家有足够的空间支持多个优秀的团队。 在制定政策有的时候,国会中有更多不同的声音是好的, 是有益的!

在那以后,我很高兴,看到更多的人加入了工人党。马林百列集选区的团队除了我之外,虽然都是新面孔,但是,他们都非常努力地在我们的基层组织活动里服务选民,也帮忙为政策进行资料搜集和研究。 我们的团队年轻、有活力,也热心地帮助居民。这是新加坡走向SG100必须经历的更新的故事。

9月11号,请投工人党一票。掌握民权,把握未来!

Dear Singaporeans, thank you for being here tonight. In my house visits these 2 days, I have met so many residents that have come from far away to attend our rallies. Your support has given us strength to press on in our campaign.

Today is Teachers’ Day. A happy Teachers’ Day to all educators out there!

Being Teachers’ Day, I want to share a quote:

“The task of the excellent teacher is to stimulate ‘apparently ordinary’ people to unusual effort. The tough problem is not in identifying winners: it is in making winners out of ordinary people.”  -K. Patricia Cross, Education Scholar

This quote stands out for me because this is what I believe is important in education – making winners out of ordinary people, making winners out of Singaporeans. For too long, our system sorted students through various major exams, trying to pick winners. We had ranked and branded schools and made parents so anxious. They are afraid that their children will lose out if they miss on a desired choice by just one point on the PSLE T-Score.

In my 4 years in parliament, I have raised many issues, the most is in education. I have asked for putting school-based student care facilities in all schools, even before MOE started increasing the number of such places.

I have raised issues on the number of foreign scholarships given out and found that many of these scholars had graduated with second lower honours or with poorer results. Just 2 months ago, in response to my parliamentary question, MOE revealed that their expectations for a foreign scholar is still a second lower honours because that is the Grade Point Average which they are expected to maintain throughout their studies. We have some 3,600 – 4,000 foreign scholars at any time in our local universities, at a cost of $25,000 per scholar per year. We spend up to $100 million each year just on undergraduate scholarships for foreigners. Yet we expect these scholars to graduate with just second lower only? We should set our expectations much higher when funding foreign scholars, especially when our universities now rank amongst the top 4 in Asian and around the top 20 in the world. Instead, let us invest more in our own people to make them into winners!

One proposal you have heard from some of our candidates in the past 2 days is a 10-year Through Train School. I like to emphasize that we have proposed this as an option, starting with just 2 schools in each zone, or a total of 8 schools across Singapore. In parliament, I had also suggested that we exclude top schools from this pilot so we do not have the pressure being passed down to primary 1 admission. Only parents who truly believe in the education provided by these pilot schools should subscribe to this.

After several decades of high pressure system, sorting at PSLE and ranking and branding of schools, even MOE has trouble trying to implement what PM Lee has promised in his 2013’s National Day Rally, which is to move PSLE away from T-score into banding by grades. 2 years after this announcement, no details have been released. It seems this issue will be passed on to perhaps the next Education Minister.

Having such pilot 10-year Through Train schools is one way for parents to see how such a system would work, starting with neighbourhood schools. When parents see that it is possible for their children to go through such schools and still do well in life, we can start to talk about making more structural changes to our education system, with the aim of educating our children to make winners out of them.

The Workers’ Party believes in empowering our people, to make them into winners. Come September 11, vote Workers’ Party. Empower your future!

Time to review our scholarship framework for international students

I had filed two questions during the recent parliament sitting on 13 July 2015, with answers as follow:

75 Mr Yee Jenn Jong asked the Minister for Education (a) since 2012, what percentage of international students on scholarships awarded by the Ministry have graduated with second class upper honours or better; (b) how does this figure compare with the 97% of Public Service Commission scholars who graduate each year with second class upper honours or better; and (c) whether the Ministry intends to set a base score of a second upper honours or its equivalent which international scholars must attain to maintain their scholarships at each renewal review.

Mr Heng Swee Keat: Since 2012, about 68% of international students on undergraduate scholarships have graduated with second upper class honours or better. This is comparable to the performance of Singaporean scholarship holders studying at the local universities. It is also higher than the overall percentage of students graduating with second upper class honours or better, which is about 38%.

Mr Yee asked how these figures compare with that of PSC scholars. There is no good basis for comparing as the number of PSC scholars is extremely small and they undertake their studies in a variety of top-tier universities, both local and overseas.

The basic grade that the international scholars have to meet in order to maintain their scholarships is a cumulative Grade Point Average of 3.5 out of 5 for NUS, NTU and SUTD, and 3.4 out of four for SMU. This is commensurate with what is required of Singaporean scholarship holders studying at these universities. These criteria strike a careful balance between encouraging students to achieve certain standards in academic work, while giving them the time and space to learn deeply and widely through a variety of activities

And

  1. Mr Yee Jenn Jong: To ask the Minister for Education (a) since January 2012, how many scholarships have been awarded each year by Ministries to international students to do their undergraduate studies at our local universities; and (b) what is the current average cost of each scholarship a year including but not limited to school fees, accommodation and other allowances.

Mr Heng Swee Keat: The annual number of scholarships awarded to international students at the undergraduate level has come down in recent years. Since 2012, about 900 such scholarships are awarded each year.

The scholarships include school fees, and typically include accommodation and some allowances. The annual cost per scholarship is about $25,000 on average.

The questions were to get an update from data I had obtained when I first entered parliament. In January and February 2012, MOE had revealed then that it awards 170 and 900 scholarships at the undergraduate level each year to ASEAN and non-ASEAN students respectively, making a total of 1,070 new international scholars a year. Budget per scholar then was between $18,000 and $25,000 a year.

A GPA average of 3.5 out of 5 is roughly the grade that will secure a student a second class lower honours degree. 68% of international students graduated with second class upper honours in the last four years, a slight improvement compared to the figure I had obtained in 2012.

At $25,000 per year per international scholar and with a scholarship lasting typically 4 years, the annual budget on international scholars would be $25,000 x 900 x 4, giving a total of $90 million a year (this figure excludes the amount spent on pre-tertiary and post-graduate scholarships, as well as that spent on tuition grants). The expenditure on an international scholar would be $100,000 over the 4-year time period to obtain his/her first degree. I believe this figure excludes tuition grants of typically $10,000-$20,000 per annum per student which almost all international students will get.

MOE had said that the expectation of a GPA of 3.5 out of 5 (or 3.4 out of 4 for SMU) is the general expectation for Singaporean scholars as well. It had said that we cannot compare PSC scholars’ performance with that of international scholars on MOE’s scholarship, as the number of PSC scholars is “extremely small” (5 President’s and 83 PSC Scholarships were awarded in 2014) and they study in a variety of top-tier universities, both local and overseas. DPM Teo had in May 2012 revealed that more than 97% of PSC scholars graduate with Good Class Honours (2nd upper or better) each year. PSC scholars I had spoken to have told me that if they did not maintain the GPA required for a good class honours for two semesters, their scholarship would be suspended.

The question then is whether our expectation for international scholars has been set too low or we have set a target number for recruitment and have not been able to attract applicants of suitable quality. When the expectation is a GPA of 3.5 out of 5, you can expect many of them to graduate without good class honours, as the case has been for many years.

Our universities have been constantly rising in their rankings to be amongst the top internationally. Since we expect our PSC scholars to study in top-tier local and overseas universities, we should also set top-tier standards for those we wish to fund generously for their studies in Singapore. I do not object to having top quality international students to study here on scholarships. Some Singaporeans do get scholarships from overseas to study in their top universities as well. I can imagine how difficult it is for Singaporeans to get fully funded scholarships to study in top universities internationally. You have to be really good and will likely graduate with good class honours if you manage to get a fully funded scholarship from a foreign government to study in their top institutions.

Perhaps we can draw lessons from how PSC maintains the consistently high standard of academic performances of its scholars. It takes in an “extremely small” number each year, puts them into top-tier universities including top local universities, sets a high expectation for the scholars in terms of GPA and monitors their performances continuously.

Since our universities are now world class, it is time to review and raise our expectations for those who we wish to fund generously to be in Singapore to provide competitive interaction with our local students. Perhaps the number has been too large and standards were set too low. Other international students can continue to come here to study on their own, subject to already established quotas for international students. With our universities’ top rankings, do we expect difficulties to attract enough international students to study here on their own?

MOE Committee of Supply Debate 2015 – Sports CCA

Encouraging sports CCA

Madam, several Members including myself have spoken previously about a greater level of sports engagement for our pupils and to increase the number of sports on offer by schools. Active participation in sports from young can hopefully help students develop a culture of active sports in the future.

I wish to suggest how we can add to schools’ efforts to provide more sports engagements for students:

  1. Introduce more fun competitions for sports within schools, which can be tiered so students who are at a lesser skill level can move up to a higher level when skills have improved.
  2. Introduce the concept of a minor CCA where students who want regular exposure to various sports can sign up for as a second or even third CCA. The time commitment may not be as intense as a regular CCA but it will allow students to try out more sports. CCA points would be correspondingly lesser.
  3. Recognise and award CCA points for the achievements of students who participate regularly and competitively with external training providers outside of school hours, even if the school does not offer the sports as a CCA. This will encourage students to pursue sports of their interest at a serious level where schools are not able to find the resources to offer that sport as a CCA.
  4. Allow international schools to join in the local inter-school competitions to increase the level of challenge, a point also raised by NMP Dr Ben Tan.

Thank you.

MOE Committee of Supply Debate 2015 – Mother Tongue exemptions at PSLE

Mother Tongue exemptions at PSLE

Madam, I agree with bilingualism being a cornerstone of our education system.  All students in our primary and secondary schools now have to offer a Mother Tongue Language (MTL).

In a recent parliament reply, MOE had said that around 3.5% of students are exempted from MTL at the PSLE yearly. I accept that there are genuine reasons for exemptions such as those who join our education system mid-way without prior learning of the MTL or there are medical reasons that adversely affect their ability to cope with MTL.

In another reply, MOE cited that on average over the past 5 years, 178 MTL exemptions were given at PSLE in the 5 schools with the highest exemptions. That is 35.6 students per school, which is around 15-17% of the PSLE cohort in an average school.

This is high compared to the national average of 3.5%. Has MOE examined the reasons why there are wide variations in MTL exemptions across schools? Has MOE or the principal of schools with high exemptions sought to interview applicants to probe further into the reasons for seeking MTL exemptions? Seeking exemption based on medical reasons is costly. Is there a strong correlation between MTL exemptions and the socio-economic status of parents?

I hope students will not find ways to opt out of MTL even if they find the subject difficult or parents worry that offering MTL may pull down their children’s PSLE T-Score.

MOE Committee of Supply Debate 2015 – Internship

I delivered the following speech during the Committee of Supply debate for the Ministry of Education on 6 March 2015.

Management of industrial internship

Madam, internship will play an increasingly important role as we move to a more skills-based economy.

I had spoken on this topic before. While I am happy that there will be more internship and are told that it will be more structured, I remain concerned about how industries will be engaged to ensure that internships are meaningful as we ramp up the number of such places.

I have taken interns over the past 15 years and have spoken with others who have as well. From the perspectives of companies, the supply of interns has been somewhat unpredictable. Some institutions give longer notice period of incoming interns, some are as short as two weeks before commencement. Sometimes we are allowed to interview and select interns but often we are not. It will be difficult for companies to plan for meaningful projects if the supply is unpredictable and if the existing skills of the interns are not properly matched to what companies need.

For projects to be even more meaningful and realistic, where possible, it will be better if there could be continuity across different internship intakes from an education institution. We can encourage projects commenced during internship to continue as say, a final year project when the interns return to school.

We have a new Earn and Learn programme with generous funding support. I hope to see internship funding support for companies that take in a minimum number of interns a year so that they can dedicate resources to make internship rigorous, akin to a sort of apprenticeship programme. I also hope there can be close coordination between companies and supervisors in schools so that projects will be useful to companies while the internship experience will result in the learning required by the school. Where possible, we can also bring in the expertise of industry associations to help plan and validate internship programmes.

MOE Committee of Supply Debate 2015 – Integrated Schools and GEP

I delivered the following two speeches during the Committee of Supply debate for the Ministry of Education on 6 March 2015.

 

MOE: Integrated primary – secondary schools

Madam, this is the fourth year that I am speaking on the topic of through-train schools from primary through secondary. If I seem persistent, it is because I truly believe that in a suitably diverse education landscape, Singaporeans should have access to such a publicly-funded education option.

Such through-train schools will not require the pupil to go through the PSLE. It will allow the school to develop holistic education for a longer period with the pupils, allowing time to work on their character and values, as well as other aspects beyond exams. From results seen in other countries and in private schools that offer such a through-train system, academic achievements need not be compromised.

I had previously outlined broad ideas on how we can start with, say eight of such schools distributed throughout Singapore, and exclude all top schools from being part of such a pilot. I had called for this to be implemented gradually and on a pilot basis because the majority of Singaporeans may not yet understand how an education system can work without the PSLE.  Nevertheless, I am convinced there is a sizeable minority who will be prepared to have their children go through 10 years of education in the same school, even if it means their children will find it difficult to enter the existing top schools without the PSLE.

I call upon MOE to seriously study the option, conduct public surveys to gauge the level of support of parents for such pilot schools and to publish these results so that we can have a meaningful conversation on this education option.

 

Review of GEP

Madam, Gifted Education Programme (GEP) was started 31 years ago. Each year, about 1% of the cohort are picked for GEP through a series of national tests for abilities in English, Math and Science at the end of primary 3.

I had previously asked MOE to review centralised GEP and in its place, provide support for as many schools to develop their higher ability students so that their students will not need to relocate to one of the nine GEP schools at primary 4.

There are many forms of giftedness, not just in language, science and math. Some are gifted in the arts or sports. The current definition of GEP is narrow. We can encourage all schools to have various forms of deep specialised enrichment engagement. Where we need scale, we can tap on the schools cluster system or work through existing institutions with strong expertise in science, arts or sports. And for the very rare pupil with extreme giftedness who would even find the current GEP unengaging, we can tap on our universities.

Some non-GEP schools have developed their own gifted classes to encourage their best students to stay with the school rather than relocate to a GEP school. We need not have this competition. We can spread the programme developed for GEP across more schools, and also widen our definition of giftedness.

Lastly, after 31 years, has MOE done longitudinal studies to track GEP graduates into their career, and can these studies be made public.  I hope the public can have more data on the outcomes of GEP to examine its continued relevance.