Last night, watching and reading the news on the MOE budget debate, I was gladden that MOE is finally, really, trying to make a shift away from school rankings and academic excellence. This would be a slow process, and even as we would want to remake our education into a more wholistic entity, our economy and even some parents would ask us to do otherwise. Again, this is not a situation of 1 and 0, but a fine balance to be struck.
In Minister Heng Swee Keat’s words,
Speaking in Parliament on Thursday, Mr Heng said that to prepare our students for the future, education must develop the whole person.
“It is less about content knowledge, as content will have to be re-learnt and even un-learnt during one’s lifetime,” he said.
“It is more about how to process information, discern truths from untruths, connect seemingly disparate dots, and create knowledge even as the context changes. It is about developing an enduring core of competencies, values and character to anchor our young and ensure they have the resilience to succeed.”
“Developing the whole child must first begin with instilling the right character and values. We must adopt a student-centric, values-driven approach,” added Mr Heng.
Also encouraging is MOE’s plans to expand the social safety net in schools. With more financial assistance going into the pockets of lower income students, we hope that they would be able to concentrate on their studies with less distractions:
The income limit for eligibility for the MOE Financial Assistance Scheme or FAS will be raised from S$1,500 to S$2,500.
Besides assessing applicants by household income, the ministry will assess them using a new Per Capita Income (PCI) criterion so that more students from larger families can qualify.
This means that students from households with a per capita income not exceeding S$625 per month will now be eligible.
For example, a family of six comprising two children, two parents and two grandparents living together, with a monthly income of S$3,600 (that is, per capita income of S$600) will now qualify.
Schools will also be given additional annual grants of up to S$15,000 per school every year, for the next three years.
This will allow schools to provide additional targeted support in specific ways or to students who might have just missed the FAS criteria but are deserving.
The ministry will also triple the annual funding allocated to the School Breakfast Programme, from S$4 million to S$12 million.
Lastly, with more auxillary education support from the MOE, weaker students and those from lower income families might have a chance to bridge the gap with their more high-flying schoolmates. This is ever more important in Singapore as our Gini coefficient widens, we must safeguard our social mobility and ensure that students from all walks of life have a chance to be competitive and realise their full potential. Failing to do so would mean Singapore as a whole would lose out, we would become less competitive and our citizens possibly leading less than fulfilling lives and having less confidence about their future.
SINGAPORE: The government will provide academic support through its Learning Support Programmes.
These provide targeted assistance for students weak in literacy and numeracy. And they will also be extended to the pre-school level. Its Focused Language Assistance in Reading programme (FLAiR) will also benefit an additional 2,200 children. The programme exposes children level up, by exposing them to the English language. It has helped some 6,000 students from disadvantaged families to date.
SINGAPORE: The Education Ministry will be increasing the number of school-based student care centres over the next two years. The centres offer after-school pastoral care and a structured environment for students from low-income families to support their learning. By 2014, there will be 70 school-based centres, up from the current 57 primary schools and two special education schools that currently provide these services.
But all is not pink and good…
Social mobility is not dead in Singapore, at least not yet. But if we do not actively safeguard against the robustness of our social systems and to continue to level the playing field, to encourage fair competition, then perhaps the Singapore story would be less successful in the long run. It would be dreadful if small groups of elites entrench themselves in the upper echelons of the society resulting in a disincentive to creatively destroy existing structures for greater productivity and sustainable extraction of resources (no matter how limited they are in Singapore).
Recent surveys on social mobility in Singapore have shown that youths continue to have the opportunity to do better than their parents in terms of education. But this does not ensure better salaries and livelihood as it is now harder to break into the upper echelons of income levels. Wealth (esp multi-generational wealth) have created high barriers of entries, whether in certain industries or even in education as richer parents are able to employ and utilise resources not commonly available to middle and lower classes. In fact, local law schools have recently wondered (published in ST) if they should change their admission criteria as they see many socio-economic similarities in recent cohorts.
Indeed we see anecdoctal evidence that the cream of the cream of this society is being less varied. For eg, the economic background of our scholars. Is there at work, a slow process of homogenising the highest pinnacle in various economic stratas? One only need to think of Darwin’s Origin of Spieces and lessons on biodiversity to remind ourselves that groupthink would be to the detriment of our own future.
Elitist Tuition Centres
One area that MOE might perhaps want to look at is the elitism in tuition centres and their supposed abilities to churn out top students over and above what is normally taught in schools. In other words, most of our top students are attending such elitist tuition centres. It is indeed worrying and a dent on our strong desire that education would be the great equaliser in society. Elite tuition centres have made news recently for the difficult admission tests they set and there is a growing trend that parents are employing tuition teachers to teach what other tutors have gave them.
A premium local tuition centre is, www.thelearninglab.com.sg. One should check out their website to understand what it means to corporatise education. Indeed their flagship programme is called “Future Leaders”. It is described as:
This is a key initiative to help our students achieve their academic and leadership dreams as future leaders. It comprises landmark student leadership and academic development events to give your child a headstart in the corporate world.
In fact, in their own advertisments in ST, The Learning Lab have lauded their ability to churn out half of this country’s top PSLE students.
In PSLE 2011, TLL groomed almost a mind-boggling one-half of the top ranking students in the entire country! This included a clean sweep of the first, second and third students overall. No school I know in the private or public sector has delivered such impressive results! – Gloria Chua, NUS Year 6
Every year, its students dominate the top scorers charts. The best students in almost every single top-ranked school in Singapore have a link to TLL, although of course many of these students prefer to keep it low. – Desiree Chong, Dunman High, Year 5
To perhaps compile the problem, such elite tuition centres are actually paying their teachers a rather decent salary, not uncomparable to the education service. In addition, teachers employed by such tutition centres would not have to deal with school administration, CCA, and problem kids.
Even as I urge the MOE to further realise the mission of education as a great equaliser in society, I would also ask parents to groom our future leaders with discipline, drive, grace, compassion and most of all, with less materialism and more socially attuned.