Speeches

FY 2010 Committee of Supply Debate: 4th Reply by Senior Parliamentary Secretary Mr Masagos Zulkifli on Enhancing Opportunities for All

(I) Helping Children From Lower-Income Households

Mr. Chairman, there have been concerns raised over the last few days, on how the government can help children from lower-income families. MOE will ensure that financially disadvantaged children are not deprived of educational opportunities and will institute additional programs to help them level up. However, we know that many of the problems faced by such children are multifaceted and to address them requires the concerted involvement and support of parents and the community.

Ensuring an Affordable Pre-school Education

MOE acknowledges that pre-school is especially important for children from lower-income families as it gives a good start. They tend to lack home support. Pre-school will develop important areas in them—areas like communication, motor and social skills.

For example, for children who have difficulties with English—and they usually come from low-income families—MOE has put in place a targeted programme called FLAiR (Focused Language Assistance in Reading), to level-up their language learning opportunities. In 2010, 1400 children from 137 eligible kindergartens participated in FLAiR, up from 570 children from 54 eligible kindergartens in 2008.

Mrs Josephine Teo and Dr. Amy Khor have both asked about the affordability of pre-school education, especially for children from lower income families. MOE provides a substantial grant to eligible kindergartens to enable them to keep their fees affordable, while at the same time improving the quality of their programmes. Our grant has more than doubled from $17 million in 2008, to $36 million last year, and is expected to reach $62 million by 2013.

In addition, MCYS has a Kindergarten Financial Assistance Scheme, known as KiFAS, which specifically helps lower income families by defraying kindergarten fees of up to $98 at eligible kindergartens. Start up grants for expenses like registration fees, books and uniforms are also available. Over and above these, many of the grassroots organisations, self-help groups and the kindergartens themselves provide support to supplement these Government subsidies. In short, families that need help can apply for financial assistance. Based on a median monthly fee of $110 at eligible kindergartens, families eligible for KiFAS would only need to pay about $12, or even less if they also receive other assistance. Similar schemes are available for childcare.

For example, I know the case of a boy who is the youngest of four children. His father was not supporting the family financially. His mother decided not to enrol him into a kindergarten because she was unable to pay the $16 kindergarten registration fee. After multiple home visits and telephone conversations to reach out to the mother, she became aware of financial assistance and applied for it, and we are glad that this boy is now attending regularly at a kindergarten in Woodlands.

Other Help for Children from Low-Income Families—Outreach and Access

Thus we know that availability of financial schemes alone does not guarantee that parents will send their children to pre-school; they may also have other problems. We have mounted outreach exercises specifically to these parents since 2006. MOE and MCYS have been identifying 5 and 6 year-old children who are not attending pre-school, and VWOs and grassroots organisations have been contacting the families of these children to understand the difficulties they face and counsel parents on their problems. These efforts are indeed laborious and require the commitment and persistence of various stakeholders. But our persistence has paid off. The exercise last year has reduced the percentage of children who enter Primary 1 without attending any pre-school from a high of 5% in 2006 to 2.1% in 2010. I’d like to thank all parties involved in this exercise.

For individual children, these efforts make a big difference to jump-start their education journey and at times even led us to unexpected discoveries. There was one child, a boy who was under the custody of his father. During the outreach the father had gone missing. His mother had remarried and was going overseas with her new family. None of the child’s aunts or uncles wanted to take care of him because they had their own family commitments. We referred the case to the Singapore Children’s Society who then helped the child to be admitted to a children’s home, and got him to start attending a pre-school in Paya Lebar. Cases like these are referred to relevant organisations such as the Singapore Children’s Society or Family Service Centres but we can only do so because of the discovery during the outreach. We therefore will continue our efforts to work with these partners to help more children to attend pre-school.

Even so, we continue to be concerned for the 350 children who still were not in pre-school last year mostly because they are just not contactable. However when we know of them during the P1 registration exercise, we fund Self-Help Groups in their Bridging Programme to help the children have a smoother transition to Primary One. We provide guidelines on the programme content, while the Self-Help Groups plan and coordinate the implementation of the Bridging Programme and conduct workshops for parents. In 2009, 280 children were offered places although 230 only turned up. Not a bad number, but we hope we can get more of them. We will reach out to more of these children using this targeted approach, working on the ground with community and self-help groups to provide that human touch to individual families. Because each have their own individual problems.

(II) Enhancing the Quality of Pre-School Education

MOE’s Approach to Pre-School

I’ve just described how we have ensured that preschool is both affordable and accessible. Now, I will move on to improving the quality of the pre-school sector, which several Members including Josephine Teo and Faishal Ibrahim have spoken about. MOE’s approach is to set broad parameters for kindergarten education to ensure a baseline of quality, while preserving the richness and diversity that comes from having a range of operators and models. This provides leeway for parents with different preferences to choose the option that best meets their needs. And their needs can vary; some might choose religious-based models to steep their children in religious knowledge since young.

Raising the Quality of Pre-school Education
Raising Quality—Quality Assurance & Accreditation Framework

Dr Amy Khor, Mr Christopher De Souza and Dr Muhammad Faishal Ibrahim wanted to know how MOE will ensure a baseline of quality and promote higher standards for pre-school education. We work closely with MCYS to coordinate policies and practices in both the kindergarten and child care sectors. Such an arrangement allows flexibility to regulate each sector according to its different circumstances and requirements. For example MOE leads in setting standards in high leverage areas such as teacher qualifications and quality assurance, and provides curriculum guidance to ensure a baseline quality of early childhood education.

MOE announced in 2008 that we would develop a new voluntary quality assurance framework based on a Quality Rating Scale. A draft of this Quality Rating Scale for Kindergartens was disseminated to kindergartens late last year. It provides a structured approach for kindergartens to conduct self-appraisal by examining their structures, processes and outcomes every year. Kindergartens can then prioritize areas for improvement, draw up action plans and monitor the progress of plans over time. So far, I’m happy to say that almost 90% of kindergartens have undergone training on the use of the Quality Rating Scale and we have received positive feedback.

As announced last year, MOE is also on track to roll out a voluntary kindergarten accreditation framework by January next year. Some members have asked for it to be compulsory. Kindergartens can use the Quality Rating Scale to prepare themselves for accreditation. They should be given time to raise their standards progressively so to impose it immediately would not be fair to them as they need time to change according to the standards we have set. We are pleased to report that in 2009, 80% of kindergartens conducted self-appraisal using the Quality Rating Scale. This shows a very high level of participation in the centres. We will encourage them to apply for accreditation by MOE when they are ready. Currently, information on kindergarten profiles including whether they conducted self-appraisal, is on our website, and their accreditation status could similarly be reflected. We hope that the accreditation framework will motivate operators to improve standards over time, and this was alluded to by Mr Christopher De Souza and Dr Amy Khor. Even though this scheme is voluntary, over time I am sure that parents will only be assured if the kindergarten that their child is attending is one that has obtained accreditation.

Raising Quality—Curriculum Support and Facilitating Sharing of Best Practices

MOE’s articulated Desired Outcomes of Pre-school Education suggest what children should know at the end of kindergarten education. Based on findings from local and international research, MOE has developed and published a kindergarten curriculum framework. This does not prescribe what and how pre-schools should teach, but provides general guiding principles for a holistic approach to children’s development and learning. Kindergartens are free to design their own educational programmes and lesson plans using these broad principles.

Over the years, we have also provided various curriculum resources to help kindergartens to design and deliver suitable programmes. I am pleased to share that come April this year, MOE will be providing additional curriculum resources that will help kindergartens to provide opportunities for children to learn perseverance, reflectiveness and inventiveness. They will also help teachers to understand that such skills are important areas of development for pre-school children.

MOE will also continue to provide teaching and learning resources grants for not-for-profit kindergartens to build up their resources to deliver a quality pre-school education. In 2009, we provided $2.2 million to 352 kindergartens who successfully applied.

Raising Quality—Supporting Innovation in Kindergartens

We believe a culture of innovation will foster continuous improvement amongst kindergartens. Thus, over the last two years, MOE has offered an Innovation Grant scheme which provides kindergartens who apply successfully with up to $5000 to pursue innovative projects. In 2009, MOE approved grants totalling $340,000 for 94 projects. One example is P&J Kindergarten that built a tree-house as part of its “Outdoor Learning System” . This is to provide a setting for children to learn about nature and the environment. Another kindergarten, PCF Pioneer, had a “Junior Writers” project where children “published” their own storybooks and then invited parents to attend the “launch”. These are very interesting projects that kindergartens have done on their own initiative, which prove that a variegated landscape with innovation is valuable.

To further drive innovation in early childhood education, MOE will support a new initiative, an Experimental Kindergarten to be established at Temasek Polytechnic. Registration will commence in the second half of this year, and the kindergarten will start next year. It will innovate and conduct research in early childhood education as asked by some members. Qualified teachers will use innovative strategies and pedagogy to help children acquire knowledge, language and social skills, and dispositions. The experimental kindergarten will also leverage on the varied expertise and facilities within Temasek Polytechnic. Successful practices will be shared with the rest of the pre-school sector in Singapore. MOE will provide $1.5 million over 3 years for Temasek Polytechnic to set up the Experimental Kindergarten.

Raising Quality- Teacher qualifications, training and professional development

Let me now update on MOE’s initiatives to improve teacher quality, which is a key thrust of our efforts to uplift the pre-school sector. Mrs Josephine Teo and Dr Amy Khor asked about the training and career development of pre-school teachers, and Mrs Teo raised the idea of a multi-agency taskforce. One such taskforce which has already been set up for some time now is the Pre-school Qualification and Accreditation Committee which MOE and MCYS jointly steer. The Committee oversees the standards and quality of pre-school teacher training for both the kindergarten and child care sectors by accrediting certificate and diploma level courses. In January last year we enhanced the standards required of pre-school training courses to ensure that teacher preparation programmes are rigorous and keep up with new developments in the field of early childhood education.

Last year, members will remember we also raised the minimum professional qualification for pre-school teachers from a certificate to a diploma in pre-school teaching. Existing teachers who wish to teach K1 and K2 have until December 2012 to obtain their diploma. The minimum academic requirement for new teachers was also raised, to 5 ‘O’ Level passes including English Language.

MOE is committed to encouraging teachers to upgrade to meet the requirements. To cater to fresh and mid-career degree and polytechnic diploma holders who wish to enter the pre-school sector, we worked with Singapore Polytechnic to introduce an accelerated professional diploma programme, the Advanced Diploma in Kindergarten Education-Teaching, or ADKET. We also collaborated with the Workforce Development Agency to provide SPUR funding for teacher trainees undergoing this course. So far, 75 people have enrolled in the first two runs of the course, and the first batch will graduate this month.

We are also providing scholarships and teaching awards for a new Bachelor of Early Childhood Education with Management (BECEM) course at UniSIM which equips students with the knowledge and skills to take on up management roles in the pre-school sector. This is an undergraduate course. In 2009, we received 38 applications and awarded 27 scholarships and teaching awards. More scholarships and teaching awards will be offered this year.

Members will be happy to know that from this year onwards, MOE will enhance our grant to provide greater support for eligible kindergartens to attract and reward graduate principals and teachers. We hope this additional push will help eligible kindergartens to employ more highly qualified teachers and principals, and encourage existing teachers and principals to pursue higher qualifications, while keeping kindergarten fees affordable. Effective leadership and well-qualified teachers will uplift the standards of pre-school education.

Other ongoing initiatives include the English Communication Skills course in 2007, a 40 hour part-time course to help kindergarten teachers use English competently and confidently; and funding for the Association of Early Childhood Educators (Singapore), or AECES, to conduct workshops and courses to enhance the professionalism of kindergarten teachers. This I hope will address Dr Khor’s concerns.

To give the profession a bigger push, we collaborate with AECES, to present the annual MOE-AECES Awards for Kindergarten Excellence. This recognises kindergartens and teachers who have successfully implemented innovations. We also honour outstanding pre-school teachers, and support them to become teacher mentors who can share good teaching practices with their peers.

I’m pleased to note that we are gaining momentum and traction on the various initiatives we have rolled out over the years, since 2006. In sum, MOE strives to raise the quality of pre-school education through implementing a quality assurance and accreditation framework for kindergartens, providing broad curriculum guidance, facilitating innovation and sharing, and promoting professional training and development.

(III) SCHOOL MATTERS

Mr Chairman, I will now move on to the remaining queries on school matters.

Stress

Mr Lim Biow Chuan spoke about stress in schools. Schools may make use of part of the vacation period to conduct remedial or enrichment classes and co-curricular activities such as camps and overseas exchanges. I think the children enjoy them. Schools make the decision to conduct such activities during vacation time after careful consideration, so as to balance the need for some students to be given additional support or enrichment in their development and the need for them to have an adequate break to re-charge themselves for the new term. Schools generally should not be conducting compulsory lessons or tests during the school holidays.

The causes of stress are multi-faceted. Students feel stressed when there is a mismatch between expectations and achievement, but expectations are shaped at many levels beyond the school, such as self, family, schools and society. To deal with the issue of stress, schools, parents and society need to understand that while we want the best for our children, we should not push them beyond their limits. Our expectations and attitudes have a strong bearing on the stress levels experienced by our young and how they cope with their studies.

MOE has judiciously reduced curriculum content to lighten the curriculum load on our students. SMS Grace Fu already mentioned that the primary school curriculum has been reduced by 30%. Subject-based banding at primary level and the offering of a wider range of subjects at secondary level allow students to choose courses that are most suited to their learning needs and abilities. This should help students to better manage stress. Schools have also been regularly reminded not to load their students with too much work.

However, as students will grow up and encounter inevitable competition and stress as adults, learning how to manage stress is an essential life-skill for them.

Schools therefore impart skills such as self-awareness, self-management and decision making to students as part of socio-emotional learning. These will build students’ resilience and help them cope with stressful situations.

The Member also mentioned tuition. Our schools currently provide adequate time and attention to pupils to learn their academic subjects fully, and give remedial classes to those who need additional help with their school work. Some parents may choose to supplement this with tuition. For students who cannot afford tuition from commercial centres, affordable classes organised by self-help groups are also available. When appropriately used, tuition can provide learning support for students outside of school hours to reinforce what they have learnt in school but parents need to be mindful of the impact of tuition on their children’s learning experiences and stress levels. The culture of tuition is not unique to Singapore. In most Confucian societies where education is held in high regard and seen as a means to break the poverty cycle, tuition flourishes. Even in Australia where I worked for 3 years, I often heard criticism of the Asian community for overworking their children from a young age in tuition classes. But we know that a whole host of factors affect student success. There are many students who succeed without tuition, by paying attention in class, by consulting teachers and by working consistently throughout the year.

Religious and Regional Awareness

Let me touch on national education raised by Mr Inderjit Singh. The Member should be happy to know that within the Civics and Moral Education or CME curriculum, students learn about the six major religions in Singapore, including their origins, significant beliefs and practices, and important religious celebrations and festivals. The importance of social cohesion, tolerance and sensitivity are emphasised. We plan to enhance the teaching of religious awareness in CME, with additional teaching resources and training for teachers. Outside the formal curriculum, schools also use activities such as assembly programmes, projects and Racial Harmony Day to promote religious and cultural awareness and learning.

Our students are also exposed to local and regional issues, and learn about Singapore’s relations with the rest of Southeast Asia through the Social Studies, History and Geography syllabuses in primary and secondary schools. There is also the Regional Studies Programme in RI, RGS, VS and ACS(I) that allows non-Malay students to offer Malay or Bahasa Indonesia as a third language and learn about contemporary Southeast Asian culture and society.

Radicalism in students

Dr Fatimah Lateef wanted to know more about our schools’ processes to recognise and address signs of radicalism in our students. As part of schools’ pastoral care efforts, teachers keep an eye out for tell-tale signs of students who may be drawn into violent or extremist ideologies, and counsel them. If more specialised counselling is required, schools will seek parental consent to refer the student to competent authorities. This is similar to the way schools manage other harmful anti-social behaviours such as gang involvement, smoking or glue-sniffing.

While schools will help students who show signs of extremist beliefs or anti-social behaviour, they cannot work alone. They must work together with parents. Parents need to take responsibility to understand and monitor their children so as to provide timely guidance.

Teacher Education

Dr Fatimah Lateef also asked about teacher education. This is still fresh. A committee has begun work in November to follow up on the TE21 recommendations. NIE is expected to launch the enhanced programmes by July 2011.

(III) Conclusion

In conclusion, Sir, let me emphasize that MOE is investing substantial resources to ensure that pre-school education is accessible, affordable, and of a good quality. We will continue to do our best to support the education of children from lower income families, working with parents, other agencies and community organisations. We want to give every child the best chance at education so that every family can look forward to a better future.