Beyond Boundaries



Nicholas currently benefits from SEED or Strategies for Effective and Engaged Development. Introduced in tandem with the reduction of class size at Primary 1 and 2, from forty to thirty children, SEED has enabled schools to engage children better and provided teachers with the opportunities to expand their repertoire of teaching methods. Instead of learning a Mathematical concept in isolation, Nicholas concurrently learns the application of area and volume in real life. His teachers also take his class out of the school into the neighbourhood to observe aspects of life before composing a story, illustrating a scene or developing a presentation of their learning.

Nicholas' school will soon be practising subject-based banding. This is where a child will be given the syllabus he is capable of for each subject, in the belief that he or she is not uniformly good at every subject. His school will also be getting a specially trained officer who knows dyslexia, autism, attention deficit and hyperactivity to help children with these conditions.

BY 2012 WHEN NICHOLAS HAS TO CONSIDER CHOICES AT PRIMARY 6, HIS PARENTS WOULD FIND THAT THINGS HAVE CHANGED DRASTICALLY FROM THE 1980s WHEN THEY HAD TO CHOOSE A SECONDARY SCHOOL FOR THEMSELVES. THEY MAY BE FAMILIAR WITH INDEPENDENT SCHOOLS SINCE THESE WERE FIRST ESTABLISHED IN 1987, BUT WILL LIKELY NEED INFORMATION ON OTHER PROGRAMMES: SCHOOLS WITH AN INTEGRATED PROGRAMME WHICH WILL PREPARE A CHILD FOR THE 'A' LEVELS WITHOUT FIRST GOING THROUGH THE 'O' LEVEL COURSE; SCHOOLS WHICH DO NOT OFFER THE 'A' LEVELS BUT DIFFERENT CURRICULA AND TERMINAL QUALIFICATIONS; SPECIALISED SCHOOLS, NAMELY THE SINGAPORE SPORTS SCHOOL, SCHOOL OF THE ARTS AND NUS HIGH SCHOOL WHICH AIMS TO DEVELOP A CHILD'S PASSION IN MATHEMATICS AND SCIENCE; AUTONOMOUS SCHOOLS WHICH ARE SCHOOLS GIVEN GREATER AUTONOMY AND FUNDING TO PROVIDE QUALITY EDUCATION; OR PRIVATELY-FUNDED SCHOOLS SET UP BY THE MORE ESTABLISHED SCHOOLS TO CATER TO HIGH DEMAND FOR PLACES, SUCH AS ANGLO-CHINESE SCHOOL (INTERNATIONAL), HWA CHONG INTERNATIONAL SCHOOL OR ST. JOSEPH'S INSTITUTION (INTERNATIONAL). ALTERNATIVELY, IF NICHOLAS BECOMES A VERY STRONG SWIMMER AND IS TALENT-SCOUTED BY A SECONDARY SCHOOL WHICH HAS A NICHE PROGRAMME IN SWIMMING, NICHOLAS MAY ENTER THE SCHOOL THROUGH THE DIRECT SCHOOL ADMISSION EXERCISE.

Apart from choice of schools, Nicholas and his peers, who are talented in particular areas, will have a range of special programmes to cater to them. There are Elective Programmes in Language, Art, Music or Drama to encourage intensive study of these subjects. There is also the Humanities Programme to draw bright students to read subjects such as History, Geography, Literature and Economics, and the Bicultural Studies Programme to produce graduates who will be able to navigate confidently in both English and Chinese-speaking worlds. Should Nicholas have friends who are at risk of leaving school prematurely, NorthLight School, with its hands-on learning approach, pastoral care programme and smaller class size, may be the school to meet their needs.

At the secondary level, the range of subjects and possibilities has also been expanded. New subjects such as Economics, Computer Studies and Drama have been introduced. Advanced Elective Modules modelled after the applied learning approach in polytechnics have been fashioned in emerging areas like Digital Media, Electronic Product Design and Food Innovation to introduce students to new options. Applied Graded Subjects offered jointly by schools and polytechnics also tap new areas such as 3-Dimensional Animation and Molecular Biology while adding to the 'O' Level menu. In addition to such an exciting array of subjects, secondary schools are now allowing Normal stream students to take up to two 'O' level subjects at Secondary 4.

TEACH LESS, LEARN MORE IS ANOTHER MOVEMENT THAT HAS CREATED MUCH MOMENTUM FOR CHANGE IN NICHOLAS' SCHOOL AS WELL AS OTHER SCHOOLS IN SINGAPORE. STEMMING FROM THE IDEA OF TEACHING FOR ENGAGED LEARNING RATHER THAN FOR TESTS AND EXAMINATIONS, SCHOOLS NOW FOCUS ON NURTURING CONFIDENCE IN INDEPENDENT LEARNING, CURIOSITY ABOUT LIFE AND PEOPLE, AND AN ENDURING LOVE FOR LEARNING. THIS HAS COINCIDED WITH LARGE SCALE REVIEWS SUCH AS THE REVISED 'A' LEVEL CURRICULUM IMPLEMENTED IN 2006, THE NATIONAL EDUCATION REVIEW AND THE REVIEW OF THE LEARNING OF MOTHER TONGUE LANGUAGES AND OF ENGLISH.

In an age when innovation is the order of the day, and when information and communication technology holds out much promise, schools are well-placed to chart new waters. In big and small ways, both curricular and pedagogical innovations are being tested in school-based programmes and nation-wide initiatives. The integration of IT with innovation has led to some 60 schools being given the status of Lead@ICT Schools. FutureSchools@Singapore, a joint initiative between the Ministry of Education, schools and agencies such as the Infocomm Development Authority promises to break new grounds in pedagogical approach through incorporating the latest technology and applications to achieve effective and engaged learning, both within and outside of the classroom. Correspondingly, professional development and the upgrading of school facilities are taking place so that all round, the capacity for innovation to take off and take root in schools is enhanced.

Ever conscious of the challenges posed by rapid globalisation, schools also understand that their students need to have a sense of rootedness as well as an understanding of Singapore's place in the world. Some schools have embarked on the Schools Twinning Programme where they build long term partnerships with schools overseas, in order to facilitate exchange between students and staff. Some have strengthened their partnership with the community so that students have opportunities to interact with the elderly at the neighbourhood day care centre, or bring cheer to the sick at the hospice next to the school. Others have cemented their partnership with industries and institutions of higher learning so that students and staff can take part in attachment stints outside of school.

SUCH DIVERSITY IN THE EDUCATION LANDSCAPE IS EVIDENCE OF THE COMING OF AGE OF THE SCHOOL SYSTEM. IT USED TO BE THAT CENTRAL CONTROL WAS DE RIGEUR, INSTRUCTIONAL MATERIAL WAS UNIFORMLY PRODUCED BY THE CURRICULUM DEVELOPMENT INSTITUTE OF SINGAPORE, AND THERE WAS ONE STANDARD WAY TO ADMIT AND PROMOTE STUDENTS. TODAY, SCHOOLS ARE ENCOURAGED TO SYSTEMATICALLY IDENTIFY THEIR STUDENTS' NEEDS, AND TO RESPOND INNOVATIVELY TO HELP STUDENTS ACHIEVE THEIR POTENTIAL. SCHOOLS ARE ALSO PROVIDED WITH RESOURCES TO BUILD NICHES SO THAT THEY MAY DIFFERENTIATE THEMSELVES AND DEVELOP A DISTINCTIVE ETHOS. MANY POSSIBILITIES AWAIT NICHOLAS AND HIS PEERS AS THE SYSTEM WORKS HARD TO FIND ANSWERS TO THE QUESTION OF HOW BEST TO MAXIMISE THE POTENTIAL OF OUR LIMITED HUMAN RESOURCE.

Read the book for - stories of school life before and after Singapore gained independence.


A Day in the Life of Nicholas



As Nicholas puts on his shoes, the family pet, Maxi, a jack russell, sits quietly and wags his tail from left to right. Their next door neighbour, whom Nicholas calls 'Ah-uum', is seated on a stool pruning her potted plants in the common corridor. Nicholas says 'goodbye' to Ah-uum on his way out, and Ah-uum reminds him to be good in school. Nicholas and his mum walk five minutes from their four-room flat to the corner of the next block where they sit under some trees to wait for the mini-bus to pick Nicholas up. The bus should drop Nicholas and nine school mates at Holy Innocents' Primary School at 12 noon sharp.

Nicholas' mother, Yvonne, thinks her primary 1 son is a playful student and could do better. She has had to remind him to learn spelling for Chinese and English. Recently, she put up a whiteboard for Nicholas to write his word lists so that he has a visual reminder about the learning he must do. She has also enrolled him for two classes a week of instruction in mandarin at a tuition centre. Otherwise, she is quite happy to let Nicholas be with Maxi, or play on his game console on weekends. Another highlight for Nicholas is swimming lessons on wednesday evenings after school. On weekends, he swims again while his mother helps out at his uncle's food stall at a public pool.

Would Nicholas care to swim competitively for school? Would school expose Nicholas to other interests that he does not know as yet, or develop in him skills that he would appreciate for life? Would Nicholas be able to find a school to suit his interest when the time comes for him to choose a secondary school?


Ability-Based Aspiration-Driven

Minister Tharman We have the great advantage of a system that works. We have good teachers, people with real passion, spread throughout the system and not just in a few schools. We've kept a culture where our young aspire to do well. They are seeking out diverse fields, and increasingly have the dare to develop interests of their own. And just as important as developing their talents, our schools help them grow up conscious of being Singaporeans together - of being one people. These are strong fundamentals which we must never erode.

HOW DO WE GO FORWARD? HOW DO WE PREPARE WELL AHEAD FOR THE FUTURE?

We are gearing the whole education system towards building an innovative society. It is how we ensure that Singapore, as a small nation, will succeed in the future. That's our path to becoming a high value, high income economy. But we know an innovative society does not come about by teaching a module or a subject. It has to be nurtured from young and has to be for everyone. It has to be part of what schools and teachers themselves do. It has to become a way of life for all.

It is not about breaking from the system we have but evolving it. We have to keep up the momentum of change that we began a decade ago, taking it forward in meaningful steps. It means many shifts because there are many pieces in our school system, and we want the pieces to reinforce and not block each other. But the changes boil down quite simply to a shift to a system focused on quality and flexibility.

First, we are freeing up time and space for schools and teachers to develop more engaging teaching approaches to help students learn better and develop the habit of questioning and thinking for themselves. It is also about more space for a holistic education - not just building up academic knowledge, but building character, social skills and a willingness among our young to attempt something that hasn't been tried.

We are supporting change from ground up and providing resources to help it along. That's our basic approach - top-down support for ground-up initiative. This way schools and teachers take ownership of the new approaches they try out. They are the drivers. And as we notice an initiative working out well in one school, we spread the lessons and see how other schools can benefit. It is working well. We can see quality rippling across the system as more schools jump in and new ways of engaging students catch on.

Giving our teachers more time is a key part of this. We are pruning a heavy curriculum. We are continuing to recruit and train more teachers, and supplementing them with many adjunct teachers so that we improve our pupil-teacher ratios. With more good teachers deployed in a school, teachers are finding the time to plan more varied lessons, tailor their teaching to smaller bands of students and focus on individuals. We are also recruiting more para-educational professionals to support our teachers, such as counsellors, officers trained in special needs and CCA executives. Some schools have already freed up an hour and a half of teachers' time each week through these efforts so that they can focus on quality.

Other countries envy the sabbaticals we offer our Principals and even our teachers. More teachers are also going on work attachments in the course of the year. All these give them the opportunity to refresh themselves, be immersed in an environment different from the school, get a sense of innovations outside and expand their horizons.

The second thrust in what we are doing has been to redouble our emphasis on all-round education. That's always been in our sights but it has become more important than ever. Whether in the services and banking or in engineering, and whether in industry or government, we know that doing well in an innovation-driven economy demands more than academic strengths. We have to do more to nurture robust individuals who embrace change and do not back off when they see something unfamiliar or when things get rough - individuals who are fully adept at working as a team, often with people from quite different cultures and backgrounds. It is also about nurturing individuals with a sense of duty and responsibility to their family and friends, and a sense of belonging to their country. That's always been at the core of education.

What our schools offer outside the classroom is really intrinsic to what we think of as quality education. It's not an add-on or something we do to feel good. In fact it is a real strength of the Singapore system. I've visited schools in many other countries, in Asia, Europe and the United States. Few are able to provide the range of activities that we can offer in our schools. Some private schools abroad do but few of their public schools have the resources to do so. Through the whole range of co-curricular activities, adventure camps, community involvement, service learning and overseas immersion programmes, our schools are able to provide opportunities for our children to develop the resilience and social skills they need to do well in life.

We want to do more. We want to give more children a chance to participate in CCAs from young, enjoy playing a sport or learning a new dance, train and take knocks together, and win and lose together. Our schools often find, too, that CCAs motivate those who are weaker in their studies and give them confidence.

AN ALL-ROUND EDUCATION HAS TO BE PART AND PARCEL OF SCHOOL LIFE, NOT AN OCCASIONAL EXPERIENCE, SO THAT STUDENTS DEVELOP BONDS WITH EACH OTHER, PICK UP HABITS THAT MAKE THEM STRONGER INDIVIDUALS AND GET TO LIVE OUT THE VALUES WE TEACH.

We also want to give our students greater opportunity to learn about other cultures from young, and get a sense that our future lies in going out and plugging into the lives of people who grow up differently from us. Almost all our schools are developing twinning programmes with schools around Asia and the world. We have provided them with additional resources for this, and the Government's Opportunity Fund gives students from lower income families the chance to participate.

The third key change in how we are evolving lies in the move from a highly structured system to a more diverse and flexible one. We are creating more paths for young Singaporeans with different talents and more flexibility along the way. We have set up specialised schools, and mainstream schools are developing niches of excellence of their own and introducing new subjects and electives into their own curriculum. And we have widened the scope for students to be selected into secondary schools and post-secondary institutions, so that they can be recognised for strengths outside of academic performance and encouraged to take those strengths seriously.

It means more free play within a national curriculum system and more choice. But what it really does is help our young discover themselves - find their interests, what they are good at, and how they can contribute. We keep seeing this in our schools - students who develop a real passion or talent that began when they tried their hand at something in school. It happens across the academic spectrum. And you tell yourself, thank God we gave them that opportunity.

These different niches and choices that are emerging in the system are also about how schools are taking ownership. It gives the teachers and school leaders a sense of mission when they craft a programme of their own, visit other systems to see what can be learnt, then try it out with their students and keep improving it. It gives our schools the added verve. We are also introducing greater fluidity in our ability-based system of education. The fundamentals are sound. We recognise different abilities and have students take different courses of study so that they can do well and not get demotivated by school. That's a strength of the Singapore school system, and it has allowed our students to perform at a higher average level than most others.

But we also want to blur the lines between the different streams and maximise the interaction between students so that they do not get the sense that they are separate from each other, nor feel that their aspirations are boxed in. In primary schools, we have moved from streaming to subject-based banding. At the secondary level, we have introduced more bridges between the streams. What it does is help students recognise that they are good at some things even if they are weak at other things. It also gives more room for aspirations. Schools are telling students: it does not matter where you start from. The stream or course you take never defines you for life.

WE GIVE THE STUDENT THE FLEXIBILITY TO TAILOR A COURSE TO HIS DIFFERENT ABILITIES AT EACH STEP, HELP HIM PREPARE FOR HIS NEXT STEP AND ENCOURAGE HIM TO GO HIGHER. THE SYSTEM IS ABILITY-BASED, BUT WE WANT IT TO BE DRIVEN BY INDIVIDUAL ASPIRATIONS.

The diversity, choice and flexibility that we are injecting into the system are not just a matter of educational philosophy. They mirror the innovation economy. The most successful teams comprise people who enjoy what they are doing. And the organisational structures that were well suited to the old economy, with strict hierarchies and distinctions between employees with different skills, are being replaced by flatter and more agile organisations. Up and down the line, everyone has to deal with some complexity, learn to multi-task, and be willing to pick up new skills quickly. Stay agile, stay flexible, and we stay ahead in the game.

We are moving towards a new balance in education. It must remain founded on meritocracy. But it is a broader and more lively meritocracy. It is, in many ways, more authentic in the way it recognises a full range of Singaporean talents and helps them go as far as possible. That will be a plus for Singapore.

OUR JOB IS TO MAKE EACH PATH IN OUR EDUCATION SYSTEM A RICH ONE WHICH BRINGS OUT THE BEST IN EACH STUDENT. FOR EVERY TALENT MATTERS AND EVERY SINGAPOREAN WILL MAKE THE DIFFERENCE.

THARMAN SHANMUGARATNAM / MINISTER FOR EDUCATION //


Point of View [1]



Mrs Tan Ching Yee How we manage to have a national school system and yet allow for differences to thrive is what will separate us from other countries. For a long time, we have had an egalitarian system. Although there were differences, the variations were within a narrow band. With economic growth, globalisation, rising aspirations, there are pressures that widen the band. While we would like to free up the curriculum more and let students have more space to pursue their interest, we have to ensure that the bottom tier does not fall out in terms of standards and expectations. We are constantly learning from the best around the world to build a system of our own. We need to evolve our own model - incorporating best experiments and innovations - a model that is unique to Singapore.

I am confident that we can have our cake and eat it. It is very satisfying to work in an organisation where the sense of mission is very strong. It is easy to move our people when what we want to do is aligned with their own aspirations. And they will do it, even if it means more work. I am often amazed at how nimble our teaching force and HQ colleagues are and how we have taken to significant changes quite well in spite of initial discomfort.

I am a product of the school system here. While I cannot recall every lesson I had in secondary school, I remember with great fondness the many opportunities for expression, teamwork and enterprise – class concerts, fancy dress competitions, fun fairs. I would like to see our students become more positive, confident and proactive. The older students should shape their own learning, have their own views and think about their own future. They should have integrity, honesty and a sense of responsibility and obligation to the people around them. I hope they will not view success as due solely to their own efforts but understand that they owe it to everyone else because it’s the social compact that has supported them. My message to the ones who have succeeded in one way or another is this: if you, for whatever reason, get to the apex of the pyramid, do not forget the rest. Your job is to come back and build more pyramids in whatever field you are in and make each one higher.

TAN CHING YEE / PERMANENT SECRETARY (EDUCATION) //


Point of View [2]



Ms Seah Jiak Choo I am a product of meagre circumstances. As a student, I had limited pocket money. My class was very keen to win the inter-class drama competition every year. Other girls could afford to pay $4 each to fund the class production, but I could not. So one year, I volunteered to take charge of the props. I asked classmates to bring furniture from home. I gathered others who could sew, sourced for cheap and suitable material, and we sewed curtains to dress the stage. I drastically cut the cost of the production and we still won that year. I had many such experiences in class, Girls’ Brigade and netball which taught me that being resourceful is key to producing good results. When I joined the service in 1977, the single, humble typewriter in the office was a prized shared resource. If we were given a task, we did not wait for the circumstances to be perfect before we would start on a job. We used our imagination and teamwork to find a way to complete the task. So I value resourcefulness in teachers. Combined with a heart for children and passion for their work, teachers can achieve great things. I hope to see teachers work together, apply their imagination and adopt a never-say-die attitude.

Children are different, one from another. In a public education system, what do we do if we want every child to believe that he is recognised as an individual with strengths? The teacher in the classroom shoulders this heavy responsibility every day, of assuring each child and affirming that he has strengths. There has to be to-and-fro thinking and communication between teachers and policymakers, from the classroom to HQ, and back. At the macro level, we must have a system which offers a wide spread to feed our children’s different intellectual, physical and social-emotional needs. The diet need not be completely customised for each individual, but the spread needs to be sufficiently large so that no child is labelled.

I hope every child goes to school to discover his strengths and discover how he would contribute to his family, his job, his society. It is not good enough that he uses his abilities to serve himself. The mindset of giving back to society must be in his value system.

SEAH JIAK CHOO / DIRECTOR-GENERAL OF EDUCATION //