SPEECH BY SENIOR MINISTER OF STATE FOR TRADE AND INDUSTRY & EDUCATION THARMAN SHANMUGARATNAM AT THE PARLIAMENTARY DEBATE ON JUNIOR COLLEGE/UPPER SECONDARY EDUCATION ON 27 NOV 2002
Mr Speaker, Sir, I rise to support the motion in the name of the Minister for Education. Let me start by making a few observations on the process by which the recommendations of the Review Committee were formed.
It was a consultative process, drawing on diverse constituencies. The Review Committee itself was a diverse one, with politicians like Ahmad Khalis, Chan Soo Sen and myself, educationists, private sector entrepreneurs, scientists and a few senior officials. We also consulted widely with parents and employers, besides educationists themselves, ie the teachers and principals in our schools.
The major directions that are recommended in the Report were strongly supported amongst all these constituencies - the university academics, the teachers in our schools, parents and employers. It was not a situation where people outside the Ministry were challenging the MOE to change the system and the MOE was doing the defending. I must say that my colleagues in the Ministry were themselves amongst the boldest of vision and amongst the most anxious to get ahead with changes that will prepare our students well for a very different future.
There was a common recognition that the Singapore system has strengths that we would not like to erode. It is a system that provides a rigorous education, and a system that encourages every student, regardless of ability and talent, to aim high and to work hard to achieve something more than what he can achieve easily. It is a system that stretches and challenges every student, and that is a strength.
But there was also a common perception that our past and current achievements do not assure us of success in a future that is going to be quite different from what we are used to. We have to change to stay relevant to the shifting demands of an innovation driven era and an environment that will, in one way or another, place an increasing premium on flexibility - flexibility in the workplace, as well as the ability to adjust to ensure that we remain a strong society.
We cannot say precisely how we have to prepare for this more fluid innovation-driven future. After all, there is no direct means of training innovation, there is no direct means of producing flexibility. There is a certain amount of buzz-words and catch-phrases that we all use - you will find some of it in the Report, and it has been repeated in the debate. And sometimes the catch-phrases assume a certain precision in what we are trying to do. But there is no precision. We know that we have to make major shifts in direction, but a lot of the substance and details will need to be worked out as we go along, intelligently and carefully.
What I have been struck by is the freshness and boldness of perspective that we derived from everyone we have consulted, and in this debate itself. There is a desire to push forward, make the major shifts now, so that we can stay ahead.
The intensity of the debate reflects the importance which Singaporeans, and which Members of the House, place on education, for Singapore's future. Education is our most important strategy for long term economic competitiveness, and it is our most important strategy for building a strong society. But there is recognition that there is no single formula for preparing students for the future, no optimal path, no golden mean, no unique set of skills and talents that will secure our future. There is a recognition that we need more diverse talents, more diverse Singaporean talents, and we will not get this unless we nurture, groom and train our young along diverse paths, each no less important that the other. And all Singaporean students, regardless of paths they go through, ending up Singaporean in character and in spirit. Or as Dr Ngiam says, we can have divergent thinking, but we must have convergent interests.
The broad directions have been well supported. But at the heart of the debate, we really have questions about balance in education, in four respects. First, the balance between depth and breadth of study, particularly in the junior college years; second, a balance between structure and flexibility of choice; third, preserving a rigorous and challenging education, without overloading our students; and fourth, achieving diversity whilst preserving a sense of commonality amongst Singaporeans. These are inherent tensions in education. The debate reflects these tensions, and it is as well that we address these squarely.
We have reached the stage of advancement where there are no easy models for us to borrow or import. We have outgrown the UK system of "A" level education, and there is no new UK model that is satisfactory for us, or any other foreign model that we can import and implant. We have looked carefully at other foreign systems, the various Baccalaureate systems, the US system and other Asian systems. They all have their strengths but they also have their weaknesses. And they are all looking to reform their systems with the same considerations that we have - to prepare for a rather different future. We can learn lessons from them as we go along, but we have to chart our own destiny.
Let me now address some of the key issues of balance that I have just mentioned.
First, concerning the JC curriculum. The key issue is one of depth as against breadth. It is a non-trivial issue. There is broad support for greater breadth of learning amongst our JC students. We have been moving in that direction at the universities, we have a fairly broad "O" level curriculum, but as Ahmad Khalis said, there is a coca-cola structure, in which the JC education we provide in between is too highly specialised. So there is broad recognition that we have to broaden out. There are a number of reasons why this is important.
First, of course, it is important for students who are going to be citizens in a modern, knowledge-based world to have a grounding in different areas, different disciplines. It is intrinsic to a good education. And as Warren Lee pointed out, it is important that we provide, especially for students from less privileged homes, this ability to receive a broad exposure which they would not always receive very easily at home.
Second, and this is a significant change in environment, it is becoming more difficult for us to predict the type of specialisations that will be in demand in future. Job definitions are changing more frequently, people are having to shift careers more frequently. Even our fresh graduates, if you look at recent years, our fresh graduates in various disciplines, especially the engineering disciplines, a very substantial number move on to different vocations, either the moment they graduate, or within two or three years. So early specialisation is not helpful in preparing ourselves for an environment where there will be frequent change in specialisations, continuous change in the nature of skills that are advantageous in the workplace.
Finally, and most importantly, the reason why we need a broad education is that we need to expose our students to different methods of thinking, different methods of learning, different methods of training the mind. A breadth of education in the sciences and the humanities is one way of achieving this. The present situation is not optimal. There are some details in the Report, but 40% of our "A" level candidature do only Science and Mathematics subjects. Of course, they have got General Paper, project work, mother tongue, on top of that, but as far as the content disciplines are concerned, 40% do only Science and Mathematics, and that is not satisfactory.
But let me address an alternative view, which has been, I think, quite well articulated by Prof. Low Seow Chay. Prof. Low's argument is that the knowledge-based economy needs individuals with specialised knowledge that will give us an edge over others. And the broadening of the curriculum, he sees as lowering standards. Lowering standards where it counts. His view is that the thinking skills that we are talking about are best achieved by changing teaching methods and learning methods, rather than changing the specialised curriculum that we have. It is a coherent view and worth addressing.
First, I agree that it is important to retain a certain depth of learning in core disciplines. This is our strength and we do not want to lose it. We should not lose the advantage of a strong grounding in core disciplines. It has held our students very well wherever they go - including top UK universities, top US universities. But the present system of specialised training at an early age - and this is what the university academics and those who are involved in research - is not well geared to future demands even within the core disciplines. In other words, if we are to encourage innovation in the sciences and engineering, for instance, we need a broader education to begin with, before you finally go on at the graduate and post-graduate stage to specialise. This is an important shift. The British have been a little later in recognising this than the Americans, but they are also now moving in this direction. It is a recognition that early specialisation is not necessarily the best route to developing the innovative abilities and research abilities required as you move up the value curve, in manufacturing or in services.
So the key question is: how do we best train innovative minds during the school and junior college years? Do we do it best by specialising in a few disciplines or by exposing students to a range of disciplines? And I ask this question whilst recognising, of course, the fundamental truth, that teaching methods and learning methods are critical, whatever you study. Whether the curriculum is specialised or broad, teaching methods will be critical, probably most important at the end of the day. But it should not distract us from important issues of structure in curriculum, within which teaching and learning take place.
Some depth is necessary because to train your mind, whether rigorous conceptual analysis, logical thinking, or innovative thinking, you have to study something to a certain level of difficulty, whatever it is. So a certain level of depth in any subject, in your core discipline, is necessary in order to train your mind. It is also important to know some content. Education is not just about skills as distinct from content. Without content, you have a vacuum in which you would find it very difficult to shape your skills. That is why we have chosen not to import wholesale, features of some foreign curriculum systems that we looked at, including the International Baccalaureate and in large part the American High School System, which have the strength of providing a broad education but are not renowned for rigour of training, particularly in Science and Mathematics. Well suited for some students, but not suited for all. And in refashioning a JC curriculum for a large 25% of cohort, you have got to make sure that it has features which meet the needs of the majority of JC students.
So depth is important and we do not want to dilute it too much. But we are going to need more breadth for the future than we have had in the past, to groom future scientists, bankers, managers, anyone who wants to be a good specialist eventually will be advantaged by a certain breadth of education early on. We are no longer importing knowledge, but having to create knowledge. We are moving up the value curve - innovating, not replicating. It would require an ability to spot opportunities, see connections and patterns in disparate events and phenomena, and make decisions in situations of uncertainty and ambiguity. None of this is new, but it will be much more present with us in future than it has been in the past. And it will be an advantage to have multiple perspectives, and habits of minds that are shaped from having gone through learning in multiple disciplines. We need many faceted minds.
Philip Yeo is right - to succeed as a biomedical hub we need many more Masters and PhD graduates amongst our Singaporeans. But the question is: what should their earlier education look like? What should school and junior college education be, to best groom Masters and PhD graduates of excellence in the sciences or any other field? We cannot specialise too early if we want to develop multiple frames and habits of mind that are necessary to do well in an innovation-driven climate.
Earlier this year, I accompanied Minister Teo Chee Hean to the UK. We were studying how they are coping, how they are trying to reform their system to cope with similar demands of the future. One of the people we met was Prof. Peter Goddard, Master of St John's College, Cambridge, and Chairman of UCLES (University of Cambridge Local Examinations Syndicate). He was, by profession, a Professor of Theoretical Physics. We asked him what were the attributes that he and his colleagues in the field looked for at the 'A' level stage, that they considered important in grooming or in producing future research scientists in the area of Physics. He thought for a while - he did not give us a pat answer - and then said, first, Mathematics is important. He wanted to make sure the person is good at Mathematics and has learnt it with a certain degree of rigour. Second, he said reasoning skills, an ability to think differently and to transcend disciplines, to think outside the box. So I asked him: what about Physics? My question was really about training research scientists in physics. He said, well, it is optional, not strictly necessary. Helpful, but not really necessary.
I think this illustrates the point - the importance of a multi-disciplinary orientation to breed reasoning skills and learning skills that are not uniform and not singular, a range of learning skills and thinking skills. So we have got to shift focus, broaden the curriculum in order to develop these skills.
The Sciences and Mathematics provide very useful training, as Prof. Low Seow Chay says, provide very good grounding in logical thinking and in experimental method. But it is not satisfactory that the majority of our Science students at JC do not take humanities. The humanities, by and large, are better placed at training an ability to appreciate ambiguity and deal with ambiguity. There are no right answers in the humanities. There is a range of possible interpretations on every question. Every time, you read the Mahabharatha, or Dream of The Red Chamber, you get a different lesson and a different meaning. Almost every economics question you ask does not have a deterministic answer. There is a range of possible answers and a degree of uncertainty. There is no linear fashion in which monetary policy determines a certain rate of inflation or shapes economic growth. There is no one way to balance a budget.
It is interesting to look at what the specialised schools in Science and Mathematics abroad do in their curriculum. These are schools aimed at gearing budding scientists, and I am referring here to schools like Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology, in the Washington DC area. There is a similar school in Illinois and you have got Bronx High, Stuyvesant, Brooklyn Technical High in New York. We have spoken to their curriculum designers and they are very clear in their minds that they want to ensure that students who aim to be budding scientists must have a breadth of learning at that age. Thomas Jefferson is the typical case of a Science and Mathematics school. They require that students take credits to the advanced level in Languages, Social Studies, Fine Arts, Humanities. Otherwise, you cannot graduate. Typically, these specialist schools will require that at least 20%, but usually more, of your credits are in a contrasting area.
Likewise for schools of the Arts, there are a few that you find internationally, and I visited one recently in San Francisco - broad curriculum, strong emphasis on Mathematics and Science, although it was a School of the Arts. They distinguish themselves from the average school by putting an added emphasis on the area of specialisation that they were known for, often going beyond regular curriculum hours, and more importantly, adopting a different method of learning. So the Science and Mathematics school adopts quite a different method of learning in Science and Mathematics. And the Arts school likewise - different ways of experimenting with methods, different activities for the students rather than an altogether different curriculum.
So I think the proposed JC curriculum framework achieves the right balance. We have tried to take a holistic view of how best we can develop a range of thinking skills. We have to broaden out, but we must avoid a shallow exploration of subjects that does not develop the mind. We need to study a few subjects in some depth but within a stronger, multi-disciplinary orientation. It is not just the core subjects that will achieve this. Project work, GP and the new Knowledge and Inquiry subject will enhance this multi-disciplinary orientation. They will also enhance our ability to build up communication skills amongst our JC students.
And, finally, training of conceptual thinking skills has to take place across the curriculum, regardless of subject. This is where teaching methods, learning methods are quite important and changes in our mode of assessment, which I will come to briefly later.
I am not so keen on some of the other suggestions for the types of disciplines we should introduce at JC. Ms Braema Mathiaparanam mentioned sociology, anthropology and a range of others. Mr Gan Kim Yong and some others mentioned management studies. These are interesting subjects. At the university level, there is usually opportunity to take an elective or option in these subjects, if not to specialise in them. But I think we should keep our JC curriculum focused on fundamental disciplines, disciplines where you can develop conceptual thinking abilities as well as a basic appreciation of the core areas of knowledge, and then go on from there to specialise when you are in university. I do not want to say this in a doctrinaire fashion. But, as a matter of priority and balance, I would say we stick to the fundamental disciplines for now.
Then there is the non-academic curriculum which several Members have spoken on quite eloquently, and which I agree on completely. CCA and Character Development Programme (CDP) - we have not spelt it out at great length in the report. But it is a very important component of the broader and more rounded education that we would like to see our JC students go through. Not just because it provides you with the skills to be a useful citizen, or to raise a strong family, but also because these are the life skills required to succeed in even your career, in any endeavour.
Ms Indranee had an example of an international law firm that looks at the candidate's CV to see what team sports he has played. It is one that is replicated in many sectors of the economy when you talk to firms that think hard about how they select their people. They will often look at what you did in CCA. It may not always be team sports, but they look at what you did to see whether you might have acquired instincts and habits that are different from the rest. So the non-academic curriculum is integral to the JC education. We make some recommendations as to how we can increase emphasis on it, including a change in weighting at the university admission system. But a lot will depend on how principals and school leadership actually conduct their programmes in the school.
Next, the issue of structure versus flexibility of curriculum. We have debated this extensively in the Review Committee and in the consultation process: how much should we prescribe and how much we leave to choice, especially in the JC curriculum? Dr John Chen says, perhaps we should leave it to "moral suasion" rather than prescribe that you must take a contrasting subject. I do not agree with that. I think we are quite clear that a broader education is a necessity and we should make that a requirement of the curriculum. But we should retain flexibility of choices. Which contrasting subject you take can be left to the student.
We have decided, after extensive discussion, not to go down the route of the International Baccalaureate, or the American High School system, where you are mandated to take a wide breadth of subjects. It is quite a noble aspiration, but it has some of the side effects I mentioned earlier, a certain shallowness in areas where you rather have more depth. It does not play to Singapore's strengths and what we need for the foreseeable future. So let us allow a range of options - provide students the flexibility of choice and give them these three levels of subjects - H1, H2, H3 - so that they can go for configurations that suit their individual preferences and talents.
We will have the JCs offering more combinations of subjects, as well, more than they have done in the past. There are a fair number of combinations you will find in our junior colleges, both in Sciences and Humanities. I think it was Dr John Chen who said you cannot do both Literature and Biology. It will be possible to do that in future. But it is not a situation of more the merrier. It is important that students choose combinations that are meaningful and that expand their opportunities. And as many Members have pointed out, schools will need to engage in counselling of students and advise on how they can choose subjects that match their talents, match their interests and match the opportunities they could have in future.
Next, workload. This is an important and valid issue that came up most frequently in the debate. If you want greater breadth while retaining a certain amount of depth in all disciplines, something has to give. As many have pointed out, breadth is intrinsically a little more difficult for the student to handle. It requires more time on the part of the student. As Mr Cedric Foo has pointed out, you also need more time to provide for a learner-centred education. It takes more time to learn independently and in curious ways, as distinct from listening to a lecture. As Mr Iswaran has also pointed out, you need some down time in the system for students to reflect and to detect inter-linkages.
MOE agrees with this. We want to see what we can do to reduce total curriculum load. First, however, we will also address the JC calendar which has some inefficiency built into it, a large amount of wastage in the first three months. So we will implement a system that will have a single JC intake, therefore reducing that inefficiency and expanding the length of the real school year.
On the curriculum itself, we will have to prune the size of each subject, prune down content, whilst retaining the rigour of learning that is entailed in learning that subject. It has to be a careful exercise, which MOE will do in close consultation with the universities, to make sure that our students continue to be well prepared for any discipline that they take in our universities. It is not a simple issue of chopping off a subject halfway and thinking that makes for a lighter load. We have got to make sure that we avoid shallowness of treatment. It probably means we have fewer topics within a particular subject, but you still need to have a certain depth of treatment of each topic.
We are clear about our intention to reduce the curriculum load. We will work out the details carefully to make sure that we do not just end up with a smaller curriculum load, but one that retains this rigour. How far should we go? The report says that from 330 hours currently per subject, let us move down to 270 hours. There is no magic in the number. But it is a sensible objective. It is higher than what the International Baccalaureate would have for a typical subject, or a typical US High School subject, but that is because they take more courses. They have a broader curriculum.
What perhaps is more important is the total amount of curriculum hours, and some Members have pointed out that we may not be going far enough. We are expecting that total curriculum hours over the two years will be between 1,300 and 1,700. For the top end, for students who are currently doing four 'A' levels, particularly in Science subjects, there is a significant reduction. For those who are doing just three 'A' levels, there will not be much reduction under this proposed system. But 1,300 hours for these students is not an overstretch. It is not an overload. It is not significantly higher than what exists in the UK, or the International Baccalaureate. And if you speak to some educationists in the UK, they will tell you that their students are still under-stretched, and they are concerned about it. In the US, although the minimum you will find in High School is typically between 1,300 and 1,400 hours, most of the best schools have a curriculum that is between the range of 1,500 and 1,700, not very different from what we are proposing. So although Dr Wang Kai Yuen noted that our proposal of 1,300-1,700 hours was higher than the US, I should clarify that that refers to the minimum requirement in the US, rather than what the best schools provide.
The main reduction, as I said, will be for students who take more subjects. For them, they will see a significant reduction in curriculum time. For those who take just three A's, they will not see much reduction or any reduction at all. But the problem is not one of overload of the curriculum for students taking three A's. Some of them may find problems with the curriculum because it is an intellectually challenging curriculum. But it is not one of curriculum overload as such.
Mr Iswaran is right that this is all about the front-end of curriculum time, and not what happens at the back-end or outside the formal curriculum - self-study, research, and a lot of things students do to try to improve their performance and how well they will do in their examinations. There is not very much we can do directly to reshape how much students do outside of the curriculum, outside of what is necessary. And we are not unique in that respect.
We have a competitive system where parents and students see education as a path to future success. We are still a society in momentum, where no one's background pulls him back from a better future. Social mobility is still there in the system, and that is the source of competition. And we have equipped students to compete, much better than we have done in the past - to compete at increasingly higher levels - so that at each level that you look at, there are far more students now competing to get ahead than used to be in the past.
If we look around East Asia, we will find exactly the same phenomenon. If we look at China, Taiwan and Korea, I would say there is more stress, more overload in the system. These are the reports we get. Singapore expatriates who send their children to schools in China or Taiwan tell us it is more stressful. In Korea, there is a saying that they drum into kids at a young age, 'Sleep five hours, fail. Sleep four hours, pass'. Richard Lim, who runs Majullah Connection in the US, told me recently over the email that he was talking to some students from China who had the opportunity of studying in Singapore along the way, who spent a few years studying in Singapore. They told him that our Singapore system struck them as being much more rounded than the system that they had gone through.
So, we have a problem, but let us look at it in perspective. This is in large part a social phenomenon, not an educational one, and it is in large part a positive phenomenon of a society that is still in momentum. Our students probably work too hard at their examinations. I agree with that. And our parents should set more realistic expectations for their kids. But the solutions are not obvious.
Taiwan attempted to change the situation two years ago. They had a commission that was set up in 1996, that was very concerned about rote-like preparation for examinations and the stress in the system. They devised what they called a multi-path education system. Admission into senior middle school from junior middle school will no longer be determined by a common examination, but will be determined by recommendations by the school, interviews and the candidate's own proposals for his future education - a range of criteria will be used. Similarly, a quarter of the places in colleges for those from senior middle schools are now to be reserved for this qualitative means of entry - instead of by common examinations.
Now, two years later, surveys are being done of parents and teachers to see how they feel about this system that was aimed to relieve examination stress. The result - situation more stressful. Parents and teachers, the majority are saying that students are more unhappy now. Students are stressed out by having to take interviews, write applications to different schools and write proposals about their future education. Many are now calling for a return to a universal common examination, with all the stress and unintended side-effects that that will entail.
Japan tried - Assoc Prof Koo Tsai Kee went into this at some length - a very interesting experiment by cutting down on content, seeking to reduce the stress in the examination system. Prof Koo has covered some of the unintended effects of what was done, eg, reduced rigour, reduced depth of learning in key core areas, but there was another interesting side-effect. Not only did the students need to study less hard, but they are also less interested in their studies, and less interested in each other and in society. So, there has been a general decline in intensity of education, not just with regard to examinations, but intensity of education in all its aspects. There is reduced interest in education as a whole.
I was speaking last week to the Chairman of Fuji Xerox, Mr Yutaro Kobayashi, an eminent Japanese industrialist, and he said that this is now of great concern to Japanese businesses, ie, the fact that students are not taking learning seriously and they are not interested in each other. They are not interested in society. It is not a problem for the top end, the top 20%. If you cut down the curriculum, they just spend more time in private juku schools and, in fact, that has been happening. They are advantaged because their parents know what they have to do to get ahead in life. But there has been a widening dispersion between the top-end and the bottom-end precisely because education has become less intense.
So, one merit of our system - where we put it all in the education system, ensure that every student works hard within the system and aims high - is that it also reduces this dispersion that comes about when you leave it to market forces to determine which parents urge their children to take studies seriously.
We have to shift focus, shift balance, encourage non-academic pursuits and encourage students to take a subject which they are interested in to as far as they can go and have a passion in it. But let us keep the overall intensity in place. Let us change what students do within education, but not reduce the intensity as such.
Examinations and teaching methods are clearly critical. We will continue to change the nature of the examination system. It is an evolutionary process, not a sudden one-off break. We are attempting to place greater emphasis on testing the understanding of concepts, students' ability to reason and to evaluate subject matter critically, ie, greater emphasis on students' ability to apply what they have learnt, rather than to reproduce what they have learnt. It is being done across a range of subjects - eg in literature, history and in the science subjects. In science, for instance, we are moving towards a school-based science practical assessment, ie, a form of continuous assessment that looks at students' laboratory investigation skills, the ability to design experiments, as distinct from a one-off end-of-year science laboratory test. This process will continue, and it is important.
There is a perception on the part of many hon. Members that some subjects are easier to score in than others. Dr John Chen and a few others have mentioned that literature seems harder to score in and that is why students shun it. I think it is not a situation where some subjects are easier to score in than others, but the fact that Singaporean students are stronger in some subjects than in others. All over the world, students take subjects that they are strong in. In the UK, in fact, preferences are exactly the reverse. Students shun science and mathematics because they think it is difficult. So, there is nothing wrong in taking subjects that you are strong in. We must want to make sure that you do not over-specialise and that you have some breadth of learning, particularly while you are in school and JC.
I looked at the data on literature. We have to look at the data quite carefully. If we look at students of the same ability group, we will not find a big gap in performance in literature and the other subjects. For instance, if we look at schools like RI and RGS, we get a higher proportion of students who take literature obtaining distinctions, compared to the proportion of students taking chemistry or biology obtaining distinctions. Any student who has an interest and passion in a subject will be able to do well.
Mdm Ho Geok Choo and Ms Braema Mathiaparanam raised the issue of the university admission system, whether we should give greater weight to CCA, project work, and so on. The entire university admission framework would be studied carefully. Dr Ng Eng Hen chairs a committee that is looking at this, and we will have to make sure that the intent of the new JC curriculum is reflected in the new JC admission system. We should move away from a single formula for university admission, and we should move towards a system where each university evolves its own system of admission and perhaps, even across faculties, different criteria will be taken into account.
Clearly, the challenges faced by our teaching force are going to be central to this whole exercise. We will put more teaching resources into our junior colleges, so that they can confidently deal with this broader and more flexible curriculum. There are some specific new requirements. Knowledge and Inquiry is a new subject. It will require a new set of skills and we will probably train new teachers as well as some of our existing teachers. We may even import a few foreign expatriates. For instance, those with experience in the IB system where they have a Theory of Knowledge subject, we might import a few of them to help us out in the initial years.
We will be working closely with the NIE to ensure that teachers develop a broader repertoire of teaching approaches, and we will be retraining our existing pool of teachers. But none of these is new. It is an evolutionary process. We are not shifting from one mode to a completely new mode of teaching or learning. So, I am uncomfortable with some of the references to having to "remake" our teachers or "remake" Singapore's teaching force. They are not as rigidly captured by their background as we make them out to be. In fact, the distinctive about the Singapore teaching force has been its willingness to change, particularly if you compare it to teaching forces elsewhere. If you look at some countries where they attempted to introduce IT into education, they ran into many teachers who were passionately against change. We have very few teachers who are passionately against change, and we have many teachers who are passionate about change. This is our strength. It is a strength of our system. So, I am quite confident that if we size up the requirements carefully, put resources and energy into training our teachers, they will respond well and respond confidently. Let us not caricature the teaching force.
A diverse education landscape is the second major limb of the White Paper, and I will not be as long in my responses on this issue. The key issue that has been raised has been whether we are building elitism into the system by introducing the Integrated Programme schools, and I think this is a valid issue. The Minister for Education, RAdm Teo, has addressed this substantively in his opening remarks. My colleague, Minister of State for Education, Dr Ng Eng Hen, has spoken yesterday about the resources and energies that go into ensuring that all our students are equipped to go as far as they can.
Let me add a further perspective on this. We all accept that we need to have a more differentiated system. It is necessary to spur innovation, including innovation in education itself, and it is necessary to groom diverse talents. The question is how we do it. Do we have greater differentiation within the mainstream of the state education system, or do we have it outside the mainstream? That is the key question.
We are almost unique internationally in attempting to bring differentiation and diversity into the mainstream, with the principle of meritocracy continuing to apply, so that everyone with the determination and ability can benefit. Affordability will not be a criterion for taking any of these diverse paths in education. So, this is what distinguishes us from other countries that have differentiated systems, that we are providing differentiation within the system. We are keeping education relevant for the future while ensuring it remains a social leveller, as Mdm Halimah put it, a tool for social mobility, with equal access based on merit.
If we look around the world - and many countries have now moved towards highly differentiated systems, some very innovative ones - we will find that, generally, the differentiation takes place outside the system, because of the failure of the state school system. So, there may be an egalitarian posture in public debates in the UK, US and elsewhere, but it obscures a thriving private school system, which is where the bulk of the innovation takes place in their education systems. The UK had a big furore about equality of access to their public schools. They got rid of their grammar schools, got rid of the ability of schools to select by merit, and introduced comprehensives. But very little was being said about their thriving "public school" system or what are really private independent schools where parents with the resources and the motivation send their kids to, including even many of those who were themselves arch-advocates of the changes in the state school system.
In the US, private schools are at the pinnacle of the system. The US probably has some of the best schools internationally, but they are private, expensive, and you have to be able to afford their fees. Except for a few specialised public schools, the Bronx Highs and Stuyvesants, most public schools are unable to select students on merit. They select students according to where they live. Admission to school is determined by neighbourhood. I was recently told by a principal of a public school in the Bay area of the US that there is a saying amongst the principals that the higher the altitude of the school, the better the performance of the school. Because schools that are in the higher altitudes are in the better neighbourhoods where the professionals, scientists and engineers stay. And because they have a system where the local community funds a fair bit of the expenditures of the school, especially its enrichment programmes, it is really a system of social elitism, even in public school system.
Japan, a very egalitarian society, has had a thriving private education system, from pre-school up to university, for many decades now. It is so competitive that to get into the system, parents have to subject themselves to interviews to get their kids into the elite private pre-schools. And the system flows all the way up. Once you are into the right nursery, you get into the right primary school, the right secondary school and all the way up. It is a very egalitarian society but that is the way in which they have accommodated differentiation. And we are choosing a different path.
There are very few advanced countries that still have a largely public school system. Some of the European countries have it - Holland and Sweden. And there too, they have differentiated their system. In Sweden, in the upper secondary school system, they have 14 different programmes, of which only three are geared towards eventual university admission. In Holland, they have four quite distinct streams. But because they stream their students relatively late, many of their weaker students are not well-equipped for continuous learning and not well-trained in core skills. Today's Straits Times has an article on this.
Even China has no compunction in creating special paths for different talents, be it academic talents, musical talents, gymnastic talents. They have many experimental schools now which go much further than what we are proposing in our Report. Take for instance Beijing Jingshan School, one of their experimental schools, from primary school all the way up to senior middle. It provides a through-train for all its primary school students to go on to junior middle school. And the top junior middle students, the top 10% or so, are provided a through-train to go on to senior middle. If you look at some of their other experimental schools, they provide a through-train for the top students in Science and Mathematics to the top universities. Again, we are not proposing this, but I raise this as an illustration of how even China, a relatively egalitarian society, is providing these differentiated paths and not shrinking from it. Because they know that in the knowledge-based environment of the future, they need outstanding talents.
That is the basic point. We need more outstanding Singaporeans in all fields - Science, Mathematics, law, diplomacy, arts. We need more outstanding Singaporeans to take us forward. We need to groom them as best as we can, nurture a spirit of Singaporeaness in them and maximise their contributions to society. So, le us build this diversity into the mainstream and seek to contain social elitism as we do so.
The Integrated Programme schools will actually offer us more opportunities to guard against social elitism than our existing school system does. They will have more time. If you look at the proposals that have been put forward by the schools that are applying to run the Integrated Programmes, they indeed intend to spend a lot more time on developing leadership and commitment to the community. So, this is not a change that is intrinsically going to lead to a more elitist system. If anything, it offers an opportunity for the top academic talents to develop stronger instincts of Singaporeaness and commitment to their fellow citizens.
I should clarify, because a question was asked about the GEP programme, that we see this also among the GEP students. We have done a longitudinal tracking of our GEP students, although they are still quite young; I think the first batch is only 30 years old. A far higher proportion of GEP students do community service compared to the population average for their cohort.
Several Members have asked the question of whether we should extend the Integrated Programme beyond the top 10%. Again, I must say that there was no magic in the 10% number. It was a matter of judgment, because we have to decide which students the Integrated Programme was going to be suitable for. It does not suit all JC students and we have to accept that. Some students will be confident of doing well in their "A" levels and proceeding to university and getting into a faculty of their choice. And others will be a little less confident. Some students would relish an unstructured environment in the middle of their secondary school years, and others would prefer a more structured environment. And many of the parents would prefer a more structured environment, to make sure he gets the "O" levels in hand before he goes on to the "A" levels.
We have to be realistic about this. In fact, Mr Ang Mong Seng and Mr Zainudin have themselves expressed concern about whether some of the Integrated Programme students will not do so well, and about what will they end up with. I think we will minimise the risk of IP students not doing well if we are stringent in selection of students into the IP schools. That is the main policy strategy - make sure that we are selective and do not just channel people into IP because it sounds like a better path to education. We have looked at the data. If we look at the top 5% of PSLE cohort, 92% of them eventually do well enough to qualify for our local universities. If we go to the 6-10th percentile, it already begins to drop significantly - only 86% of them qualify for our local universities. So, we have to be realistic. If we go beyond 10%, I think we will have a higher rate of error, and we will face more of the problems which Mr Ang Mong Seng was talking about, of students who go in quite confident but end up not so confident, because they have not done so well.
The Integrated Programme schools will themselves be in the best position to assess suitability. Once they have taken in their pupils, they will be in the best position to assess in the first couple of years who is really suitable to stay on the Integrated Programme and who should, in fact, opt for the "O" levels. Some, like ACS, are proposing to offer both the Integrated Programme and the "O" level stream, so that students will be able to switch. But RI has said that within a matter of a few years it is going to be a pure Integrated Programme school. So, if you want to switch, you move to another mainstream school. I think that is a reasonable scheme.
Dr Maliki, Mr Zainul, Ms Braema and a few others have raised the issue of what can be done to improve our 3-year pre-university programme. It is an important issue. I must tell Members that we deliberated at some length in the Review Committee on the issue of Centralised Institutes, because one perspective is that we should not actually provide for them within the system but let private schools take care of them. These are students who typically could not get into the right faculty in polytechnics and also cannot make it to junior college - why not let the private sector take care of them? We decided against it. We decided that the Centralised Institutes should remain part of the state system.
Every student benefits from a state subsidy for 12-13 years of education and from the resources and quality improvements that we keep putting into the system. We want to see the Centralised Institutes (CIs) not just as a residual of the system but as a quality component in its own right. MOE has been discussing this with the Centralised Institutes to see how we can improve their programmes.
Dr Wang Kai Yuen asked a question of what would happen to the Gifted Education Programme (GEP) with the introduction of the Integrated Programme. The Gifted Education Programme will have to be restructured at the secondary level with the introduction of the Integrated Programme schools. Four of the existing Gifted Education secondary centres - RI, RGS, Chinese High School, ACS Independent - have applied to the Ministry of Education to run Integrated Programmes. If their integrated programmes are approved, as I expect they will, three of these schools - RI, RGS and the Chinese High School - will cease to be Gifted Education Centres and will offer the Integrated Programme only. Under ACS Independent's proposal, it is somewhat different because they will decide on Integrated Programme students at Secondary Three rather than Secondary One. So they will continue to run a Gifted Programme. For students who do not end up on the Integrated Programme, they can continue to be in the Gifted Programme while pursing their "O" levels.
Gifted Education pupils who opt to join an Integrated Programme that does not offer the GE Programme at secondary level will compete, like all other students, for places in Integrated Programme schools; in other words, RI, RGS, Chinese High, based on the admission criteria of those schools. And pupils who join those schools, who have come from the Gifted Programme at primary school, will join those schools as part of their mainstream classes. What the IP schools will do is to apply some of the techniques and programmes of the Gifted Programme across the board to all their classes. The Gifted Education Branch at MOE will support them in doing so. We will continue to offer funding, support, advice on the design of such programmes and the curriculum that is best suited to the top band of students. They will still need to have some programmes that are specific to the very top end of students. But we should have some flexibility in this and allow the schools to shape programmes that best meet the needs of their pupils.
Once we have the Integrated Programme schools in place, MOE will discontinue the supplementary selection exercise for admission into the Gifted Education Programme at Secondary One. This is because the Integrated Programme schools and the new specialist Mathematics and Science School, once it is formed, will open up opportunities for more pupils who are not already part of the primary school Gifted Education Programme. So, there will be ample opportunities to join these schools and there is no need for a supplementary exercise to select students for the Gifted Programme at secondary schools.
Mr Cedric Foo and a number of others have suggested that we should provide Government scholarships for needy students to attend private schools. I do not think it is necessary or desirable for us to do that. Anyone who qualifies for a place in our national schools, including our independent schools and any of our best schools, will not be deprived of a place on account of financial difficulty. With diversity in place in our mainstream system and with innovation and quality in place in our mainstream system, there is really no need to provide incentive or financial assistance for students to go to private schools.
On foreign system schools, some Members have questioned whether we should ease up on some of the rules for Singaporeans to attend the foreign system schools in Singapore. Currently, MOE considers this case-by-case. We will review the guidelines, particularly with respect to children of Singaporeans returning from abroad. But we should bear in mind that the international schools were established for the purpose of catering to children of foreign expatriates working in Singapore and they will have their character shaped by that objective. The children in these schools will not experience the same social environment that our national schools provide, the environment that makes them uniquely Singaporean.
Finally, the issue of whether diversity is being restricted only to the specialist schools and Integrated Programme schools. This is not the case. Diversity is not just for the top 10%. It is being spread throughout the system. Look at our existing independent and autonomous schools. We have 23 autonomous schools now. 19 of them have already established substantial niches and specialisations of their own in the arts, in sports, in Science, in special areas of learning. Some of them, very recently, but some for several years now.
Look at our neighbourhood schools. Through the cluster system that we have set in place, our neighbourhood schools now have available to them the opportunity to develop special talents in a broad range of areas. Take arts. For example, EastOne Cluster Art Centre at Siglap Secondary School, which caters not just to students at Siglap Secondary but to the whole cluster. It has three arts galleries, one graphic design centre, one ceramics room and one arts resource library. That is the hardware. It has teachers who are being continually trained, and sharing experiences in how to engage students in the arts. This is something which is spreading throughout the system in our neighbourhood schools. Anyone with a special talent will have an opportunity to develop it.
Sir, we are at a turning point. We have not painted an end destination, but I think we are confident about the direction that we are proceeding in. And if we implement carefully, ensure that our teachers are well provided with training, and keep them well motivated, I am confident we will achieve our objectives.
Sir, I support the motion.