Opening Address by Mr Ong Ye Kung, Minister for Education, at the Schools Work Plan Seminar

Published Date: 28 September 2018 12:00 AM

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1. Good morning, colleagues and friends. Welcome to Schools Work Plan Seminar 2018.

2. Education is both an uplifting and integrating force. It uplifts, as people acquire the skills and knowledge to lead dignified lives, fulfil their aspirations and contribute to society. It is also an integrating force, because as people improve their lives through education, we have better chances of narrowing the gaps of inequality. The uplifting and integrating forces strengthen each other.

3. Both objectives are being challenged today. Rapid technological advancements put a shorter expiry date on the skills and knowledge we acquired in schools and higher education, and globalisation has widened social inequality. Both forces are being challenged today.

4. Recently, I have spoken extensively in Parliament on what we have done and will be doing to strengthen the integrative aspect of education. Today, I will not talk about inequality. Today, I will talk about the changes we need to make to ensure education continues to uplift lives and prepare our young for the future. This is the central question every educator in the world is asking – how to prepare our young for the future?

The Trade-Offs – A Recap

5. Change is a constant in education. Change is a constant in life. A recent article in the Economist, lauded the success of Singapore’s education system. It noted that our system is undergoing a ‘quiet revolution’, and despite our achievements, the Singapore system wants to become better.

6. That is quite an apt description of the changes taking place. We do not change for change’s sake. As we change, we are careful to retain the core strengths of our system to deliver students of sound values and strong fundamentals in numeracy, literacy, and critical soft skills. Our good PISA scores affirm this approach. In that sense, the changes we push for have never been noisily labelled as slaughtering of something sacred.

7. The system is already well developed and I do not think we are in the building up phase anymore. However, as it becomes more complex, we need to be clear-eyed that in this mature system, there are trade-offs, and we must take sufficient bold steps to rebalance those trade-offs when needed. In my speech at the Economic Society of Singapore, I stated four such trade-offs.

8. The first is the balance between rigour and joy – how much robustness we want in the system and hard work we require from students, versus making learning fun and nurturing the joy of learning in our students. We know that many of us realise education in schools is at risk of becoming too stressful and maybe some unwinding is in order.

9. The second is sharpening versus blurring of academic differentiation – how finely differentiated we want examination results to be as a tool for placement and admission, versus blunting the distinction of results between students so that we can gauge learning outcomes without encouraging an overly competitive culture in our schools. The reform of the PSLE scoring system, effective in 2021, is a decisive step to reduce unnecessary competition.

10. The third trade-off is customisation versus stigmatisation – how our curriculum caters to students of different learning paces and learning needs, versus inadvertently stigmatising certain groups of students who are less academically inclined. I know many educators feel strongly about this, and we should explore how to further leverage Subject-Based Banding to optimise this trade-off.

11. Fourth, skills versus paper qualifications - the importance of attaining credentials such as Nitec certificates, Diplomas or Degrees, versus acquiring skills that make a person effective at the job. Through SkillsFuture, we are bringing both aspects together to establish a multi-path system for our students. Underlying the system is a broader definition of meritocracy that our society must embrace over time.

12. The next phase of change in education will involve re-balancing these trade-offs effectively and decisively, and many initiatives are already under way.

13. In 1997, we developed the “Thinking Schools, Learning Nation” vision, to strengthen thinking and inquiry amongst students. During this earlier phase of change, we reduced curriculum content by about 30%, enhanced teacher training, and encouraged the sharing of best practices and ideas across schools.

14. In 2005, we embarked on the “Teach Less, Learn More” movement as a subsequent phase to further strengthen teachers’ pedagogies. Our aim was to help teachers better engage students and develop their critical faculties through real-life learning experiences. Curriculum then was further reduced by 20%, to create time and space for more active and independent learning.

15. “Thinking Schools, Learning Nation” was framed from a national and systemic perspective; “Teach Less, Learn More”, from the teacher’s perspective. Both remain relevant and important, but to help our students meet the challenges of an uncertain, fluid future, we need to usher in a new phase of change – one that is framed based on the students’ perspective.

Learn for Life – The next Phase

16. I call this phase of change – ‘Learn for Life’.

17. ‘Learn for Life’ is a value, an attitude and a skill that our students need to possess, and it is fundamental in ensuring that education remains an uplifting force in society. It is what underpins the SkillsFuture Movement. It also has to be a principal consideration in our school system.

18. Why has this become so important? In the past, Singapore attracted multinational corporations (MNCs) to set up factories and offices here. We were the world’s leading producer of disk drives. We knew what kind of talent those MNCs needed, and we were able to prepare our students well to fill those defined job roles.

19. Today, the MNCs are putting their innovation hubs and R&D centres here. Start-ups are sprouting all over, hoping to come up with the next big thing. We are witnessing the advent of “lights-out manufacturing”, where entire factories are automated. You step into them and you do not see anyone, but in the background, you have personnel with different skillsets to design the system and ensure it hums along.

20. Today, you can check in and board the aircraft in Changi Airport Terminal Four without interfacing with a single human, and that has totally redefined what a customer service officer does.

21. These innovation centres, start-ups and automated environments are creating the jobs of tomorrow. We have some, but not definitive ideas, of what these jobs will be.

22. What we do know, however, is the shape of things to come. We know that our students need to be resilient, adaptable and global in their outlook. They must leave the education system still feeling curious and eager to learn, for the rest of their lives.

23. These traits are not just adjectives that we tick off, one by one. It is a fundamental shift in our mindset. I came across a recent article where the author of the article, who is a middle-aged man, was trying to learn coding. I thought it explained the concept of lifelong learning quite well. It is really not about searching for the next course to attend and trying to use up the $500 SkillsFuture Credit.

24. Instead, it is about getting used to a state of discomfort. His key takeaway was not the technical coding skills that he picked up, but getting used to the feeling of constantly being inadequate.

25. In the article, he described what a coding coach told him: ‘You need to get used to the idea of being out of depth all the time. You do not solve the same problem twice. You solve one and the next level is even more challenging and once again you feel inadequate. But there is a global coding fraternity and you must learn how to tap on the network and learn from one another.’

26. I see this attitude amongst many elderly learners. They are obviously lifelong learners. Many do not know English well, and are not IT literate. But they are motivated to learn to use the computer, the apps on their smart phones, and embrace e-Payment to minimise their trips to the ATM machines. It is uncomfortable for them, but I see the determination amongst these members of the Pioneer and Merdeka Generations.

27. Once we recognise this broader objective of education, examination and grades are comparatively small milestones in the life journey of a child. The ability to score in an examination frankly may not matter very much later on in the life of a child.

28. There are several thrusts under the ‘Learn for Life’ movement, to address the trade-offs I described earlier. MOE will progressively explain the thrusts and the changes accompanying them. I will talk about just the first thrust today, which is how to better balance rigour and joy of learning in schools.

A Better Balance Between Rigour and Joy

29. We know that students derive more joy in learning, when they move away from memorisation, rote learning, drilling and taking high stakes exams.

30. It is not to say that these are undesirable in learning; quite the contrary, they help form the building blocks for more advanced concepts and learning, and can inculcate discipline and resilience, and get students used to tackling difficult problems and overcoming those difficulties.

31. But there needs to be a balance between rigour and joy, and there is a fairly strong consensus that we have tilted too much to the former. Our students clearly do well and the outcomes are reflected in our leading PISA scores over the years.

32. For example, Singapore scored the highest amongst OECD countries for the 2015 PISA scores for Science.

33. However, when we take the scores and divide them by the total learning time , that is to say, we normalise the scores by hours of study, Singapore’s normalised score falls below the OECD average, behind countries like Finland, Germany, France, UK and Japan.

34. OECD data also shows that there is actually a negative relationship between academic outcomes and the total time spent on learning. The countries with longer learning times are not necessarily among the best performers. Fortunately, Singapore is an outlier – our students study about 51 hours per week, which is higher than the OECD average of about 44 hours, but we score exceptionally well. This spirit of diligence and excellence is in the Singapore DNA. However, I think there is a fairly strong case that we can cut back on unnecessary inflation of effort yet achieve equal or better outcomes.

35. Our students will benefit when some of their time and energy devoted to drilling and preparing for examinations is instead allocated to preparing them for what matters to their future. In doing so, we have a few considerations.

36. First, there is little room for further reduction in curriculum. We have already done two significant rounds of reduction – first, in 1998 and then in 2005. Today, our curriculum coverage at all levels are comparable to other education systems around the world. Further reduction will risk under-teaching. What we should focus on is to curb effort inflation and review our assessment load and tuition load – both of which add to the repetitive and unnecessary effort of studying the same, or even less material, for the sake of scoring well in examinations.

37. Second, whatever time we may free up for the students, we must avoid the tendency to fill it up with extra practice and drill. Instead, treat this as curriculum time that we return to the school for better teaching and learning.

38. Finally, we must be careful not to overdo the correction, and inadvertently undermine the rigour in our system. Japan offers us a very useful experience that we can learn from. In the 1990s, they implemented in their school system an initiative called Yutori, which means ‘relax’ in Japanese.

39. The objective was to reduce rote learning and memory work, and redirect students to learning creativity and soft skills. But the move backfired – as PISA scores of Japanese students deteriorated, parents’ anxieties went up, and students started to worry that they could not do well in the university entrance examinations. Hence, the Yutori policy had to be unwound, and five years later, the Government had to increase the curriculum content and teaching hours again.

40. While well-intentioned, Yutori’s objective was ahead of its time, and its implementation, not helped by a rather inappropriate name, was perceived as too drastic a move. We can learn from Japan’s experience. It is an instructive example, demonstrating the challenge we might face as we re-calibrate the balance between joy and rigour within our system.

Reduction of Assessment Load

41. Given these considerations, we decided to take the approach of reducing school-based assessments. We have succeeded in doing this before. As recommended by the Primary Education Review and Implementation (PERI) Committee, MOE removed mid-year examinations and year-end examinations in P1 from 2010. For P2 students, we further removed the mid-year examinations.

42. As a result, we reduced the stress for lower primary students, who by and large enjoy school more, and have a positive start that focuses on curiosity and growth, instead of examinations and grades. Teachers also appreciate the extra lesson time to ensure that our young students master the fundamentals.

43. Today, everyone – teachers, students, parents – have gotten used to not having to worry about examinations in P1 and for most of P2. Academic results and rigour have not been affected. I think if MOE were to re-introduce examinations into P1 and P2, we may have an uproar!

44. We will build on this good work. We know that teaching and learning balances three important components – curricular goals and content, pedagogy and assessment. Today, the three components are not balanced. As we over-emphasised assessment, we inadvertently reduced the time available for schools to focus on teaching and learning. We need to redress this balance.

45. We will therefore make another significant move, and reduce school-based assessment load by 25% in each of the two-year blocks in primary and secondary schools.

46. We will remove all weighted assessments for P1 and P2 students. This means that in addition to what had been removed, we will further remove year-end examinations for P2. Schools will also not count any assessments towards an overall score for P1 and P2.

47. In addition, we need to recognise that students go through different stages of learning: from lower to middle to upper primary, and then to lower secondary and eventually, upper secondary. Each stage requires a significant transition and pupils need an adequate runway to adapt to the new demands.

48. To help students build their confidence and develop an intrinsic motivation to learn during the transition, we should be less hasty in testing and examining students during these critical years. Hence, we will also remove the mid-year examinations at P3, P5, S1 and S3.

49. Schools and parents need not worry about the pace of change being too fast. We will implement these changes in stages. In 2019, we will remove all weighted assessments in P1 and P2, as well as the mid-year examination in S1. The removal of mid-year examinations at P3, P5 and S3 will be carried out over two years, in 2020 and 2021.

50. I know educators will need some time to digest these changes. Some educators and parents might be thinking: without mid-year examinations, can we substitute the removed examinations with class tests?

51. To be clear, class tests are those that count towards year-end results. Some have simulated exam-like environments. They can be stressful, and they can also lead to loss of curriculum time.

52. Let me first say that there is nothing wrong with having examinations and class tests. They are part and parcel of teaching and learning, but we need to use them in suitable quantities.

53. MOE will set guidelines for schools, so that there should be only one class test per subject per term, that can be counted towards the year-end score. Let me further explain with some illustrations:

  • If a school administers in Term Two of P3 both a class test and a mid-year examination, when the mid-year examination is removed, it can keep the class test, but should not add another one to replace the mid-year examination.

  • If a school administers only a mid-year examination for Term Two in P3, when the mid-year examination is removed, it can replace the examination with a class test. But I would urge the school not to do it, as this will partially undo the reduction in assessment load. Instead, use the curriculum time that is freed up for better teaching and learning.

  • And if a school already does not administer a class test or mid-year examination for Term Two in P3 and is comfortable with it, there is no need to add a test because of this guideline. These guidelines specify the maximum, not the norm.

54. By all means, use formative tools such as worksheets, class work and homework to gauge learning outcomes, and the strengths of each child. These are not high stakes tests or examinations, which result in substantial loss of curriculum time. Our focus is to return the curriculum time to the schools to free up learning and teaching.

Better Teaching and Learning

55. How will these changes add up? They will free up about three weeks of curriculum time every two years. This time is now returned to the schools and teachers, and with it, the flexibility to pace out teaching and learning so as to avoid a mad rush to complete the syllabus to prepare for tests and examinations.

56. I hope schools will use the time well, for example, to conduct applied and inquiry based learning.

57. In applied and inquiry based learning, our students observe, investigate, reflect, and create knowledge, which will naturally take up more time.

58. For example, we can teach a child that the area of a field is length multiplied by breadth, and have them memorise the formula and take the tests. It can be done in a short time. But in an inquiry approach, we will ask the child ‘how do you find out the area of the field’, and have them discuss and brainstorm.

59. Some may decide to draw little squares to fill up the field and count how many squares there are. Others may have their own ingenious methods. After that, the teacher may bring them out to the school field to physically measure the length and breadth of the field, before allowing the students to discover that length times breadth equals area.

60. In art, we do not just ask students to draw something – when I was in primary school, my teacher would ask me to draw a cat or apple and I would just draw. Now, we show them masterpieces, and ask them: What do you think Monet is thinking of? What do you think Van Gogh is thinking of? What is the artist trying to express? Then we ask them what do they want to express, and from there they conjure their artistic creation.

61. Through the inquiry approach, students think through and internalise concepts. The lessons are fun and more applied in nature. They are more likely to remember and enjoy the lesson, even though that could take up more time. The learning outcomes are better, and these are backed up by research.

62. With the time and space created from reducing the assessment load, we hope teachers will leverage effective inquiry-based pedagogies, to enhance students’ learning experiences.

63. Our decision to reduce examinations is also backed by the experiences of trailblazers. One such school is Woodlands Ring Secondary School. It has removed mid-year examinations for S1 to S3 students since 2012. It has gone beyond what MOE is stipulating today, without affecting their students’ ‘O’ and ‘N’-Level examination performances.

64. With the time freed up, the school can dive deeper into the curriculum at a pace that suits each learner. For example, the Mathematics department designed a learning trail for S1 students to extend their learning beyond the classroom. The school has received positive feedback from the staff, students, and parents that students are becoming more self-directed and motivated.

65. Henry Park Primary School has removed term assessments in Term One and Three for P3 to P6 students since 2014, and channelled the additional time into inquiry-based learning and student-initiated investigation.

66. I have not touched on Junior Colleges (JCs). It can be a very stressful period for students. Our engagements with junior colleges tell us that there is a more complex set of issues in JCs, one of which involves preparing students well for the A-Levels in order to enrol into universities. We will conduct a separate review for JCs.

Related Changes

67. We will also implement several related changes to support the reduction in school-based assessments.

68. The first concerns Edusave awards. As we remove all examinations and weighted assessments at P1 and P2, how are we going to nominate students for the Edusave awards? There are two awards in question here - the Edusave Merit Bursary for P1 and P2 students, and Good Progress Award to P2 and P3 students.

69. But it is important to retain these awards, as they celebrate students’ academic success and learning milestones. Every year, I personally give out about 2,000 Edusave Awards in my constituency, and you can really see the pride and joy in the eyes of the parents and students, especially the younger ones.

70. So this is an administrative obstacle we will overcome - the fact that there are no more exams in P1 and P2. After all, examinations results are but one outcome of education. Teachers can observe the demonstration of positive traits in students like diligence, curiosity, collaboration and enthusiasm through daily lessons and learning activities that demonstrate a student’s learning orientation.

71. It is not as quantitative and standardised as school-based examinations, but qualitative judgement is a fact of life, and we can apply that to the Edusave Merit Bursaries and Good Progress Awards for young students who just entered the school system.

72. MOE will provide more details and guidelines to help teachers. We will keep the process simple and easy to administer. The award criteria will remain unchanged for all other levels.

73. We will also make adjustments to the Holistic Development Profile, or more commonly known as the report book, to better reflect a student’s progress in learning, and to discourage excessive peer comparison. These adjustments will also help to reduce test anxiety.

74. For P1 and P2 where they will be no more weighted assessments, we will use qualitative descriptors instead of marks to inform parents of their child’s progress. This is a further development from holistic assessment which we started in 2009, based on the PERI recommendations. For other levels, where marks are available, they will be reflected as whole numbers instead of decimal points, which are an unnecessary precision.

75. We will also remove certain academic indicators, such as students’ class and level positions. I know that ‘coming in first or second’, in class or level, has traditionally been a proud recognition of a student’s achievement. It is even a greeting used in certain festivities like Chinese New Year – “恭喜发财,祝你的孩子每年考第一。” In English, it is “Gongxi Facai. I hope your child will always come in first.” Such a mindset is very deeply rooted in our culture. However, removing these indicators is for a good reason, so that the child understands from young that learning is not a competition, but a self-discipline they need to master for life.

76. Notwithstanding, the report book should still contain some form of yardstick and information to allow students to judge their relative performance, and evaluate their strengths and weaknesses. For secondary school students, these are important information and can form part of the basis for selecting their subject combinations.

77. The revised Holistic Development Profile will be implemented in 2019.

78. I am confident that the students who are experiencing the changes first hand, will be able to see the value in what we are doing. However, for this shift to succeed, we will also need to bring the most important stakeholder – parents – on board. We will need to show parents that the reduction does not compromise on academic rigour. Instead, we are optimising the number of assessments students have to sit for today for better results.

79. We must expect that some things are beyond MOE’s or the schools’ control – such as parents comparing notes in their WhatsApp groups that often raise anxieties, and sending their children for tuition and enrichment.

80. I have no intention to heed the calls to ban tuition. Parents do this out of care and concern for their children, and many do-gooders in the community conduct free or low cost tuition to help weaker students cope with their studies, and that is a good thing.

81. But there are negative tuition stories too. During my school visits, sometimes I ask students if they find it stressful in schools. They tell me school is not stressful, but tuition is stressful. They would also tell me that they are very tired on the weeknights after school, or on the weekends, because their day is packed with many tuition classes. Worse still, they find that learning is not fun as a result and lessons have taken over their days and weekends.

82. So there is room for parents to step back, give children space to explore and play. On MOE’s end, there is also room for us to step back, review the way we have been involving and engaging parents in school life, and make the nature of partnership between parents and schools clearer.

83. Sometimes, in our zest to engage parents, we may have contributed to their anxieties. For example, some teachers will WhatsApp parents telling them to ensure that their children complete their homework and also list what homework to do, even on a Friday night, asking them to ensure their children complete the given homework over the weekend.

84. The teachers meant well, but such messages create expectations for parents to monitor their child’s homework very closely and can cause anxieties amongst parents, especially working parents. What’s worse, some parents may develop a reliance on these messages, and expect to be reminded on what homework to check. If parents can become reliant, what more the student.

85. We can be more mindful of how we are shaping children and parents’ behaviour. Teachers can set up a clearer contract with parents at the start of the school year. The teacher can, for example, assure parents that forgetting to bring a book will not affect a child’s final year exam or future. But if a child does not learn to take personal responsibility, that will certainly affect their future.

86. So we need to change our language of communication with parents – away from ‘they have to get their work done’; ‘examinations are important and a lot is at stake’; or ‘this is how their results are comparing with their classmates and peers’ to the question that matters most for young students, which is: ‘What makes your child’s eyes light up?’

87. MOE will develop ways to support our teachers and our parents in this. We will provide guidelines to schools, to give greater clarity on involving and engaging parents in their child’s education, in a balanced and meaningful manner.

88. We will also support schools in re-calibrating parent-teacher engagement practices. We will reach out to parents and provide them with effective and useful tips on how to support their child: not just in academics, but in the development of their character and soft skills. These initiatives will be rolled out in the coming year and beyond.


89. What I just talked about is a significant but calibrated structural change, to reduce effort inflation and to create a better environment for holistic development. It is part of our journey to constantly evolve and improve.

90. MOE will support schools and teachers in implementation. But the entire system must move together as one. And whether it succeeds or not, depends on the intangible professional-cultural changes within schools. And teachers are at the centre of it, just as you are the central pillar of the education system.

91. So within schools, it is critical for school leaders to take the lead, be the agents of change, engage teachers and decide how to use the freed up time well to deliver better lessons and better educational outcomes.

92. With the removal of one mid-year examination in every two-year block, teachers will not need to rush through the syllabus. This gives them the time and space to explore new areas, and try out more effective pedagogies. If we expect our students to learn through trying and failing and trying again, teachers should also embody this spirit and set a good example of lifelong learning.

93. We have a strong and excellent teaching force, an advantage that not many countries enjoy. If we harness the passion, creativity and dynamism of our teaching force, we can make bold and meaningful changes to prepare our students well for the future. This is our collective moral imperative.

94. Thank you.

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