Speech by Minister of State for Education Ms Sun Xueling, at the Debate on the Motion of Thanks to the President

Published Date: 03 September 2020 12:00 AM

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Education: Building a Fair, Just and Inclusive Society

Mr Speaker Sir,

1. I rise in support of the motion.

2. In my walks around Punggol, I meet many young families. A young mother shared with me that both she and her husband are essential service workers and as such, she needed a childcare near her home so that she can pick up her child easily. A stay-home mum spoke for an hour with me, worried that her daughter would not qualify via Direct School Admission (or DSA) to her preferred school as she did not have a certificate to prove her daughter's talent. A young father whose primary one son was diagnosed with mild intellectual disability told me his son is not slow, just relatively slower than his classmates, and just needs more time to catch up.

3. These stories are diverse and varied, but they all carry a common thread of hope, struggles and dreams that all of us as parents have for our children. As parents, we want our children to have the best shot in life, to grow up happy, to have the confidence to chase their dreams, and to be successful in life and in their profession, whatever that may be.

4. As a people, we aspire towards a fair, just and inclusive society where everyone has equal opportunities to develop to their fullest potential, regardless their backgrounds.

5. But this is not a straightforward task. Many advanced economies have found that social mobility gets harder to sustain as society progresses and as more well-off parents pass down their resources to their children.

6. At the same time, technological displacement to jobs and increasing competition from other markets are demanding a new set of traits for individuals to succeed in life.

7. Amidst this shifting landscape, what might we expect of our education system? I ask that as a mother, and now as an office holder in the Ministry of Education.

8. My hope is that our education system will always remain a social enabler so that everyone, especially for those who may have started with less, has the hope and confidence that in Singapore they have equal access to opportunities to do well, achieve their aspirations and find happiness.

9. I believe that our social conscience tells us that we do not want to create a self-fulfilling class system in Singapore, that is entrenched and segregates individuals, limiting them in their endeavours, and stifling hopes and dreams.

10. I also hope that our education system provides the space for our children to discover their passion and allows them to grow, confidently, in their own time. Different children flourish at different stages, in different environments and in different realms. I hope that there are multiple pathways available to them, that schools and parents recognise their diverse strengths and interests, and that there is porosity between these pathways, to support our children's varied endeavours.

11. And lastly, I hope that our education system serves a wider social purpose of building a sense of solidarity among Singaporeans. Where our children from diverse backgrounds can learn from one another, interact with each other comfortably and respectfully and through these interactions, find a shared destiny which they continue to believe in even after they grow up.

A Good Start for Every Child

12. Globally, research has shown that what happens in the early years is critical in determining how children turn out and how they subsequently fare in life. The MOE and MSF are therefore intervening earlier, from the pre-schooling years, so that our children regardless their backgrounds, have a good start from which to find fulfilment and joy in life.

13. The government has announced that it is ramping up the provision of government-supported preschool places, from just over 50% of the market today to 80% by 2025. Since January this year, many families are now paying less for preschool given enhanced subsidies. The government is also investing significantly in the software aspects of teacher recruitment, progression and professional development. Taken together, this sends a strong signal that the government prioritises the early learning years and wants to give every child a good starting point from which they can chart their future paths.

14. While the vast majority of each cohort has attended preschool prior to Primary 1, there is nonetheless a group of children whose attendance is irregular in preschool and a few who have not even enrolled in preschool. We should examine how we can further enable preschool participation, as the formative years play a critical role in a child's development.

15. They say it takes a village to raise a child. I hope that with the scale-up of programmes such as KidSTART, which provides holistic support to lower income families and focus on the health, nutrition and education of their children, more of these children and their families can benefit. With Growing Together with KidSTART, I also hope that more community partners can come forward to partner lower income families in their parenting journey.

Second, Expanding Educational Pathways

16. My second point is about expanding educational pathways. Different children bloom at different stages, in different environments and in different ways. To give our children a fair chance to develop and shine, there must be varied educational pathways to better recognise a fuller range of talents and strengths, beyond academic achievements.

17. Our education system has been making big moves to bring about a mindset shift, to look beyond academic achievements, by reducing school-based assessments and making changes to the PSLE scoring system. But to do this successfully, we all need to move away from an overemphasis on grades. Not just within the school system, but a broader mindset shift in society, including from among employers and parents. And we need to make real changes to some of the current ways of doing things, such as a greater recognition of skills when evaluating someone for a job.

18. DSA is one way of expanding pathways by providing students an opportunity to progress to their next stage of education through recognition of their diverse talents – in sports, performing arts and so forth. But even as we do so, we must be careful not to rely solely on tried-and-tested methods, such as assessing students based on certificates which show demonstrated achievements.

19. This would only serve to transfer the competition for results from the academic arena to the non-academic arena, with better off parents being more likely to send their children for extra training in DSA areas. We want to avoid such unhealthy competition. Instead, we have started making changes to DSA over the past few years, and parents and children can be assured that our schools are adopting a much more holistic assessment, looking beyond past achievements.

20. Our children come from a diverse range of backgrounds, and bring with them different experiences, different opportunities that they have had and different personal traits. We are therefore encouraging schools to dig deeper for potential. We recognise that the process in trying to identify students' potential in a particular DSA area is inevitably less straightforward than simply checking if they have demonstrated achievements in the past. But if we truly believe in expanding opportunities for all, then we have to try.

21. For example, in sports selection, we encourage schools to look beyond sports-specific competencies, such as the ability to dribble or serve a ball, but to also look for natural abilities such as agility, coordination and speed. Our children can also bring character and personal qualities to a sport or performing art. Qualities such as resilience, compassion and leadership which help reflect the spirit of the DSA area.

22. We should also look hard for students that come from a wider range of schools, keep a lookout for them, and for talent amongst them. This will truly expand opportunities for more children and offer them more pathways to succeed.

23. I also mentioned earlier that the changing global operating context is demanding a new set of traits for our children to thrive. We want our students to develop into global citizens, to be able to seize opportunities in the global marketplace, and have the disposition and ability to work with people from different cultures.

24. We are therefore refreshing our humanities curriculum to deepen our students' understanding of the histories, cultures, and economies of our regional neighbours, and our connections to them. When the situation allows, we will also expose our students to more global opportunities, through more overseas student exchanges and internships, to strengthen our cross-cultural skills and develop the global perspective to seize opportunities both at home and abroad.

25. Speaker Sir, I will like to make a final point about children with special educational needs (or SEN) in Singapore.

26. I visited Grace Orchard School about a month back. It is a Special Education (or SPED) school catering to students with Mild Intellectual Disability and those with Mild Autism Spectrum Disorder.

27. At the school, students were learning daily living skills, such as personal health and grooming, and picking up work-ready skills such as horticulture. But what left an indelible impression on me was how the students interacted with their teachers.

28. As I walked through the corridors and in the canteen, I heard students spontaneously greeting their teachers with exuberance. Individual voices rang out, one shouting "Hello Mrs Goh", another one "Good morning, Ms Low". Excited happy voices. These were not greetings in unison. They were random, all over the place but full of joy. The positive energy and love the students have for their teachers was palpable.

29. And I thought to myself, "Isn't this what the education system is about?"

30. For our children with special educational needs, we will make sure they can access quality and affordable SEN support provisions in both mainstream and SPED schools.

31. We recently worked with six SPED schools to reduce their fees by at least 25% for Singapore Citizens since the start of this year, and will be building more SPED schools over the next few years. Yesterday, I had also announced a new Human Resource package to support our SPED teachers in their career and professional development aspirations.

32. We are also intervening earlier through early intervention programmes in preschools and for those with moderate to severe developmental needs, through the early intervention programme for infants and children.

33. We will also actively look for ways to foster purposeful interaction between students with and without SEN to create a truly inclusive environment. Some examples include satellite partnerships between the mainstream and SPED schools, combined teams at the National School Games, and joint OBS camps.

34. But over and above all that, our children at Grace Orchard School taught me something and reminded me of what education is really about. Education is not preparation for life; education is life itself. Where our children grow up feeling loved, treasured and supported. Where they grow up confident and passionate about learning and life. Where they are seen for who they are and not what they can or cannot do. We ourselves hold the keys to building a fair, just and inclusive society – through our efforts in our children's education.

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