Speeches/Interviews

December 27, 2019

Address by Mr Ong Ye Kung, Minister for Education, at the Appointment and Appreciation Ceremony for Principals

Colleagues and friends

1. It is my pleasure to join you today at the Appointment and Appreciation Ceremony for Principals.

Tribute to Retiring Educators

2. This annual ceremony is an important event for the education fraternity. It highlights our commitment to build our talent pipeline and for leadership succession. It is also an occasion for us to express our gratitude to principals who have each contributed decades of dedicated service, and served with purpose, pride, passion and professionalism. You have brought out the best in teachers and students, and have upheld yourselves as good role models for the fraternity. Many of you have also gone on to serve in other senior appointments in MOE, as Superintendents and Directors.

3. Let me share a couple of stories to highlight the contributions of our retiring principals. Dr Chin Kim Woon has been the principal of Tao Nan and Pei Chun Public School. He is a firm believer of the importance of culture and tradition, and inculcating strong values, such as humility, respect for elders, hard work and resilience, in our students.

4. At Tao Nan, he set up the Chinese Pedagogy Research Centre to promote the teaching and learning of Chinese and culture. At Pei Chun Public School, he set up a Centre of Excellence for Chinese, and also a Centre of Excellence for Sports to promote sportsmanship, teamwork and perseverance.

5. Mrs Lee Bee Yann was the Principal at Crescent Girls, St Andrew's Junior College and NUS High School. She provided strong leadership in curriculum development, made many bold changes that earned her the reputation as a trailblazer. During the early days of IT Masterplan 1, she envisioned and created a future school at Crescent Girls by harnessing IT for teaching and learning. In NUS High, she encouraged her students to use their knowledge in Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics (STEM) to design solutions to solve societal problems.

6. Today, we express our gratitude to Mr Kiran Kumar Gosian, Mdm Daphne Poon, Miss Windersalam, Mrs Jaswant Sroya, Mr Tan Keng Joo, Mrs Dhillon Awtar Singh, Mdm Doris Ong, Dr Zoe Boon, Mrs Wai Yin Pryke, Dr Chin Kim Woon, Mrs Julia Woo, Mr Tan Chor Pang, Mr Eugene Ong, Mrs Celine Ng, Mr Loh Leong Beng, Mdm Frances Mak, Mrs Yue Yoke Mun, Mrs Lee Bee Yann, Mr Lee Hak Boon and Mrs Wendy Lim. Thank you for your dedication and service.

7. Today, we also welcome and congratulate 21 newly appointed principals and 19 rotated principals. I wish you all the best in your leadership journey ahead, and look forward to you making a difference in many young lives.

Moulding the Future of Society

8. The education system went through many systemic changes over the decades. Past school leaders confronted challenges such as lowering the attrition rate, introducing bilingualism, differentiated learning, and single session. All these are big systemic changes.

9. As society is dynamic and constantly evolving, today, we face a different set of challenges. Globalisation, the advent of social media, a stronger desire for a just and fair society - these are developments affecting countries all around the world, including Singapore, and spurring changes to their education systems.

10. But the education system is both at the receiving as well as giving ends of social changes. This is because in educating our young, we are also shaping their values and attitudes into adolescence and adulthood, and influencing the future character of our society. Of all Government policies, programmes and plans that can shape societal behaviour, education I think it is probably the most powerful, and its effects the most long lasting.

11. Indeed, in our nation building journey, the role of education has been decisive. We inculcated into our young the values of social cohesion and racial harmony. The singing of Majulah Singapura and the reciting of the pledge helped build a sense of nationhood. National Education continues to help our students understand the trials and tribulations of nation building, so that we do not take our self-determination for granted. I still remember many of the moral education lessons I had in primary school that taught us respect for elders, civic consciousness, courage and bravery.

12. It is not just through Character and Citizenship (CCE) lessons that children are exposed to good values, but also through interactions with teachers and principals who served as role models, and observing school practices. Who was praised and for what? Who was disciplined and why? What are the daily rituals? What is the expected behaviour for students? Children will learn from what we role model on a daily basis.

13. For example, my primary school required students to converse in two languages – alternating between English week and Mandarin week. I observed that rule poorly, but because of that practice, I learned the importance of bilingualism and I brushed up on my English.

14. Many of my classmates and I were from humble family backgrounds. But without fail, every month we would queue up and pay our $3 of miscellaneous fees to our form teacher. The teacher would always remind us: what you paid was actually not enough to buy chalk, but still we should contribute a share, however small it was.

15. In running schools, we must uphold the values and attitudes we want to impart in our students. That responsibility falls on the Principal in shaping school ethos and practices. If a school emphasises academic grades above all else, the children will get the message and will likely grow up with that mindset. If the school emphasised the importance of values-in-action or sportsmanship, the child receives a different affirmation.

16. The Principal therefore has a huge responsibility. Today, let me talk about two attributes that are worthwhile for a school to uphold and demonstrate to our students. They are inclusiveness and innovation.

Inclusiveness

17. First, inclusiveness. Inequality is an issue that I have been talking about publicly. My proposal is for Singapore is adopt a broader definition of meritocracy, so that Singaporeans of different aptitudes and talents can progress and do well in life. In closing the gap of inequality, we should not cap the top, but instead, try our best to lift the bottom.

18. But inequality has many dimensions – the gap between the top and bottom, the size of the core in the middle, the churn or mobility between generations, and how well everyone mixes together. The last aspect is important, for we want a casual atmosphere in our society, where Singaporeans of all backgrounds come into contact and socialise freely and regularly.

19. Our education system is one of the key national platforms that foster such social mixing. The friendships forged in school are the threads that strengthen our social fabric over time.

20. Over the years, we have implemented several initiatives to improve the social mix of students across our system. Most recently, we set aside places in P1 Registration Exercise for children with no prior connections to the school, and we also reserved secondary one places for students who do not benefit from affiliation priority. Previously, of all the 27 affiliated schools, we always had a few with less than 20% of non-affiliated students. Based on this year's Sec 1 posting exercise after the new policy has kicked in, all 27 affiliated schools have enrolled at least 20% non-affiliated students.

21. We have broadened the options and opportunities of students to enter secondary schools through the Direct School Admission scheme, and enhanced financial support for students from lower to middle income families, including through the UPLIFT scholarship, to go to Independent Schools.

22. As a result of all our efforts, over the years, there has been a better mix of students from different backgrounds in our schools. One indicator we look at is the number of primary schools that a secondary school's students come from. A higher number means a larger catchment of primary schools, and better mix.

23. One guide that we use is that for every 100 Secondary One students in a school, they should come from 20 or more primary schools. Using the 20 primary school as a guide, we have seen an improvement in the social mix of students across our system.

24. 15 years ago, in 2004, the percentage of non-Integrated Programme (IP) secondary schools that exceed the 20 primary school guide was only 13%. In 2014, that jumped to 46%, and in 2019 this year, it increased to 51%.

25. How about IP schools? Would the mix be better or worse than non-IP schools? When I first asked myself that question, my instinctive answer was worse, because that is how we have always perceived IP schools – more exclusive, less diverse.

26. Well, the converse is actually true. The percentage of IP schools that exceeds the 20 primary schools guide was 43% in 2004, then 76% in 2014. In 2019, it is 88% or 15 out of 17 IP schools that take in students at Secondary One.

27. Let's look at a few specific IP secondary schools. Secondary One students from Hwa Chong Institution came from 88 primary schools in 2014, and in 2019, increased to 100. For Raffles Institution, the number jumped from 93 to 103 from 2014 to 2019. For Raffles Girls' School, 82 to 107 from 2014 to 2019. For Nanyang Girls High School, 83 to 91 over the same five year period.

28. I asked Director-General of Education Siew Hoong what explained this counter-intuitive phenomenon. He said it was actually very intuitive. Parents are increasingly prepared to send their children to neighbourhood primary schools, and as a result, students who are eligible for IP secondary schools come from a more diverse range of primary schools.

29. Better social mixing in school is something we will continue to strive for. The phasing out of streaming to be replaced by Full Subject-Based Banding in secondary schools will have a further and significant impact. Existing platforms such as the annual Singapore Youth Festival, and MOE-OBS Challenge Programme have also been effective in encouraging social mixing.

30. We must not leave social mixing to chance. We need to make it an intentional effort, to design experiences for students so that social mixing informs and shapes their perspectives in and out of school. That has to come from the school leader, who then has to take a moral stand.

Innovation

31. Next, innovation. I am not asking every student to learn coding or AI in order to achieve this. Instead, we need to understand that our education system is evolving all the time because educators have been innovating all the time, and that we must be active participants of this evolution.

32. Education systems develop in phases. We need to know where we are, and what kind of innovation we need, then we embark on the next phase of innovation. We began with the survival phase, where we put resources, infrastructure, facilities, teachers and teaching materials together, to set up a national education system. That was actually a tremendous entrepreneurial effort.

33. Next, we innovated by customising education delivery according to the abilities of students, so that they stay engaged in studies. At that time, it was a killer App that won the battle against high student attrition.

34. We also achieved quantum improvements in standards and consistency of education delivery. The major contributors were a national curriculum, and the professional development of our teachers and educational technology.

35. In the next phase of evolution, we further innovated by diversifying the system to cater to different aptitudes and talents of our students. We created IP schools, NorthLight, Crest, Spectra, School of Science and Technology, Singapore Sports School, and School of the Arts.

36. Many of these changes were driven top down through national policies and centrally coordinated programmes. They have resulted in a fairly centralised but high quality system that has delivered very positive education outcomes by any international standards. We have reached a stage where I think there are no more clear models for us to emulate and adapt, and no ready playbook that school leaders can use. There is no algorithm or SOPs which you can follow.

37. At the same time, decades of progress have led to the build-up of a deep reservoir of capabilities and expertise across schools, individual school leaders and educators. Many have well-informed ideas on how to improve the system further. Others have strong convictions to shape their schools in certain directions.

38. In the next phase of education innovation, we need to harness the expertise, commitment and creativity of our educators, encourage and enable ground up innovation, while retaining the strengths of a centralised system. It requires a certain leap of faith, and we are already taking them.

39. That is why we are seeing so many on-going pilot projects. Recent national initiatives such as Applied Learning Programmes, Full Subject-Based Banding, reduction of examination load, Language Support Programme all started as pilot projects in schools which were prepared to innovate. What they have learned, often through experimentation and setbacks, guided the design of the programmes which were eventually rolled out nation-wide.

40. Many more pilot projects are happening and will happen in our schools. This includes new ways to integrate students with Special Education Needs, deliver better lessons through digital technology, and reorganised CCAs, etc. I am glad that our schools are piloting new practices gallantly, and innovation is alive and buzzing in our education system.

41. So I urge all our Principals – take the leap of faith, and drive a pilot programme. What you learnt through experience, will shape national practice. As for what you did not pilot, be open minded to adopt what others have pioneered.

Conclusion

42. Our education system today is in its most diverse form. And it will become even more diverse, as each school differentiates itself through the convictions, beliefs and innovation of their leaders.

43. In such a situation, it is not possible to rank schools, for each has its own unique strengths and characteristics. It is like how you cannot rank honesty and diligence – both are good but different qualities.

44. Differentiation will further encourage parents to send their children to schools in their neighbourhoods, which further enhances schools as a platform for social mixing amongst Singaporeans of all backgrounds.

45. If we can further strengthen the virtuous cycle of innovation, differentiation and mixing, then we have moved closer to the vision of making every school good in its own way, and being able to bring out the best in every child.

46. Teachers are the pillars of our education system. And school leaders are in turn the foundation upon which the pillars stand. Your role is more important than ever. I would like to thank you for your support in driving all the pilot programmes in recent years and I look forward to working with you closely to explore new possibilities in our education system. Lead your schools well and we are fully confident of your abilities. Thank you.