July 25, 2018
Keynote Address by Minister for Education Ong Ye Kung, at the Economic Society of Singapore Dinner
1. I was invited to this event before the recent Cabinet reshuffle. I hope that the organisers were prepared to let me talk about the portfolio that I would eventually hold.
2. So tonight, I will talk about education. Education today straddles between being a social and an economic ministry, so it should be of relevance to the audience at tonight’s dinner.
Laying Out Key Considerations and Principles Early
3. I believe it is important for a Minister in a new portfolio to speak early in his tenure, to set out his basic thinking and approach, so that in time to come, when policies are reviewed and changed, people can understand where the Minister is coming from That is what I intend to do today.
4. In my case, my appointment coincided with the parliamentary session on the President’s debate and I spoke on the issue of inequality and the social role of education. Education is a social integrator, because national schools provide a shared experience. It is also a social leveler which provides the keys to opportunities. But inequality is a complex issue, with inherent paradoxes.
5. To tackle these challenges, I believe we need to have faith in meritocracy, but make sure it takes a broader form beyond academics, so that students with different talents and strengths can benefit from it. It may take a generation for this broader concept of meritocracy and our effort to evolve and mature, but the journey has begun.
6. We should continue stepping up efforts to address the opportunity gap. Don’t cap the top, but lift the bottom. We should and will do more.
The Central Economic Question in Education
7. Today I would like to switch gears, from addressing the social imperative of education, to focus on its economic role.
8. The central question we face today is: How do we prepare the young people of Singapore for the future?
9. We need to recognise that something fundamental has changed. In the past, once a person had a good education, he would most likely be prepared for his career and the rest of his life. Today, that concept has been disrupted, not by massive open online courses (MOOCs), but by the emergence of lifelong learning.
10. Lifelong learning has become necessary because of rapid technological advancement and continual disruption to industries and the workplace. Whatever you learn in universities or polytechnics will not be enough to last you a career or lifetime.
11. Singapore is probably the only system where Institutes of Higher Learning (IHLs) are now centres for lifelong learning by design, as MOE takes on SkillsFuture as part of its mandate.
12. The need for lifelong learning has given rise to profound discussion on the body of knowledge and skills that a young person needs to have before he or she embarks on their career. What kind of depth? What kind of breadth?
13. Hence around the world, a major reconfiguration of when to learn, and what to learn, is in the works. We hosted an International Academic Advisory Panel a few weeks ago and that was a key question.
14. In that context, what should we teach in schools and in the IHLs? I think the basic scaffold will not change.
15. First, values. Beyond what is taught in schools, values are best caught at home. A vital part of education requires the active involvement of parents.
16. Next, foundational skills, namely literacy, numeracy. If we have to add one more, that would be digital literacy.
17. Beyond that, a range of subjects. Students always ask if they can just study what they are interested in. But education at a young age needs to be multi-disciplinary, to broaden students’ horizons.
18. Finally, essential soft skills. MOE has integrated 21st Century Competencies like communication and critical thinking into the school curriculum – not taught as subjects, but incorporated into the pedagogy. IHLs are also offering an education that is more experiential. In university, you do not just go for lectures – it is an experience. A typical student today will go through internships, overseas exposure, intercultural exposure, and immerse themselves in community work – various experiences you cannot get online.
19. Here, let me highlight two important attributes: First, there must be joy in learning and sustained curiosity. Without it, we cannot be motivated to learn, keep up or stay ahead of changes.
20. Second, there must be an enterprising spirit, or “entrepreneurial dare” (as Minister Ng Chee Meng puts it). Not all of us will run start-ups or be entrepreneurs. Whatever our stations in life, we need to be enterprising, innovative, and able to make things happen. This is the future for Singapore’s growth. Our society needs to have a greater appetite for calculated risks, and tolerance for setbacks and failures.
21. I hope we don’t end up all trying to redesign the education system tonight. It has been painstakingly built up, and is good in many aspects. We have a system that is built on rigour. Our students do very well academically and in PISA tests. It is a system widely admired around the world.
22. But even implementing what I just said – values, foundational skills, multi-disciplinary exposure, 21st Century Competencies with a strong focus on joy of learning and enterprising spirit – is not so easy and it represents a shift of today.
23. To make a shift, we need to grapple with trade-offs and tensions, and make wise choices, bearing in mind the micro-economic and psychological factors at play.
24. We are at the crossroads of education. These choices will set the agenda for education in the coming years.
25. What are these trade-offs? I will outline four today.
Rigour and Joy
26. First, the balance between rigour of education and joy of learning.
27. Rigour is good, because without understanding disciplines deeply, we cannot innovate and create. There is also a valid view that there has to be some difficulty in education, to build up the right attitude to learning and the resilience of students.
28. But there must be moderation in everything. Too much rigour causes burn out, affects mental health, kills the joy of learning and snuffs out any spirit of lifelong learning.
29. So the mantra ‘let students go as far as they can’ cannot be taken to the extreme.
30. MOE Kindergarten teaches 1-10 in its math curriculum. The children learn number bonding through games, but will never see a plus, minus, or a divide sign.
31. Even if you are capable of doing calculus and probability in P3, we will not want to teach you that yet. Even if you graduate with a degree at 16, you are not ready to work because you are a kid.
32. There has to be age appropriateness in teaching, and time for children to have fun and grow up. Reminds me of ‘Good Will Hunting’.
33. One view that is gaining traction is that students have their whole life to learn, so there is no need to frontload so much at a young age. Make education more experiential and enjoyable, learn soft skills, broaden their horizons, allow more general electives, encourage double majors in universities, help students discover their strengths and passions.
34. We have recognised this – in 1998, we reduced 30% of subject content to make room for thinking skills. In 2005, we reduced another 20%, to allow teachers more flexibility to customise teaching to students’ learning needs.
35. Less content does not mean we are developing students any less. In fact, we do this so that there is space to introduce non-academic aspects of education for more holistic development.
36. But now, there is not much scope to trim further, especially when we compare our curriculum with systems in other parts of the world. In fact, several countries already have more stuff in their curriculum than us.
37. The trimming of curriculum over the years has a discernible impact in primary schools. Other than running up to PSLE, I do not sense that primary school students are highly strung. Another possible contributing factor is the MOE guideline of no formal exam until the end of P2. That reduced stress in primary schools, without compromising standards.
38. But beyond primary schools, I doubt parents and students feel the difference. One reason is effort inflation – a lot more effort is put into learning the same or less stuff. This happens not just in our schools, but also time spent on tuition and doing additional tuition homework.
39. So it is not just the curriculum load, but also the assessment load, and tuition load. This may be why although our students do very well academically and in PISA scores, they also register high in test anxiety.
40. Looking ahead, part of our work is to look at ways to try to curb effort inflation, especially for younger students. It is the right thing to do in this era of lifelong learning.
Sharpening vs Blurring of Academic Achievements
41. Second, the trade-off between sharpening and blurring of academic results.
42. Exams and tests are an integral part of education, to evaluate if learning is effective, and to take stock of progress. For that purpose, the scores need not be too defined.
43. However, over the decades, we had sharpened the role of exams, especially PSLE, to differentiate students. Because it was felt this offered a transparent and objective way to decide on admissions at the next level.
44. But this raises the stakes of examinations. And if it becomes too much of a do-or-die, if you feel your whole life depends on this exam, it adds undue stress and needless emphasis. Doing many 10-year series, and cramming in many hours of tuition – that is not for educating the child, but for admission.
45. And that’s not how real life works. We don’t get a promotion, win a contract, clinch a deal or launch a blockbuster by doing supplementary classes and drilling.
46. If the excessive exam preparation time can be freed up to develop the child’s 21st Century Competencies, it will serve his or her future better.
47. A parent wrote to me to say that her daughter’s primary school is not preparing her adequately, so she has to put her child through tuition, so that this little girl can attend a particular secondary school. In her mind, that is the right school for her child.
48. But in the next paragraph, she expressed concern that schools are producing students who are book-smart but not necessarily street-smart, which is more important for the future.
49. As I corresponded further with her, she realised the contradictions and recognised that parents are in a conundrum.
50. And so many parents, myself included, are asking: if we want our children to be more street-smart, should we not cut back on the tuition, and let the child participate in more team-based activities, or just play with friends?
51. We know something has to change, but it is very hard to do so when you are already on the treadmill, or when every other parent is doing it and there is a genuine fear of losing out, come admission exercise.
52. We can’t expect parents and students to just switch mentality. The system needs to respond and send a clear signal.
53. We have moved to aptitude-based admission in polytechnics. Today, be it SIT, SUTD, or SMU, they do not admit students just based on results, but look at the students holistically, through interviews and other assessments.
54. DSA will return to its original spirit of admitting students with talent in specific academic subjects, as well as in sports and the arts.
55. PSLE will move to achievement level banding in 2021. It will reduce the excessive comparison and chasing of the last mark. If students with the same scores are vying for the same school place, we will use tie-breakers and balloting.
56. Today, some local universities use a composite University Admission Score to review applications from Polytechnic graduates, where 80% is their Polytechnic GPA and 20% is their ‘O’ level results. A practice like this will raise the stakes of ‘O’ level examinations. This sends the signal that the results of this exam have long lasting impact on your life. Perhaps it is time to review it.
57. Ultimately, we must reach a consensus: that we still need exams, such as the PSLE which is not perfect, but still the fairest system. But in having such exams, we won’t over-rely on exam scores for admission purposes, and won’t sharpen the results so much to differentiate one child from another. A numerical score may be perceived as objective and transparent – but we may be paying too high a price in terms of stress and killing the joy of learning.
58. If we can accept that there is discretion, some elements outside our control in education postings, we can usher in the start of freeing up much needed space for children to learn what matters, and to enjoy the process.
Customisation versus Stigmatisation
59. The third trade-off is between customisation and stigmatisation.
60. Customisation started in the late 1970s with the Goh Report, prepared by Dr Goh Keng Swee and his team. It triggered a major reform, away from rigid and one-size-fits-all curriculum, to a differentiated curriculum for students who learn at different paces.
61. By tailoring teaching to the needs of students, students have a greater chance to do well, and enjoy their education.
62. Drop-out rates dropped drastically over the decades. Today, practically all students progress beyond primary school and almost all complete secondary school education.
63. Today, we have taken the customisation even further in education, with different secondary school streams, hundreds of courses in ITE, polytechnics and universities to cater to different interests and strengths of students.
64. But we also need to recognise that certain customisations have the unintended result of stigmatisation and labelling by society, which over time becomes demoralising and inhibiting for the students. Hence, the controversial streaming system in primary school was removed.
65. Today, we try very hard to strike a good balance. Where more targeted efforts are needed to address different learning needs in a holistic manner, we create a dedicated school for the students, and sometimes customise the curriculum.
66. For example, NorthLight School, which is under ITE, teaches students hands-on skills, with a lot more guidance, counselling and pastoral care. It is a sanctuary for these students, who mostly come from vulnerable and challenging family backgrounds. And the students are much happier in a school like NorthLight.
67. Crest Secondary School and Spectra Secondary School, have curricula which are practice-oriented and more technical in nature. Students too are a lot happier when there is a whole-school approach to cater to their learning needs.
68. But what we lose is the opportunity for different segments of students to mingle and integrate. So where there are overlaps in the curriculum, we mix the students together, for example, Normal and Express stream students in the same school.
69. But there is a downside to co-location. It can cause comparison, stigmatisation and demoralisation. So we manage this by ensuring that there is first porosity between the streams. So a portion of Normal stream students move to Express stream every year.
70. We created the Polytechnic Foundation Programme, which allows the better performing Secondary 4 Normal (Academic) students to skip Secondary 5 and go straight to Polytechnic. This group of students are doing very well in the Polytechnics. This is the power of motivation. Earlier this year, I announced an expansion of the programme.
71. We also introduced subject-based banding. This means students from Normal and Express streams now take some subjects and classes together. So streaming is increasingly at the subject level, not at the curriculum level.
72. I saw the same arrangement at a secondary school in Switzerland recently. They call it Secondary A, B and C, and students are assigned based on recommendations of their primary school teachers. Once they move to upper secondary, the classes are mixed just like in Singapore, with subject-based banding.
73. We need to continue to strike a balance between letting students learn at their own pace, and staying motivated without stigmatisation. Where possible, we should allow more integration and mingling, without losing the positive impact of customising education.
Skills versus Degrees
74. Fourth, skills versus degrees. There has been much public discourse on this topic since I was appointed Minister in charge of Higher Education and Skills.
75. The media has sometimes framed the trade-off that way, but it is actually a false dilemma. Universities are increasingly recognising the need for students to learn skills, because you can easily Google knowledge, but not skills.
76. At the same time, other types of degrees, such as applied degrees and work-learn study degrees, are introduced to help craftsmen and hands-on professionals upgrade their qualifications.
77. The difficult question we should really ask is: Does a young person necessarily need a degree in order to do well in his or her life or career? A degree certainly helps open doors, especially in Singapore where universities are well-regarded and standards are high. But an academic degree cannot be the only path to success.
78. The talents, passions and aspirations of the young are so diverse. Everyone needs to work hard, advance and excel, in different directions in a multi-path system. Some through academic degrees, some through applied or other forms of degrees, others through skills or professional training outside of universities.
79. Higher education landscape is therefore changing and evolving. It is becoming more diverse, offering many different options and paths. It is putting more emphasis on the demonstrated interests and aptitudes of students, their skills and not just academic achievements.
80. Because of that, Education and Career Guidance has been extended to secondary schools and junior colleges, to help raise self-awareness of students, and help them discover their strengths and interests.
81. Increasingly, employers are looking beyond academic qualifications in hiring and promotions. They are looking for demonstrated skills and competencies. Not just qualifications that suggest that a person may possess those skills and competencies. It may take a while for this human resource approach to be truly widespread. But the macro trends are very clear.
Conclusion – Every School a Good School
82. We have to strike these balances right. It is likely that the right balance in the past is no longer the right balance, and the fulcrum has shifted over time. If we recognise that and make the necessary adjustments, we will raise the quality of our education system further, such that it is not just strong academically, but also instills the joy of learning and an enterprising spirit in our young. The change has already begun.
83. Will that make every school a good school? Let me end my speech tonight with a story.
84. I was at a dialogue a few months ago, with parents and students in attendance. One parent, whose child is studying in a neighborhood primary school in Sembawang, asked how is MOE going to ensure that every school is a good school?
85. I said it is an aspiration and a vision. But if our definition of a good school is Nanyang or Raffles, then the vision will never be fulfilled.
86. I turned to his child and asked, ‘Do you like your school?’ His answer was ‘Yes.’ ‘Are the teachers good and helping you learn?’ ‘Yes.’ ‘Do you enjoy your CCA?’ ‘Yes.’ ‘Have you made good friends and do you all enjoy one another’s company?’ ‘Yes.’ ‘In the morning, when you go to school, are you happy?’ ‘Yes’.
87. I said to the boy ‘Then you are in a good school.’ We must define a good school from the perspective of the child. If a school meets the needs of the child, it is a good school - never mind if it is not popular or branded. Conversely, I have seen students who went to popular schools and were miserable.
88. When the dialogue ended, the boy came to me and said ‘Minister, I feel so inspired after speaking to you. Now I know my school is a good school! Nobody has ever told me that before!’
89. Thank you.