Speeches/Interviews

September 12, 2012

Keynote Address by Mr Heng Swee Keat, Minister for Education, at the Ministry of Education Work Plan Seminar, on Wednesday, 12 September 2012 at 9.20 am at Ngee Ann Polytechnic Convention Centre

Dear Colleagues and Friends of MOE,

Good Morning.

Introduction

I hope that each year we come together to take stock of what we have done and reflect what we want to do in the future. I hope that my speech reflects what we want to do as a fraternity, as well as for the best for every child.

As you can see from the video, we have made much progress over the past 15 years. I want to pay tribute to all of you - teachers, school leaders, parents, MOE officers past and present - who have supported us.

I would also like to welcome two new members to our senior team: Ms Indranee Rajah, who will be joining us as Senior Minister of State from 1 November, and Ms Chan Lai Fung, Permanent Secretary (Education Policy) who joined us on 1 April this year. Please join me in welcoming them to the Ministry.

Let me also express our gratitude to two members in our senior management team: Mr Lawrence Wong, our Senior Minister of State for Education; and Ms Yeoh Chee Yan, our Permanent Secretary (Education Development).

SMS Wong has been with us for only a year-and-a-half, but he has contributed significantly as Chairman of the Committee on University Education Pathways Beyond 2015 (CUEP) and also in pre-school education, an area in which government will be investing much more.

Ms Yeoh joined MOE in 2008. She played a central role in implementing the Primary Education Review and Implementation (PERI) Committee recommendations, the introduction of the School Based Financial Assistance Scheme and more recently, the setting up of the Singapore-Industry Scholarships. She has helped to improve career schemes and professional development opportunities for teachers, including the setting up of teacher academies like the English Language Institute of Singapore.

Both of them will be leaving us to take up positions in the new Ministry of Culture, Community, and Youth from 1 November. Thank you for your valuable service to education, and we wish you all the best.

Today, we have a high performing education system built on strong fundamentals. We have made deliberate and sustained efforts to innovate.

Our system is well regarded by many leading educators all over the world. Textbooks based on our curriculum are now used in 39 countries, and translated into seven languages.

More importantly, we equip our students with strong foundations for lifelong learning. We provide them with multiple pathways to develop their potential. We are a system of high peaks and high averages. We support all our students, the exceptionally talented as well as the average, the scholastically inclined as well as those with other talents.

It is testament to the quality of our system that people from around the world come to Singapore to hear about how we nurture all our students. We may have made great strides, but we cannot take our Singapore Story for granted. We must continue to be reflective and forward-looking, and we must be prepared to be bold, to sow the seeds of future success.

Towards Student-Centric, Values-Driven Education

In the last year or so, we focused on three key areas. We tackled the issues at the two bookends of our system - university places and preschool. We will be making significant changes in both areas. The third area relates to our theme at the MOE Work Plan Seminar (WPS) last year - a student-centric, values-driven education, with every school a good school.

I am very heartened by the overwhelming support from parents, school leaders and teachers. For this WPS, I will speak on the values and ideals that will guide our effort. I will focus on four key attributes of a Student-Centric, Values-Driven Education. First and foremost,

  • Every Student, an Engaged Learner”; regardless of background or ability.

To support this, we will need:

  • Every School, a Good School”;
  • Every Teacher, a Caring Educator”; and
  • Every Parent, a Supportive Partner”.

Every Student an Engaged Learner

Every Student an Engaged Learner is based on our core belief that every child can learn - not just in school, but for the rest of his life. As educators, we want to nurture engaged learners who are motivated, enjoy learning, and go on to fulfil their potential. There are three key areas that we will work on to make every student an engaged learner: ignite the joy of learning, provide learning support where necessary, and design multiple pathways to suit different learning styles.

Ignite the Joy of Learning

First, ignite the joy of learning. As the French philosopher Simone Weil said, “The joy of learning is as indispensable in study as breathing is to running”. It is easy to speak about the joy of learning. In practice, learning can be hard because it requires effort. Like a baby learning to walk: he must stumble, pick himself up, and try again and again. Adults need to provide support, but not so much that we stop the baby from trying.

The joy comes from trying, from a sense of “I can do it!” It comes from having a sense of mastery; of having an almost-Eureka moment that “I have done it!” It is a joy that comes from overcoming challenges, after trying once, twice, three times, or whatever it takes. Small successes can build on one another. They enhance a child’s natural curiosity and sense of wonder. I firmly believe that it is this sense of wonder, this perseverance, and this sense of mastery that will make each of us a lifelong learner. We must therefore help every child build confidence, as he progresses through more and more difficult tasks. Because each child progresses at a different rate, we must have multiple pathways for them to make progress. At every stage, we must have the right amount of challenge relative to the ability of the child - not so much as to overwhelm, and not so little as to bore. Getting this balance right is very difficult.

Adults need to be affirming - but affirm the right thing. Many psychological studies have shown that if we affirm by praising the child for being smart, the child stops trying as he fears that failure will make him look ‘stupid’, but if we affirm his effort, the child will go on to try harder tasks.

But notice how often as adults, we speak of ‘smart kids’ rather than ‘spunky kids’. We must also know when not to interfere, for if we hand-hold or spoon-feed we destroy the spirit of inquiry and independent learning.

Pre-school Provides the Foundation for Learning

We must therefore start right, and start young. A good pre-school education, especially in the kindergarten years, provides the foundation for learning. Rather than “schoolify” pre-school, we must focus on what would be relevant to teach at that stage. Education is a lifelong journey, not a short sprint. Pre-schools should use play to stimulate the learning of languages and social-emotional skills. It should be purposeful and fun, invoke a sense of curiosity and seed a love for learning.

Primary School

Similarly, the primary school years will start with active learning, incorporating many elements of play. Our Programme for Active Learning (PAL), for Primary 1 and Primary 2 students, using art, music and physical activities, and our Strategies for English Language Learning And Reading (STELLAR) programme are significant innovations. They are enabling our students to build the right foundations in creative and enjoyable ways.

Some parents are asking what should be learnt at kindergarten, what a child entering Primary 1 should be able to do, and whether primary schools stream and rank children entering Primary 1 according to their abilities.

The Interface between Kindergarten and Early Primary School

MOE will address the interface between kindergarten and early primary school years in detail, when we issue guidelines on the curriculum framework for pre-school education by the year’s end. Our goal is clear - to help our children build a good, age-appropriate foundation, stimulate their curiosity and develop their sense of confidence.

On streaming at Primary 1, our policy is clear - there should not be streaming or examinations at that stage. The pace of teaching should also be guided by the syllabus and not by how much the children already know. Otherwise we will have an upward spiral where over-teaching in the classrooms results in parents over-preparing their children before Primary 1, which will in turn lead to further over-teaching. If there are children who know the material ahead of what is expected, we should let them buddy others, so that they can learn to empathise and share.

More generally, across all levels, we will continue to help our children become engaged learners through different pedagogical approaches such as inquiry-based and field-based learning. Outside of the classroom, they will also be engaged through their co-curricular activities (CCAs). I hope many will come to appreciate the joy of learning.

Provide the Right Learning Support

The second way to ensure every learner is an engaged learner is to provide the right learning support. Learning support is particularly important for those who come from less advantaged backgrounds.

The support must start early, which is why we must invest more in pre-school education.

It must continue in our primary schools. We need to identify those who need our help early, so that the child does not fall so far behind and become discouraged. Our Learning Support Programme (LSP) for English language, Learning Support for Mathematics (LSM), and our school based remediation for dyslexia are progressing well. We will build on these to help more learners, look into better ways of identifying students with other special needs, and work closely with special education (SPED) schools to complement each other.

In our primary schools, we now have 64 Student Care Centres, and we hope to have an additional 20 by the end of next year. These school-based centres are providing good support.

We have also strengthened support for students from low-income backgrounds by enhancing MOE’s Financial Assistance Scheme and our bursaries for students of Institutes of Higher Learning.

But more can be done. A group that we are particularly concerned with are those who are not making sufficient progress. We are reviewing how we can better support them so that even more among them can go on to post-secondary education.

Design Multiple Pathways to Cater to Diverse Learning Styles

Third, for every student to be an engaged learner, we need to cater to their diverse interests and learning needs, through multiple pathways and options, with different modes of learning. For the more hands-on learners, our first Specialised School for Normal (Technical) students, will start next year. Crest Secondary School will have a customised curriculum, and partnerships with the Institute of Technical Education (ITE). The second school will start in 2014. For Normal (Academic) students, the Polytechnic Foundation Programme will commence next year. There will also be more places in the ITE Direct Entry Scheme. More schools will also be offering the Integrated Programme from next year.

At the system-wide level, we are seeing more pathways across the system. Our polytechnics and ITE remain the gems of our system, and signal our commitment to enabling every student to succeed, according to the way he or she learns best. Next year, ITE College Central will open its brand new campus in Ang Mo Kio, completing the transformation of ITE to “One ITE System, Three Colleges”. SIM University (UniSIM) and the Singapore Institute of Technology (SIT) will be our fifth and sixth universities, with applied and professional pathways. There will also be many more part-time courses across our system to support continuous education for adult learners. All these provide opportunities for engaged learners throughout their lives.

To see how our institutions are providing opportunities, consider Vickneshwaran. Vickneshwaran attended ITE College West, where he graduated with a Higher Nitec in Mechanical Engineering. Though he did well enough to have gone to a polytechnic, he chose to take up ITE’s Technical Engineer Diploma (TED) in Machine Technology and joined a Singapore firm immediately after graduation.

His Group Managing Director had this to say about him, “Vicknesh surprised us with novel, unthought-of ideas… demonstrated immediate flexibility by showing a willingness to run shifts…and led a number of productivity improvement projects that yielded impressive results.”

People like Vickneshwaran re-affirm that we are doing something right. He is seeking to develop new skills, and not just going for qualifications. Employers have told us that they value people like him, who may not have the best academic results, but have a holistic set of skills.

The Most Critical Part: Character and Values

The most critical part, and a test of every student an engaged learner, is how committed a student is in developing the values and character that will enable him to succeed in life and contribute to others. Knowledge and skills can become outdated, but a mature social-emotional core, deep values and strength of character will enable our children to continue to thrive as they grow. It is not cognitive skills alone, but character traits of empathy, graciousness, responsibility and integrity that will enable our kids to succeed.

A strong sense of citizenship will drive them to come together to write the next chapters of the Singapore Story. That is why we must sustain our efforts in Character and Citizenship Education (CCE).

The Importance of Character

As I mentioned last year, CCE is going to be the hardest subject to teach. It will require conviction: every teacher in every school needs to take it seriously.

In the past year, we worked with eight schools to prototype different ways of delivering CCE. I am heartened by what I have seen and heard so far, and would like to thank these eight schools.

In one school, Punggol Secondary School, teachers planned lessons to enable students to put their Values in Action (VIA) in real-life situations. Students progress through different levels in situations involving the school, the larger community, the nation, and the world. Secondary 4 and 5 students mentor younger students. Because these were real situations with real people and real consequences, students learnt how to see from different perspectives and make responsible decisions.

Besides these eight schools, many more have started innovative practices on their own.

I visited Yuan Ching Secondary School recently, and was impressed by how they take a whole-school approach to inculcate values and character. Once a term, the school involves all students in making decisions on a range of issues relating to their school experience. This is a structured process facilitated by student leaders. They discussed, for instance, the rules for bringing and using Mobile Phones, and behavioural indicators for their school values.

Telok Kurau Primary School, for instance, uses its school mascot, Richie the bear, to highlight and profile positive values amongst their students. Let us take a look.

I am glad that within just a year, so many schools have made significant progress to deliver CCE in meaningful and engaging ways. No one is sitting still. I am told that principals too have been personally observing CCE lessons. I am heartened by our school leaders’ personal commitment.

MOE is now consolidating the diverse inputs from our schools, and the new CCE curriculum will be implemented from 2014 onwards. We will announce details of this later.

The next phase of our CCE efforts will also include parents, as they are critical partners.

When I visited Temasek Secondary School, I learnt that its Secondary 1 students practise “Home Community Involvement Programme (CIP)”. Students have to do household chores and get their parents to sign off on them. This is a good way to reinforce that good deeds must start at home.

I also discovered that the students learn empathy through “Circle Sharing”, where they bring items that are meaningful to them to share with the group. One student, Jinson, showed his school bag which he had been using for over a year. It looked brand new. In fact, this bag had been bought by his mother much earlier, but he could not bear to use it until his old bag till it was completely worn out. He wanted to use the new bag till the end of secondary school. He explained that his mother had saved up money with great difficulty to buy him the bag. It is wonderful to have such appreciative children.

In another session, a boy brought a soft toy, and shared that this soft toy was given to him by his mother who was very ill. She told him that it was a way for him to remember her by. Sadly, she passed away soon after. Many students cried after hearing this. Through these sharings, the many children in the group learnt a thing or two about love and empathy, and care for family and other people. These are deep and powerful lessons.

In the coming year, we will continue deepening the social-emotional learning of our students. The more our students learn about empathy and concern for others, the better they can appreciate not just others, but they themselves. Many adolescents in particular go through a tumultuous period in their teenage years. They are at the threshold between childhood and adulthood. Through stronger pastoral care and educational and career guidance, we can help them navigate this difficult journey and find their way forward.

Every School a Good School

To enable every student to be an engaged learner, Every School has to be a Good School. Some have asked me, “Minister, is this possible?”

To reiterate, a “good school” is one that:

  • Nurtures Engaged Learners;
  • Enables Teachers to be Caring Educators; and
  • Fosters Supportive Partnerships with parents and the community.

Indeed it is possible. And each of our schools is good in its own way - as long as we continue to take into account the unique needs and abilities of our students. Let us build on our strengths and strive to do even better.

Abolishing School Banding by Absolute Academic Results

For many years, we published the academic bands of our schools to spur them to higher standards. Now when I ask our school leaders, many of you have told me that we now have interesting and innovative programmes across all our schools. School banding has not only served its purpose; it now gets in the way of “Every School a Good School” as it creates a public perception that MOE measures our schools strictly by academic grades.

I am pleased to announce that from this year onwards, we will abolish the banding of schools by their absolute academic results. The fact is there is no single yardstick to measure how “good” our schools are. To give parents more comprehensive information on our schools, we have enhanced our School Information Service. Parents can now search for schools based on a range of attributes such as distance, CCAs, niche areas and special programmes.

New Way to Recognise Schools

To strengthen our schools’ focus in delivering a student-centric values-driven education, we will re-align our excellence and recognition framework.

Today, we have two schemes to encourage schools to achieve excellence - the School Excellence Model (SEM), and the Masterplan of Awards (MoA). These are useful schemes. The SEM is an accountability measure, put in place of the School Inspection system. This is important especially in light of school autonomy and thus ownership by the principals. It is a self-evaluative tool designed to help schools plan and evaluate their programmes in a holistic manner. The MoA was also designed to recognise schools for their various achievements.

However, both have led to much administrative work for schools, and fuelled public perception that schools are chasing awards.

Having studied this for over a year now, we will make a major change. We will instead have a clear, simple framework to achieve and recognise school excellence.

New Way of Recognising Schools and Revised School Excellence Model

We will replace the MoA with a new way of recognising schools and their best practices. The stacking effect has been reduced with the removal of the highest tiered award, the School Excellence Award (SEA), and the lowest tiered Achievement Awards (AA), and Sustained Achievement Awards (SAA).

We will instead recognise Best Practices in the key attributes that contribute to a good school:

  • To nurture “Every Student an Engaged Learner”, we will recognise Best Practices in Teaching and Learning, Character and Citizenship Education, and Student All-Round Development.

  • To support “Every Teacher a Caring Educator”, we will recognise Best Practices in Staff Development and Well-Being.

  • And to enable “Every Parent a Supportive Partner” we will recognise Best Practices for Partnerships.

  • These are not areas new to schools - they are already covered in the existing School Excellence Model. The School Distinction Award (SDA) will remain, to recognise schools that have achieved all-round school excellence, based on the School Excellence Model. These schools will be well-placed to help other schools to become better.

We will also be reducing the number of performance measures in the SEM by half. The changes will reduce workload on reporting. More importantly, the new framework helps sharpen our schools’ focus on putting students at the core of their daily work, and on having educators and parents work together in this collective undertaking.

As the name “Best Practices” suggests, the goal is to share and learn. We should be generous in sharing, and humble in learning. To facilitate this, we will set up an online repository of Good School Practices.

Niche Schools

For every school to be a good school, we cannot have cookie-cutter schools. Let us aim for diversity among our schools, each with its own niche area and peak of excellence. In fact, many schools are developing interesting niche programmes ranging from Visual Arts at St. Anthony’s Primary School, to Wushu at Hong Wen School, and Environmental Education at Woodgrove Secondary School.

Allow me to show you a video of Hougang Primary School, which has made Outdoor Activities a part of their school identity.

As you can see, such an experience offers the students something quite different from what they can experience in the classroom. These are important ways to connect with our students and help them build social-emotional skills

Today, 191 or about half of all schools have a niche area. Going forward, we will further expand this. MOE will now aim for every school to have a recognised niche. We will make an important investment, and over the next 5 years, MOE will commit a total of $55 million to enable every school to build its own niche.

Needs-Based Resourcing

We are also reviewing how we allocate resources to schools. Currently, schools are allocated budgets and teachers in proportion to their student enrolment. To help schools better cater to every student, we are studying a needs-based approach to resourcing.

  • First, we will be looking at allocating more resources to help low progress students. For students with weaker foundations, more individual attention can help them. We can give these schools the resources to pilot intervention strategies, especially for those who are weak in literacy and numeracy.

  • Second, we will look at allocating more resources for low enrolment schools. These schools do not have the economies of scale, unlike larger schools. Allocating more resources would allow students in these schools to enjoy a wider range of school programmes and CCAs.

We will announce details on this later.

Good Schools Collaborate and Support Each Other

To make all schools even better schools, there must be Excellence with Collaboration. Schools that have achieved excellence have done well for their students. But this excellence must percolate throughout our system. They should share best practices so that other schools can also improve.

Schools conferred the School Distinction Award this year have indeed shown this collaborative spirit. For example, Kranji Secondary School organises National ICT Sharing sessions annually, Nan Hua Primary School shares its experiences as a 21st Century Competencies prototype school, Fairfield Methodist School (Primary) shares best practices in English language and CCE and Keming Primary School shares on Holistic Development, assessment, and reporting. I would like to congratulate these schools, and look forward to more such sharings.

Every Teacher a Caring Educator

The third attribute is, Every Teacher, a Caring Educator. Ultimately, no education system can be better than the quality of its teachers. Every teacher, a caring educator, is our short hand for saying that our teachers lead, care and inspire.

Who are Caring Teachers?

A caring teacher is one who believes that every child can learn, and acts on that belief. He is able to connect with and motivate the child - know the child, shape the child’s values and character, help the child grow as a person and bring out the best in the child. A caring teacher is also a skilful teacher - one who masters her content, and is able to engage students through thoughtful planning and skilful execution.

I know it is not easy to be a caring teacher. As a system, we set high standards in our recruitment and development. However, to have all 33,000 teachers meeting high professional standards consistently is no mean feat. From time-to-time, we do have teachers who do not live up to their high calling and who disappoint us. We must and will take cases of educators’ misconduct seriously so as to maintain public trust. We must uphold the ethos and values of the profession so that it continues to command respect. The vast majority of educators uphold high professional standards and we must aspire to enable every teacher to be a caring and competent teacher.

Much has been done in the last few years to deepen the ethos of the teaching profession, and to enable teachers to grow in their profession. Let me outline three things we are doing and will continue to do.

Care for Our Teachers

Firstly, to have teachers who care, we must care for our teachers. Not just school leaders, but parents and our community at large must support our teachers. On my part, I will fully support teachers who act professionally; provide recognition and signal the value we place on the teaching profession.

Many of our teachers have shared with me the challenges that you face at the front line. Many of you are torn between tending to your own children, and tending to your students who you care deeply for as well. We understand this and regularly review our Human Resource (HR) policies to better meet the needs of teachers for work-life balance. For example, as teachers do not have annual leave, we have provisions for teachers to go on urgent leave if necessary. For teachers who need to take longer absences beyond six months, MOE deploys up to 1,000 replacements at any one time to ensure that their duties are adequately covered. But it is still not easy. Teaching is not a nine-to-five job, and many of you feel bad getting your colleagues to cover your duties as they have their own responsibilities. The more caring our educators, the more stressed they feel.

There may also be some unevenness and misconceptions in the implementation of performance management which causes unnecessary stress. In this regard, HR will look into how performance management could be improved.

In addition, schools can exercise greater flexibility in meeting the needs of their staff. There are many examples of this already happening. One school I visited allows teacher with young children to report later to school, so they can send their children to pre-school. With the support of caring colleagues, school leaders and parents, I hope that we can accommodate more such arrangements on a case-by-case basis.

Many parents, teachers and even students have suggested that we have smaller class sizes. Let me share a story. When I visited Unity Primary School last year, I was told that they had planned for me to be a teacher for a day, in a Primary 4 Critical Thinking class. A few minutes after I entered the classroom, the teacher turned to me and said “Over to you, Minister!” Immediately, a child raised his hand and said “Minister, can we reduce class sizes?” I told the class that we could have smaller class sizes, but we would then need more teachers. We have to pay our teachers, so I asked them where we could get the money from. They had interesting answers - one said ERP, another said GST, and a third said Income Tax. I then asked them who would pay these taxes. They looked at each other, and one of them said “Our parents”. I then asked them who would pay for these taxes in 20 years’ time. They looked a little puzzled, thought about it for awhile, and then said “us”. So I said: What if we halved their teachers’ pay, so we could get twice the number of teachers? The students spontaneously said, “No, that would be unfair! Our teachers work very hard and they have families.” I must say that the teachers around me and the Principal all looked very relieved!

When I asked them what else could be done, one very thoughtful child stood up and said, “Some of us learn faster than the others. We can help to teach them.” I was very touched by this visit. It showed me how much the students cared for their teachers. This thoughtful child who raised this suggestion also got me thinking about how we can encourage more collaborative learning; for those who learn faster can indeed teach those who learn slower. This can encourage empathy and concern for others.

More fundamentally, class size is not a silver bullet. It is an over-simplification to think that smaller class sizes alone can significantly improve the quality of learning. It is not just about the budget, but the determining factor remains the quality of teachers. There are trade-offs. If we were to expand the teaching force to reduce class sizes, we will need more teachers and quality will drop.

Now, one other critical fact is that our overall pupil-teacher ratio (PTR) is not an unfavourable one. We are similar to the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) norm. Our PTR is just below 18 for primary schools and 15 for secondary schools, while the OECD average is about 16 and 14 respectively. But recognising that different schools have students with different profiles and different needs, we have chosen to give schools the flexibility to deploy their teachers in areas of most need, rather than to go for an across-the-board reduction in class size. Some schools have more challenging student profiles, and as I mentioned earlier, we are studying how we can better do needs-based resourcing. So let us allocate resources where we can make the greatest impact.

Continue to Raise the Quality of Our Teachers

Secondly, we must continue to raise the quality of our teachers. Our high quality teaching force is equal to the best in the world but we must keep up with changing demands. Dealing with the explosion of knowledge, the need to nurture character, and engaging and connecting with students are just some of these.

Last year, we introduced the TEACH framework to strengthen the professional culture and provide flexible work arrangements for the teaching fraternity. This year, we launched the Teacher Growth Model to encourage teachers to take ownership of their professional growth. I am encouraged by how quickly our educators have taken the lead to develop a culture of professional excellence. Nevertheless, we will also need to better support our school leaders as individuals and as a leadership team, to meet expanded and more complex demands.

Build Up a Strong Core of Mentors

Thirdly, to have a leading teaching force, we must build up a strong core of mentors for our younger teachers. These include school leaders, master and lead teachers, and specialists.

Eight years ago, we first announced our intention to expand the teaching force. I am happy to announce that we have just reached our full complement of 33,000 teachers, recruiting both fresh graduates and mid-career professionals.

Today, a quarter of our teachers are below the age of 30 and have less than 5 years of experience. Some of our new teachers are still finding their feet. I am heartened that the Academy of Singapore Teachers (AST) has piloted the Skilful Teaching, Enhanced Mentoring (STEM) programme in 30 schools. This programme is doing well and we will scale this up.

I encourage more of our experienced teachers to step forward and develop the younger generation of teachers. We must pass down, from one generation to the next, the skills and the ethos of the teaching profession, to make Every Teacher a Caring Educator.

Every Parent a Supportive Partner

The fourth attribute I will touch on is Every Parent a Supportive Partner. Parents are a child’s first teachers. Parents are our most important partners. Teachers cannot be surrogate parents. I hope parents value teachers as their partners too.

Teachers are often anxious about dealing with demanding parents. I understand because I have met some myself.

I recently had a father who came to see me for help. He began his comments with a string of expletives about the teachers in his son’s school. With such an attitude in front of me, I could only imagine how he would be like in meeting our teachers. I told him quite firmly that if he wanted us to help him, he must help himself. There is absolutely no reason and no excuse for bad behaviour.

More recently, we had a mother who filed a police report and went to the media, aggrieved that her son’s $60 haircut was ruined by his teacher. The simple fact is that the son was reminded, over and over again, to trim his hair; and when that failed, the school sent a letter to the parent. The mother’s response was that her son was dyslexic and therefore forgetful. Dyslexic people are not forgetful. As one writer put it in a media commentary, by raising such a hullabaloo, “the mother… did herself and her son no favours”.

If parents do not show graciousness to others and respect for rules, our young will not do so either. Soon, discipline will be eroded, the tone in our schools will deteriorate, and the tone in our society too. Good people will be deterred from joining teaching.

Once the ethos in a school is lost, it is hard to recover. It is already happening in many schools around the world. Who suffers? Our students, and future generations of students, who just want a good education. We must take a firm stand against unreasonable demands.

Thankfully, the vast majority of our parents are supportive partners. But among them, there is a broad range of parenting styles and a wide range of needs. I have come across many who are well-meaning, who love their children, but do not know what to do.

When I visited MacPherson Primary School, a parent told me about his experience during a “Dads for Life” program. At the end of the session, parents had to stand behind a curtain and say the words “I love you” and their kids had to identify them. This dad shared with me that he was quite distraught because other parents only had to say “I love you” once, but he had to repeat himself before his son could identify him! He reflected on it and realised that he had never said “I love you” to his son. It was a transformational moment for him, and he never looked back. His relationship with his son had improved, and his son had gone on to do very well.

On the other hand there are those who are much too involved, and push their children too hard. Ms Tan Beng Luan, a pre-school principal in Singapore made similar observations in an article in Lianhe ZaoBao a few months back. She has been a pre-school principal for over 15 years, and observed that many pre-schoolers were more clumsy and fragile than before. Many parents, afraid that their kids would fall, stopped them from crawling and roaming around and used baby walkers instead. In Primary Schools, many parents are seen carrying their children’s school bags, and dropping them off right at the doorstep of the school

She also shared the story of how a father let his three-year old daughter pick a place for dinner each night. He wanted her to learn about freedom of choice. But one night, he could not accommodate her choice as he had to work. And she threw a big tantrum. When teaching her, he forgot that freedom to choose must come with respect for others.

Ms Tan noted that if we want to nurture students to become resilient, responsible, and perseverant adults, we must reflect on how as parents, we must allow them to pick themselves up when they fall and not to cry, to settle disputes among their fellow students on their own, and to learn to do things for themselves.

Let me add - this is not a uniquely Singaporean problem. Ms Madeline Levine has written a book about how some American parents are doing too much, depriving their children of a chance to grow up.

I have a lot of empathy for parents. Parenting is very challenging - all of us who are parents know that. It is a big and complex subject. Our expectations have gone up, we have less time, and our children are exposed to many more sources of influence. But ultimately, parents and educators share the same goal - to bring out the best in our children. So let us work together in partnership. MOE will be doing three things.

Firstly, a new Parents in Education (PiE) website will be launched today. We want to help parents help their children, and make learning something that the whole family can be involved in. This website will include resources such as parenting tips, educational news, and learning resources for parents. We will continue to get feedback from parents to improve on this, and provide additional resources that would best serve their needs.

Secondly, we provide resources to enhance parent-school partnerships. Earlier this year, MOE introduced the Parent Support Group (PSG) Fund. In addition, 15 Primary Schools received the Parents in Education (PiE) fund initiated by Emeritus Senior Minister Goh Chok Tong. We will provide our schools with a Partnerships Resource Pack to guide them in this effort. I thank parents, school leaders, teachers, and COMPASS members for giving their inputs on the making of this resource pack.

When I met Ngee Ann Secondary’s PSG, they were extremely pleased with the PSG funds. They excitedly told me about how they had used the funds to organise a range of activities. What I am most impressed by is that many PSG members continue to be active in the school PSG even after their children have graduated. It is a way for them to work with other parents to create a rich and supportive network in the school connecting Parents, Teachers, and Students.

Thirdly, we believe that this conversation of supporting each other and informing each other on parenting tips is best done among parents. We have thus been expanding our engagement sessions with parents so that they can have a conversation with each other on what are some of their best practices.

Over the past year, our Senior Parliamentary Secretaries and COMmunity and PArents in Support of Schools (COMPASS) have also been engaging parents. One of these parent engagement sessions was led by Senior Parliamentary Secretary Hawazi Daipi. Parents responded very positively, learnt from each other and contributed some great ideas. Let me share a short video with you.

Working Together to Deliver the Best for our Children

In the spirit of this partnership, let me now pull together the four inter-related attributes of a student-centric, values-driven education, to comment on the vexing issue of homework, examinations and stress. One mother told me recently, “Mr Heng, there is not a mother in Singapore who is not stressed about her child’s education.” And indeed, some dads are too.

I have spent the last one year or so discussing this with educators, parents and students. It seems to me that the sources of stress are multiple. For some, it is excessive homework and CCAs. For others, it is extra assessment books, tuition and enrichment classes. Just walk into any of our bookshops and you will see that one of the largest sections is that for assessment books. It is the same in China, Hong Kong and Taiwan. For many, it is expectation and ambition to do one’s best - especially at high stakes examinations.

Comparison with others is also often a source of stress. One student told me that her parents first asked her why she had not gotten into a top school like her cousin. Then when she got 80 marks in a test, her parents asked her why her cousin in a better school got 85. So she worked very hard, and when she got 85, her parents told her that her cousin had now gotten 90! She felt that she had done her best, but it was never good enough. Thankfully, she remained a very cheerful girl.

One father, who met me on a Saturday morning, told me that his daughter had to stay in school till 4 pm on 3 days a week - two for extra lessons, one for CCA. As a result, he had little quality time with her. When I asked where his daughter was that Saturday morning, he said, rather apologetically, that he had sent her for an enrichment class. Another complained to me that the school conducted extra lessons during the vacation. I checked and found that it was optional. But he replied “So what? My son has to go otherwise he will lose out. It’s best that MOE scraps the whole thing?” So, while some parents know that extra lessons could take up too much time at the expense of time with the family, they still send their children for tuition and enrichment classes for fear that they may fall behind.

As we deliberate over this issue, it is also useful to learn from the experiences of other countries. One country in East Asia cut curriculum, only to have to restore it a few years later and add more, when standards fell sharply. Another expanded university places so that over 80 per cent of each cohort of students could go to universities. But it did not stop parents from sending children to cram schools so that they could cram well enough to enter one of the top three universities. Their education ministry now has inspectors to ensure tuition centres close by 10 pm. Another education system abolished their equivalent of the Primary School Leaving Examination (PSLE), yet concerned parents are now queuing up to have their three year olds do assessment tests for admission to high end kindergartens. I asked what they assessed, and they said they assessed language skills and motor skills. I heard of one child who could not perform because the test was held during his naptime, and his grandparents were distraught.

Any society which prizes achievements will run into issues like these. Our education system must have sufficient rigour and strength - it must not become soft. The key for us is not to reduce stress to zero, but to strike the right balance. There are no easy solutions, but we in MOE must reflect on what we can do, and do our best.

First, tackle the issue of homework. Last year, we asked schools to issue a homework guideline. We have considered if we should issue a standardised one, across all schools. We decided that a one-size-fits-all guideline will not work. The demand of homework on each child is different. Given the same piece of homework, one child may take half-an-hour, and another child might take an hour or more.

However, schools can do better to coordinate the amount of homework given. Let me share the practice of Jing Shan Primary and Ahmad Ibrahim Secondary, and several other schools. They have a state-of-the-art supercomputer to help them to coordinate and schedule students’ homework. Let me show you this supercomputer: it is a homework board at the back of the classroom. These list the homework, tests, and projects in a given week or month. That way, teachers can coordinate when setting homework to make sure that students are not overloaded on a particular day or week. They also get students to update their individual student handbooks daily so parents know how much homework their children were given. It also allows students to learn to schedule their homework over the week - an important life-skill! These are good practices to manage and coordinate the overall amount of homework given to students, and schools should make this more visible to parents going forward.

I want to emphasise that schools should not be apologetic about giving homework. The studies on this are clear - homework reinforces learning and deepens understanding. But it does not follow that more homework is always better. As in many things in life, if we overdo this, it can be harmful. As a fraternity, let us aim to improve the quality of homework, so that we can assess if students have learnt well, and the areas where we need to reinforce the learning. Homework serves as an important tool for learning and reinforcing learning.

Second, parents will want the best for their children. We cannot stop this. Nor should we. Even for students who are doing well, some will choose to have tuition even if it is not necessary, just to “make doubly sure” as we love to say. Again, this is not uniquely Singapore. In China, one tuition agency had a unique tagline: “you may not be a genius, but you can be a father to a genius!” Now, which father would not want this? In Singapore, we have the opposite advertising.

MOE can do our part not to contribute to the need for tuition. Our schools and our examinations must not be run on the basis that students will have tuition. Some parents complain that our teachers tell the students to seek answers from their tuition teachers. If this is true, we must put a stop to it.

This is not to say that tuition and extra support are not useful for some students. I know many of our teachers sacrifice much personal time to coach students or run remedial and supplementary classes. Students who are weak can benefit from help. However, teachers cannot do everything, and community tuition schemes, like those run by Self-Help Groups, have been useful. Tertiary students have also volunteered their time to help weaker students. In class, there is much value in stronger students helping weaker students, in the spirit of collaborative learning.

But excessive tuition is harmful. If students over-learn, they become bored in class. It also comes at the expense of CCA, which is an indispensable part of holistic development, and time for other pursuits like reading which broadens the mind, and spending time with friends and family.

When students have ‘personal coaches’ for learning, and look for ready answers rather than struggle to understand, it undermines the spirit of perseverance and independence. When they start work, they cannot be running to someone for answers to difficult or unfamiliar issues.

Third, we must not set unrealistic standards for tests and examinations. Anecdotally, some parents have told me that their schools seek to send a message to “wake up” their students who are underperforming, and thus set a harder test or exam. We should not do this. Assessment standards must be appropriate. Studies show that setting tests that are too hard often does not benefit students. It can discourage them and they may lose their interest in learning. MOE will be studying how the level of difficulty of the assessments in our education system can be pitched appropriately and how we can provide better support to schools in setting questions.

There have also been many other suggestions. For example, one MP suggests that MOE should regulate the tuition industry, or our teachers should teach more, or that parents should not do so much. Each of these supposed “solutions” place added expectations on overworked teachers to do more, or on parents to do things that they do not believe in.

MOE must do our part, but it is important for us not to just tackle the symptoms, and MOE will study this in more depth. This is a complex subject tied very much to our values and expectations as a society. But as a first step, I think that it is very important for us to take a step back, to go to the crux of the issue and consider what really matters. I would like to suggest that to start the discussion, we need to ask: What are the attributes that will enable our children to succeed in life? What are our values and ideals as a society? How can our education system help us get there?

The Way Forward: A Conversation to Co-Create the Future of Education

As a nation, we are reflecting on the future that we want to create together. Prime Minister Lee outlined a vision for the next chapter of Singapore that speaks to the ideals of “Hope”, “Heart” and “Home”.

Education must provide “Hope” to the next generation. We must develop students with a “Heart” and a longing for “Home”.

As such, we will today start Our Singapore Conversation on Education. This afternoon, at our breakout sessions, we will engage about 5,000 of our educators in this effort. We will continue this over the next year over multiple platforms, including online. Parents, Students, and our Educators will all take part. I would like to encourage you to take part in these discussions, and to ask the fundamental question: What kind of children do we want to raise?

Let me share with you an email I received two nights ago from a parent who expressed her hopes for her four year old child, when she grows up in 20 years time. Ms Lau wrote, “I hope to see an independent, confident and disciplined young adult who is resilient and positive in times of crisis.”

Conclusion

Before I finish, I would like to introduce you to a special person, Ms Liaw. Her husband was diagnosed with cancer and passed away three years ago. She cared for her ill father-in-law, for 16 years till he passed away this year. From these experiences, she thought to try to take up nursing and work in a hospice. Miss Liaw e-mailed ITE on her interest but also expressed her reservations about her age. To her surprise, ITE replied within three hours to assure her that her age was not an issue. She picked up the forms from ITE, went through a thorough interview, and is now enrolled in ITE. This is a picture of Ms Liaw. She is 50 years old, and taking the National Physical Fitness Assessment (NAPFA) test, which is a course requirement.

I was touched by Ms Liaw, her love for learning, her resilience, and her can-do attitude. Ms Liaw is here with us today, and I would like to say to her that your strength of character and spirit of learning and spirit of service is an inspiration to us all.

I hope that we can help our students become lifelong learners with strength of character like Ms Liaw if we can ensure that:

  • Every Student is an Engaged Learner;
  • Every School is a Good School;
  • Every Teacher is a Caring Educator; and
  • Every Parent is a Supportive Partner.

Let us work together to shape our education system for the future, to best equip our children to write a good next chapter of our Singapore Story. Let us start with Our Singapore Conversation on Education this afternoon.

Thank you.