September 25, 2013

Keynote Address by Mr Heng Swee Keat, Minister for Education, at the Ministry of Education Work Plan Seminar 2013, on Wednesday, 25 September 2013 at 9.15am at Ngee Ann Polytechnic Convention Centre

Student-Centric, Values-Driven Education: A Broad and Deep Foundation for a Lifelong Journey

Dear colleagues, a very good morning to all. It is nice to see so many familiar faces here today.

Let me first welcome Mr Neo Kian Hong, Permanent Secretary for Education Development, to the MOE family.

First Day of School

In the last two years, I visited a primary school on the first day of school.

I love to see our children so wide-eyed, curious and eager to learn. There is also always a familiar combination of pride, hope and anxiety on the face of every parent. It reminds me of the time when my own children were of that age, and going to school for the first time.

Many questions ran through my mind. I looked at each child and wondered -

  • What are his aspirations?
  • Will he find success and lead a fulfilling life?
  • What kind of a society will he grow up in, and in turn, will he shape our country for the better?
  • Will he live in a vibrant Singapore and love his home?

Like every parent and every teacher present, I want every child to succeed. And that is where I feel the full weight of my, and your, responsibilities.

Education holds a large part of the answer to many of these questions. What must we do in education to give every child every chance at success? How do we harness the energy and support of our students, parents and teachers?

In short, what will the future hold for our children, and how do we create a better future for them together?

Thinking about the Future

We asked these questions at the year-long Our Singapore Conversation (or OSC) which saw the involvement of almost 50,000 Singaporeans. In MOE alone, we had over 300 sessions, and heard the voices of more than 22,000 students, teachers, and parents. I thank all who took part, and especially our colleagues who were organisers and facilitators.

The national level OSC has allowed us to crystallise our aspirations as a society - one that provides opportunities for Singaporeans to find success in diverse fields and to lead a life of purpose; one that has a strong spirit of togetherness and provides assurance that those in need will be looked after; one with a high level of trust. These are uplifting aspirations that resonate with many Singaporeans.

The MOE OSC helped us to reflect on our education system. Many reaffirmed the important role of education in providing opportunities for all, even as they expressed concerns that we were becoming more stratified as a society. Some worried about the over-emphasis on academics and grades, the increasing reliance on tuition, and the high levels of stress faced by our students, but acknowledged the importance of ensuring our children are well prepared for the rigours of work and life. Some felt that our definition of success needed to be broadened, so that we will value each child for who they are, regardless of what grades they achieve.

As we think about the future of education, I realise that there are some core beliefs which have guided us and will continue to guide us.

  • First, every child can learn, whatever his starting point. We can and must help them find success in learning.

  • Second, every child is different - siblings, even twins, can have very different interests and strengths! Each child will therefore succeed in different ways.

  • Third, our children will need different attributes to succeed in the future, because the world will be different - just as it is dramatically different today from even a decade ago.

  • Fourth, even so, there are enduring values, timeless wisdom and immutable insights on human life and civilisation that we must impart.

  • Fifth, our success in education and our success as a society are deeply intertwined. Even countries with the best education systems may have many unemployed youths. And many youths around the world are mired in conflicts and sectarian violence.

Over the years, these beliefs have guided us in evolving our education system, with teachers working hard to help every student, including those needing extra help or with special needs, and students putting in effort to learn at the appropriate pace, and where a slow start does not preclude eventual success, as long as the student continues to persevere.

Today, over 94% of our students go on to pursue post-secondary education. This is truly remarkable - considering that only 40 years ago, barely 50% moved on to secondary school. And every educator, present and retired, has played a part.

But a better education is a labour of love, a labour that will never be done, because we can always do better!

Mr Leo Yip, Chairman of EDB, recently alerted me that global companies now think about the world using a framework called VUCA, which stands for volatility, uncertainty, complexity and ambiguity. To quote Leo, “To deal with the demands of a VUCA environment, good grades in school are not enough. In fact they might not even be relevant”.

Instead, individuals need to be adaptable and willing to learn. They need to have the confidence to deal with problems that have no clear-cut solutions. And they need to be able to work effectively with others, across races and nationalities, and to communicate clearly.

To create opportunities for Singaporeans in the future, we have to address the demands of the future - and these demands are not merely economic. For a strong social fabric of trust and togetherness, our young must care for one another, and be committed to our collective future.

Ultimately, education is not what we do to our children. Rather, it is what we do with them, and for them, to bring out the best in each of them, so that they grow up to embrace the best of the human spirit - to strive to be better, to build deeper wells of character, and to contribute to society.

In many ways, this is the core of a Student-Centric, Values-Driven education. We started discussing this in Work Plan Seminar 2011, especially with Character and Citizenship Education, and looking into all ways that would put the student squarely at the heart of what we do. Last year, we continued with the attributes of the 4 “Everys” - including “every student an engaged learner” and “every school a good school”. We have all worked hard on realising these attributes, which many of you tell me have become a call to action for our educators.

This year, the same theme of a student-centric and values-driven education will be my focus. I would like to map out what ten years of basic education that is student-centric and values-driven might look like.

Put simply, in the ten years of basic education, we aim for every student to acquire a broad and deep foundation for his lifelong journey.

To unpack this, we can think in terms of Breadth, Depth and Length.

“Breadth” is about:

  • First, it is about valuing every child.

    We must remain Broad and Inclusive in our approach of Providing Opportunities for Every Child, and therefore provide multiple pathways in an open and inclusive system which develops different talents in each child to the fullest. There must be many pathways for all to move up.

  • Second, Breadth is about Giving Each Child a Broad and Holistic Education.

    This will allow them to explore and discover their interests and talents over a wide range of disciplines. A broad knowledge base helps them make connections across different domains of knowledge, and make meaning of their world.

“Depth” is about :

  • First, Deep Values and a Deep Commitment to Singapore.

    In a values-driven education, we must instil in each child a strong core of values and character, and nurture in each a strong commitment to Singapore and fellow Singaporeans.

  • Second, Depth is having a Deep Foundation.

    We must preserve rigour in our education system so that every child develops a strong foundation of literacy, numeracy and 21st century competencies.

“Length” is about :

  • First, Lifelong Learning.

    Learning does not start and end in school. Rather, learning never stops, learning never ends. [学无止境]. At each stage, our student must be enabled to learn in ways appropriate for his age and development levels. Education is a marathon, not a sprint. Let us focus on what matters for the long-haul, and not just what matters for exams. Let us plant in our students the seeds of lifelong learning.

  • Second, Length is also about Learning for Life.

    While we want our students to succeed in their chosen field, life is not just about careers. It is also to unleash our human spirit, to find purpose in life, to explore the truth, beauty and goodness around us, and to contribute towards adding to that, all our life.

Many of you would have received some sticky notes on your way in. I invite you to jot down your thoughts for instance, on how might our schools provide breadth, depth and length in the children’s school experience? I look forward to seeing your ideas.

To achieve this aim, we will need to make some important adjustments in our education system. PM signalled some of the more critical changes at National Day Rally - broadening of PSLE scoring and greater flexibility in subject offerings for our students in their secondary years. I will speak more on this later.

What do these changes serve to achieve?

A young mother wrote to me and shared her ideal education journey for her little girl. Taking inspiration from this let me try and paint ONE possibility of a child’s journey in their first 10 years of school. I invite you to imagine even better ones.

10 Years of a Broad and Deep Foundation for a Lifelong Journey

Primary School: Acquiring a strong foundation, Discovering interests and strengths

Picture this: a 6-year-old steps into his Primary 1 class, fresh out of kindergarten, perhaps one of our MOE kindergartens! He loves his new primary school, not far from his block of flats.

He meets his peers from all walks of life, makes friends just the way his kindergarten teachers and his parents taught him to. Every day, as he grows in his primary school, he gains depth in a strong core of values and foundation in literacy and numeracy, and breadth in a wide range of learning experiences across a broad-range of disciplines. His teachers open up a world of exciting activities in the Programme for Active Learning (PAL), and PE, Art and Music lessons, and through them, he begins to discover his interests and strengths. He spends many joyful (and sweaty!) hours in the indoor sports hall and dance studio.

Like his friends, he is better in some subjects than others. So, in his upper primary years, he offers a combination of standard level and foundation level subjects, and learns happily at a pace that challenges him but yet allows him to experience success and be affirmed for his efforts. Sometimes he struggles with learning, but his teachers are very experienced and very caring, and he perseveres and improves steadily. There is homework to do, but it is carefully planned and paced to support his learning.

Lessons are lively and interesting; he gets to ask questions, puzzle over experiments, and there’s the wonderful MOE online learning space which his teacher encourages him and his friends to explore. In no time at all, because he knows his way around technology, he gets down quickly to checking out its many fascinating learning tasks.

The teachers also give additional support to his friends who start Primary One from a lower base, or who have learning difficulties and special learning needs, like dyslexia. There are even specially trained teachers and allied educators to develop interesting literacy and numeracy programmes! These comprehensive levelling up programmes are in every primary school - he knows this, because his cousin attends them in another school!

He knows, also, that if his family goes through difficult financial times, there will be financial assistance, as well as socio-emotional support from his teachers to keep him motivated to learn. There is also a Student Care Centre where he can go after school, where he will consolidate his learning, cement his values, and participate in other interesting activities. His parents know he is well taken care of while they work to earn a living for the family.

Through his years in primary school, he knows exactly how he is doing in school as his teachers share comprehensive feedback with him and his parents, on a regular basis as well as at parent teacher meetings. They tell him how well he is growing holistically - in his academic learning, in his social emotional development, and in values and character, as well as how to be even better in every way. At home, his parents find time to take an interest in his learning, and encourage him, despite being busy with work.

Because of this support at home, he takes learning in his stride and is not overly worried about assessments or examinations - in fact, the PSLE will not define how successful he is, but is really an assessment which will help him decide what level of subjects will suit him at Secondary 1. He’s more concerned about which school he would choose because right around where he lives, there are many good secondary schools, each offering exciting and unique programmes! So he will put in his best effort, supported by loving parents who know his strengths, but he is sensible about not chasing the last mark - there is no need to, due to the broadened PSLE scoring system. Instead, with the time saved, he enjoys his learning at a confident pace, picks up a new hobby or even helps out more with household chores!

I am very excited by these prospects for our students. In fact, many of these elements are already in our primary schools today. Let’s take look at the programmes we have recently rolled out.

Secondary School: Consolidating foundations, Pursuing interests and strengths

As our student, now a teenager, continues his learning journey into secondary school, what will the experience be like? It will be a period of transitions, both in learning and emotional development. How do we best help him at this stage?

He will continue to build on his academic foundation, through effective teaching methods like inquiry-based learning and ICT-enabled learning. He also develops 21st century competencies such as critical and inventive thinking.

If he is in the N(A) or N(T) stream, he has the flexibility to offer subjects at a higher level if he has done well. He will gain confidence and be more motivated to learn because success in his areas of strengths will spur him to persevere and improve on his weaker areas.

He develops social-emotional maturity, and develops his values and character through CCE programmes, guidance from his teachers and head of student development. How are all these made possible? Let me tell you how.

A diverse and variegated landscape of distinctive secondary schools, with programmes that interests students to apply knowledge and develop lifeskills

Today, our schools offer a range of interesting niche programmes to expose students to different realms of learning.

This has been done through the imagination and commitment of our educators.

For instance,

  • Outram Secondary School has a Business and Enterprise programme, where all students learn about entrepreneurship and financial planning. Local entrepreneurs guide the students through talks and even internships.

  • Holy Innocents’ High School has a Journalism and Broadcasting programme. All lower secondary students learn about journalism and broadcasting. Some then run a mini news agency and an in-house broadcasting station.

  • Hai Sing Catholic School has a robotics programme that is integrated into its Interdisciplinary Project Work, and Design & Technology.

  • Students in CHIJ St Theresa’s Convent, through ‘Education for Life’, come together in level-wide learning journeys - day excursions, camps and service learning projects to learn about themselves, to develop empathy and to solve real life problems.

  • Students in Tampines Secondary School, through interest-based programmes such as Beatboxing and Drama, learn to express themselves and to develop confidence.

  • Students in Zhenghua Secondary School learn to challenge themselves, to serve others and to work as a team, through outdoor adventures and uniformed groups.

These niches have enhanced the learning of our students. Going forward, we can build on and re-imagine how we can further broaden and deepen the learning of our students to prepare them for life. We aim for our students to participate in at least two distinctive programmes offered in his school.

First, an Applied Learning Programme, enables him to bring together what he has learnt in science, mathematics, humanities or the languages to real-life applications. In this way, our student sees the value and relevance of academic learning to real world situations - or 学以致用. His academic learning will come alive in an area that he is excited about, and stimulate his interest to learn more.

Second, a Learning for Life Programme, enables him to learn more about himself and how he relates to others, through activities in arts, sports, outdoor adventures, uniformed groups, volunteer work. He will, through reflections on these experiences, further develop his identity and values, his sense of empathy and care, and to discover his strengths and interests.

These new programmes will have the following characteristics.

First, they will be for every student.

Second, they will involve partners who will bring expertise and real world issues for students to grapple with.

  • For example, MCCY will partner our schools to provide a range of activities in the arts, music, sports, adventure and volunteer services.

  • The Science Centre Singapore, SPRING Singapore, and IDA can partner our schools to set up a range of “tech labs” and “tinker labs” where students can play and tinker, to build gadgets and prototypes; and to build enterprise hubs for budding entrepreneurs.

  • MOE will provide strong curricular and resource support and help to connect our schools with possible partners.

Third, the areas may transcend traditional subject boundaries, for example, Design Thinking which Teck Whye Secondary School has just started this year. Here you see students interviewing elderly residents to learn about their needs and co-create solutions with them.

Principals and teachers will decide on and design programmes that best appeal to their profile of students, in areas that complement the school’s tradition and heritage. The focus is not on the activities per se, but to broaden and deepen the students’ learning, in authentic settings that can further challenge them to grow and develop.

Summary: Creating a Colourful Landscape of Distinctive Secondary Schools

With each secondary school having a signature Learning for Life Programme and a signature Applied Learning Programme, to complement its strong core of Academic and Student Development Programmes - every secondary school can provide for our students an education that is broad and deep, and that prepares them for life. Every school will be distinctive.

Within each neighbourhood, we aim to have schools with different programmes, focusing on different areas. When fully implemented, our student, whether his home is in Woodlands or Toa Payoh or Jurong or Tampines, will have a colourful landscape of distinctive schools to choose from.

In the future, with such a landscape, we can explore further possibilities. For instance, schools within the cluster can form a consortium to share resources and stimulate innovation. Each cluster of schools can also develop stronger bonds and form partnerships with their community.

Dear colleagues, this exciting future is imaginable today, because of your labour of love over the years. Let’s take a look at this video.

ICT-Enabled Learning

Technology is advancing rapidly, and we can harness ICT (Information and Communication Technologies) to transform education. In fact, school systems all over the world are all experimenting. We have a good start with our IT Masterplans, now into the 3rd cycle. Many schools, including our FutureSchools, have been innovating. Let us now aim for a breakthrough: to harness ICT to make learning productive and engaging for all our students, across all our schools.

Our students already enjoy some useful online applications. Let me briefly share these.

For instance, the iMTL portal for the learning of Mother Tongue Languages. With interactive features, students can record, playback and improve their performance.

We have portals to support the learning of English. These resources are customised to cater to different learner profiles. Here is a student playing a multi-player roleplaying game to improve his English oracy skills.

At Crescent Girls’ School, I saw students experiencing hybrid learning that blended online with face-to-face discussions. Ideas from groups were shared real time, and the class built on each other’s ideas instantly.

At Ngee Ann Secondary School, teachers use apps to do real-time assessment for learning. One student said: “The lesson was super fun and unique. It makes the test a little less stressful! We should keep having this kind of lessons as we are more motivated to learn that way!”

This is only the beginning. I am happy to announce that by 2016, we will have a new online learning space. It will integrate our existing online resources as well as new ones produced by our HQ specialists and our teachers in our schools. These resources will be closely aligned to the curriculum, imaginatively produced and curated by our team.

For students, whatever school they are in, they can have even better access to high quality and relevant learning resources. This will help level-up our students across schools. Teachers can also rapidly learn, acquire a range of teaching strategies around ICT, and spread good practices.

Last week, I learnt something that cheered me greatly. A teacher, Christopher Chee, having read Professor Ranga Krishnan’s (Professor and Dean of Duke-NUS Graduate Medical School) articles in TODAY on how Duke-NUS was using flipped classrooms for team-based learning, contacted Prof Ranga and Dr Frank Starmer (Associate Dean, Learning Technologies, Duke-NUS Graduate Medical School). Christopher wanted to see if it would work for his N(T) students from Christchurch Secondary. He got the students to watch an online video on math concepts at home and adopted team-based learning in class. To his surprise, the students were so engaged that they stayed beyond school hours to learn more!

What is remarkable about this story is not just the use of ICT. What is remarkable is Christopher’s courage and gumption, to see if N(T) students can also learn in the way that postgraduate students are doing. He dared to imagine possibilities and he dared to try!

Indeed, we must all try, to push the frontiers of ICT-enabled learning. We should explore how our teaching strategies can be enriched by flipped classrooms, collaborative learning, real time assessment for learning, differentiated teaching and so on. We should evaluate rigorously what works and what doesn’t, and blaze new trails.

We should strive to make ICT-enabled learning as another major way for us to make every student an engaged learner, a self-directed learner, an independent learner. The possibilities are exciting.

Enhancing the School Experience through Student Development Teams

When I asked students what made school enjoyable, the answers always had to do with the quality of school experiences - the time they spent with peers, and the guidance of form teachers and school leaders to help them learn and grow.

Many school leaders have experimented with how to help students develop holistically - deploying form teachers and year heads who oversee student development. Last year, we invited six schools to prototype the student development team, where Year Heads work with the class teachers on values development, pastoral care, guidance and counselling and academic development. In short, holistic development. Our experience shows that the prototype has worked well.

Mdm Chong Lin Lin, a Year Head in Zhenghua Secondary School, shared her experience strengthening the network of care for the students. She engaged students in dialogues on motivation, stress management, effective study skills and coached them to formulate their own solutions. She said, (and I quote): “As a Year Head, I worked directly with the form teachers and students of that level. It gives me a broader perspective of the needs of the graduating cohort and enables me to work closely with the teachers to develop a more holistic approach to help my students succeed”.

Some schools are assigning existing teachers as Year Heads. Going forward, I am pleased to announce that we will formalise the student development team in all our schools and support our schools to progressively set up their teams by 2016. This will enable our schools to better care for and develop every student under their charge.

Key Shifts to Support Student-Centricity (PSLE, DSA, S1 Posting, and SEM)

During an OSC session, one parent said to me “Our education system is seen in three digits. Each child is known by three digits - his PSLE T-score; each primary school by the PSLE T-scores of its top student; and each secondary school by its PSLE cut-off point!” This is indeed too one-dimensional. It does not capture the richness of the programmes that all of you have put in place for our students.

To broaden and deep our education, we have to address the issue of the PSLE T-score. This is why PM announced at NDR that we will move from using the T-score, to scoring students in broader bands, like the O and A levels.

PM’s announcement on this generated many discussions. One parent wrote to me, asking for changes to be implemented immediately so that his son who is in Primary 5 can benefit. Another with a Primary 1 child asked us to wait for 6 years so that the changes would not affect his child!

I appreciate the different concerns. The PSLE has been with us for over 50 years, and the T-score has been a part of our lives for over 30. The PSLE T-score is used for various purposes in our education system - a very important use is for the posting of students into secondary schools.

Any change will need to be carefully considered and communicated. We would therefore allow enough time, over a few years, for our stakeholders to get used to these changes and the direction we are moving towards.

For the next few years, MOE will focus on creating a more distinctive, diversified secondary school landscape to increase the number of attractive school choices.

At the same time, we will also prototype greater flexibility in subject offerings at Secondary One in 12 schools starting next year, before rolling it out in phases to the rest of our secondary schools.

I hope too that we value learning beyond academics. One of my Directors in MOE, an outstanding educator, shared with me, and I quote: “My daughter went to what many regard as a ‘neighbourhood secondary school’ after her PSLE as we wanted her to minimise travelling time. She had the opportunity to interact with friends from a range of academic abilities and family backgrounds. She is now a qualified teacher who deeply empathises with her students. To me that school is a good school because it provided my daughter with an experience that made her a better person, something which I may not have been able to provide on my own”.

We must create more opportunities for students from different backgrounds and strengths to interact and learn from one another. We are making adjustments to the DSA, to consider how qualities like resilience, character, and leadership can be considered for admission to our popular schools, without adding to the burden of assessment. To ensure that popular schools remain open to students from lower-income families, we will be enhancing the independent schools bursary. Details on these changes will be announced later.

Aligning the School Excellence Model (SEM) to Breadth, Depth and Length

Several principals have shared with me that however hard you tried to create good programmes for your students, your schools were still judged solely by parents on PSLE scores. I hope you will not be deterred or disheartened, and will continue to carry on this good work.

We have removed school banding by absolute academic results, and stopped the naming of the top PSLE scorers. We are not shying away from excellence, but are broadening our definitions of excellence. In fact, the awards that many of you will be receiving later this morning are testament to the good work of our schools. I congratulate you for your achievements, and thank you for your hard work.

At last year’s WPS, we reduced the reporting requirements of the School Excellence Model or SEM, to minimise your administrative burden.

If a good education is one that provides a broad and deep foundation for a lifelong journey, we need to adjust the criteria in SEM by which our schools are measured. So this year, in consultation with you, we will adjust SEM to give you more space to design student-centric programmes, to better develop the breadth and depth of students, and to create distinctive schools, good in your own ways. I am confident that our schools will do these well, and over time, parents will judge our schools by a different yardstick.

Embarking on this Journey with Teachers and Parents

This morning, I spoke about some major changes, all of which require the commitment of all our educators and support and adjustment of our parents.

As teachers, you have my full assurance that MOE will support you and work closely with you as a team to bring about these changes. As parents, you have my assurance that these changes will be paced out to give everyone time to adjust.

Every Teacher a Caring Educator

We will enhance the way we deploy our teachers across schools. Schools with more students that need levelling-up programmes, or with smaller enrolment, will get more teachers. Schools will also be better resourced to support staff needs, such as when teachers go on no-pay or maternity leave.

While better resourcing will help, it is the dedication I see in our teachers that has always made the difference in the lives of our students. As I said on my Facebook post for Teachers’ Day recently, one of the most wonderful parts of my job as Minister for Education is that I come to work each day with so many dedicated educators with a deep sense of purpose. I see this dedication in many of you on my school visits. Even as you are busy with teaching and caring for the children, you have also grown professionally, training yourselves to be your very best.

In the first nine months of this year alone, there were over 120 teacher-led workshops - almost one every 2 days - held by teachers, for teachers. You share innovative classroom practices and we see your good work spreading across our schools, benefitting many more students.

The next video gives us an example of how this commitment to professional development has made a difference to students in Bedok South Secondary School.

As we can see - mentoring is a powerful way for our teachers to learn, and today, we have 360 Instructional Mentors improving the craft of 720 Beginning Teachers across 90 schools.

Our Senior, Lead and Master Teachers too will deepen their knowledge and capabilities through enhanced milestone programmes to prepare them for their roles as mentors and pedagogical leaders.

Every teacher counts in the work that we do here. Let us not forget it. Every day, at MOE, we get compliments from the public - parents and pupils alike - on how a teacher, principal or school helped their child to grow, or helped parents support their children.

After PM‘s speech at the NDR, I spoke to 林太太, the vegetable seller from Teck Ghee whom PM mentioned. She told me in Mandarin: “I had little education, but if there is something that I know, I know that our teachers do a good job. So I told my children that no matter what, they must listen to their teachers because that is the best way to learn”. She added “I have been proven right - my children are doing well in life!”

Every Parent a Supportive Partner

I am heartened to have met and heard of many parents who are like 林太太 who express their faith in the hard work of educators. Similarly, I am heartened to hear of many parents who volunteer in our schools.

Mr Karim bin Abbas has an unusual record as a volunteer - he has worked with four principals and seen 12 cohorts of classes graduate. His children have long graduated from the school, but he continues to volunteer. On why he’s served for so long, he said: “I believe very much in what Blangah Rise has done….my children have grown up well and hold good jobs. I have to give back in some way”.

I am glad to see parents who are concerned not only about the success of their own children, but other children in our community. In some countries, there is a great sense of village pride over the village school, with everyone chipping in to help. I see this spirit in many of our Parent Support Groups today. We will do more to support schools in reaching out to parents and engaging them in partnership.

A few weeks ago I met Mrs Kelly Ang, mother of Scott Ang, one of our President’s scholars this year. She related how she helped Scott decide on the Sports School over a more popular school.

She explained that Scott was initially a very slow learner and she was in no rush to put him in a high pressure system where he would have to work very hard just to stay afloat. Scott would have struggled at the more popular school. Mrs Ang discussed this with Scott and they decided that being at the Sports School would give Scott opportunities to shine, not just in sports, but also in his studies, and as a leader. To Mrs Ang, Scott was a late bloomer who was given a chance. She explains, I quote, “Kids will do what they want and when they are ready. You can’t push them when they are not ready, and you can’t stop them if they want to fly”. Today, her choice is vindicated. It was an enlightened choice because she took into account what he needed then.


Let me now come to the part that all of you have been waiting for, the conclusion, finally!

I started with the core beliefs that have guided us over the years to evolve our education system. These systematic changes had allowed us to serve Singaporeans well. But the Primary 1 students entering school this year will face a different future. To prepare them well, we have to continue to change ahead of time.

Our student-centric, values-driven education, with a renewed focus on values and character development, and our goals of “every school a good school”, “every student an engaged learner”, “every teacher a caring educator”, and “every parent a supportive partner” have resonated well with students, parents and educators alike.

Building on this, Work Plan Seminar 2013 focuses on ten years of basic education, aiming to give every child a broad and deep foundation for a lifelong journey. In other words, a more multi-dimensional education that goes beyond academics.

Every secondary school will in the coming years, provide an Applied Learning programme as well as a Learning for Life programme, to make learning come alive, and to enable students to acquire values and social-emotional skills that serve them for life. ICT-enabled learning will over time transform learning, and nurture learners who are independent and resourceful. It will help level up the quality of learning. By improving the quality of school experiences through the introduction of school development teams, we will over time make learning a more joyful journey. A colourful landscape of good and distinctive schools, in every neighbourhood, will provide more choices to engage students. With supportive parents, we will forge even deeper partnerships.

Changes announced by PM at NDR are critical aspects of this student-centric, values-driven education. By replacing the T-scores with grades, we are encouraging students not to chase the last mark, in order to make room for other activities. By allowing students from Secondary 1 onwards to take subjects that best challenge them, we customise learning even further.

The underlying philosophy behind all these changes is that we recognise that each student is different, and we want to engage each and every one of them in ways that are meaningful and productive; through activities that challenge and stretch them. By enabling students to learn holistically and to find their interests, we hope they blossom as whole persons, finding personal fulfilment and contributing to our society. In the process, we aim to keep paths wide open, and create a virtuous cycle where the successful have empathy, and do their part for others.

These changes need to be viewed as a whole package, across the entire system, because the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. Each of these changes is by itself important, and taken together over several years, we will see a significant improvement in the quality of our education system. These changes cannot be implemented overnight and certainly not all at one go. These changes are also challenging, because there are only 24 hours a day in our lives.

Many of the things we do today are good. But let us not keep good in the way of the better. If we keep all the good things, we cannot make way for the better things. There is an opportunity cost in everything we do - time spent doing more drill-and-test means less time for play and rest, for exploring new ideas, for developing social skills. A balance is necessary, but there is no magic formula as to what the right balance is because every child is different..

Implementing this series of changes is going to be very challenging, because it is not just about programmes, but about mindsets and beliefs on what matters, and of exercising fine judgment of what is relevant and useful for each child.

The imagination, conviction and commitment of our school leaders and educators are critical. Even more so, we need the full support of parents. MOE must provide opportunities, but we cannot prescribe what parents should do. But we will do our best to work with parents in this journey, to find a better way forward.

Will the changes move us towards mediocrity? I do not think so. Instead, I believe it will allow us to achieve excellence in a broader and more enduring sense.

Will it require less effort from everyone? Not necessarily, because effort is necessary for excellence. But hopefully, the effort is put to productive use and in a balanced and joyful way.

Will these changes reduce stress? It depends. If we regard every test as the most important test, whatever changes we make will have minimal effect. But if we see the many milestones in our lifelong learning journey, we may have a perspective that enables us to encourage our children to persevere and put in effort and achieve success in their own ways and at their own pace.

Will it make Singapore a better society? I believe so, if our students grow up not just smart, but with a heart. We will also be seeing many more Singaporeans taking diverse pathways to success, and achieving success in different ways and in fact, in the Our Singapore Conversation, many Singaporeans expressed the desire for broader definitions of success.

Allow me to conclude by sharing a few short stories of some remarkable individuals.

First, Ron Sim, the founder of OSIM. He runs an innovative company, which has touched many lives.

  • However, did you know that he failed his PSLE? But, he told me, it was his most valuable learning experience, because it made him realise he could recover from his failures. It is his resilience and can-do attitude that has led to his success today.

  • Last year, he donated $5 million to the Straits Times Pocket Money Fund, the largest single pledge of support in the history of the Fund. Why? His primary school teacher, Mr Tan Khay Poh, gave him money to eat when he had none, and his secondary school teacher, Mr Ong Yew Ghee, gave him a new pair of track shoes before a cross-country run. He is ever grateful and remembers the names of his teachers till today.

Second, Huang Kai Song joined Pathlight in 2005 when he was 14 years old. He was withdrawn and had no interest in school. However, Pathlight gave him the courage to progress on to ‘O’ Levels in 2009, and then to Temasek Polytechnic. His abilities were recognised when he received a scholarship from Microsoft. Kai Song graduated with a Diploma in Mobile and Network Services and is now employed at Khoo Teck Puat Hospital. Better still, he comes back to Pathlight, now as a volunteer, to help other students.

Third, Miss Sarah Choo. She is an alumnus of Nanyang Junior College’s Art Elective Programme, and credits her JC for helping to develop her strong foundation and further her passion in Art. Some of you might have read that she won this year’s prestigious ICON fine art photography award. Sarah also graduated top of her class from NTU’s Art, Design and Media Course. I’m happy to note that Sarah will be joining us as an Art teacher.

Fourth, Mdm Shakila Jamal Mohamed, a School Staff Developer in Da Qiao Primary School. When Shakila was a student, she was withdrawn and shy. However, her teacher in Secondary School, Mrs David, took notice of her and got her out of her shell by reading out her good essays to her class. Shakila became more confident and was so inspired that she became a teacher herself! I met her when she received the President’s Award for Teachers this year. More importantly, she has touched many lives in her 23 years of teaching.

Fifth, Mr Royston Tan. Many of you know him as a famous film-maker in Singapore. I was amazed when he first told me how he found his passion for film-making because of a video that he made for his Art O-Levels at Zhonghua Secondary. His principal, Mrs Ng-Gan Lay Choo, personally coached him and even went back on weekends to teach him film-editing. He went on to study visual communications at Temasek Polytechnic, and the rest, as they say, is history. What do these examples have in common?

  • First, each of them has some special qualities, that something extra, and the passion which helped them succeed.

  • Second, it shows the power of education to unleash the human spirit.

  • Third, each and every one of them, at some point in their lives, was touched deeply by teachers who believed in them, ignited their passion and inspired their spirit and purpose. All are achieving success in their own way. Some did badly in exams, including failing PSLE. But they went for the long haul. In their own ways, they created a learning experience that is broad and deep, and they continue learning.

We want to see every one of our students find fulfilment, each in his own way. The first step is to give each and every one of our students a broad and deep foundation for their lifelong journey. The changes we are making will allow our educators to touch many more lives, to help many more experience this spirit and passion. Let us undertake this next phase of our education journey with passion and conviction!