Speeches/Interviews

March 05, 2019

MOE FY2019 Committee of Supply Debate Response by Second Minister for Education Indranee Rajah

JOINT SEGMENT ON BUILDING A SOCIETY OF OPPORTUNITIES

1. Mr Chairman, several members have raised the issues of inequality and social mobility. As these cuts span the work of several ministries, they will be addressed in a collective response by myself, MOS Zaqy Mohamad, SPS Sun Xueling and Minister Desmond Lee.

BUILDING A SOCIETY OF OPPORTUNITIES

2. The Government is committed to tackling income inequality and ensuring social mobility. We will do so by building a society of opportunities for all.

3. We will ensure that education continues to be a key lifelong enabler for all to progress, irrespective of starting point or background. We will help those in the working world upgrade their skills and learn new ones, so they can access employment opportunities at all stages of life and have good incomes. We will support lower-income families in their aspirations towards home ownership and provide extra support for Singaporeans from disadvantaged backgrounds.

4. This cannot be achieved by the Government alone. It requires a whole-of-society effort, with government agencies, employers, community, families and individuals working together as one.

UPLIFT

5. In education, we have built a system where opportunities are available to all. We have many schemes to assist disadvantaged students and their families at every stage of education. However, some still struggle, and for those who do, the difficulties are real, as highlighted by Dr Intan Azura Mokhtar, Mr Charles Chong, Mr Murali Pillai and Mr Muhamad Faisal Abdul Manap.

6. The question then is how can we help them to overcome their challenges, so that they can benefit from the help that is available and realise their full potential.

7. With this in mind, MOE set up UPLIFT – the “Uplifting Pupils in Life and Inspiring Families Taskforce”. The Taskforce’s aim is to deep-dive into problems and issues faced by underperforming students from disadvantaged families, understand what exactly is preventing them from doing better, identify gaps to be filled and devise practical solutions.

8. To get to grips with the real issues and causes, the Taskforce has engaged people at the frontline - those who work directly with and are most familiar with the problems faced by disadvantaged families. To date, we have engaged over 200 contributors, including school leaders and staff, students, parents, social workers, Self-Help Groups (SHGs), community partners and volunteers. Their insights, have been extremely valuable in crystallising the issues and shaping our recommendations.

KEY ISSUES AND STRATEGIES

9. We have identified four key issues that need to be addressed.

10. First, long term absenteeism, as mentioned by Ms Cheng Li Hui and Mr Leon Perera. In 2017, about 1.1 per 1,000 students in primary schools and 7.5 per 1,000 students in secondary schools were absent for 60 days or more without valid reason. The overall proportion of each Primary 1 cohort who did not complete secondary education has remained low, at less than 1% in the last five years. However, the numbers, while small, represent a discernible group that needs help. The reasons for absenteeism are varied, but most often, it is tied with complex family issues. There are existing efforts to address this issue. For the pre-school sector, ECDA engages some of these families through the KidSTART pilot and Pre-school Outreach programme, where the professionals conduct home visits and work with families, including to improve pre-school attendance for the children.

11. In our schools, we monitor students’ attendance closely and actively engage parents when students are absent without reason. Student Welfare Officers (SWOs) and school counsellors are trained to identify early warning signs, and reach out to students who show signs of disengagement from school to provide timely interventions and support. However, as the root causes often lie in the family situation, we will have to direct more efforts in that area.

12. Second, the lack of a structured and supervised environment outside of school. Typically, when a child comes home after school, there is a proper routine – lunch, some rest, a quiet environment and time set aside for homework, and thereafter play. However, many disadvantaged children do not have such an environment at home.

13. Third, children who under-perform due to lack of self-confidence, motivation and resilience. These students feel disconnected and isolated from their peers. Their perception of what they can achieve is constrained by difficult circumstances, and they struggle with self-esteem or other underlying emotional issues that hinder them from doing well. In the UPLIFT engagements, my team met Santhya, a student from ITE College Central. Santhya was disengaged when she first started ITE. She became depressed, lacked of self-confidence and began having an anxiety disorder. Her teachers engaged and encouraged her, to build up her self-confidence. With family support, she sought professional help. Fortunately, Santhya had the motivation and resilience to overcome her depression and anxiety disorder. She did well in her Nitec course and is now pursuing a Higher Nitec in Engineering with Business. She is also part of the Student Council in ITE College Central. The question is how can we help others like her find the resilience and motivation to overcome their challenges.

14. Fourth, parental support. Many parents in the target profile struggle to balance work and caring for their children. They love their children but they feel inadequate in their parenting skills and do not know how to establish control or strike the necessary balance. They typically also face multiple issues – financial difficulties, split families, unstable housing arrangements, and in some cases, domestic violence, or a lack of caregiving for younger and elderly family members, resulting in the older children becoming substitute care-givers and hence unable to focus on their education.

15. To address these four key issues, UPLIFT has identified the following six strategic areas of focus:

  1. strengthen after-school care and support for students;
  2. build students’ mental and emotional resilience;
  3. strengthen parental engagement and support;
  4. implement practical solutions to absenteeism;
  5. enhance collaboration between schools and the community; and
  6. strengthen coordination across all these initiatives.

16. 16. As there are many different aspects to UPLIFT, some initiatives can be done earlier, while others will take more time to develop. We will progressively announce the various initiatives as and when they are ready. One has already been launched – that was the UPLIFT Scholarship announced by Minister Ong Ye Kung in December 2018.

17. Today I would like to announce two more initiatives.

STRENGTHENING AFTER-SCHOOL CARE AND SUPPORT

18. MOE will strengthen after-school care and support for disadvantaged students through our school-based student care centres (SCCs) in primary schools and after-school programmes in secondary schools.

19. During my recent visit to the SCC in Lian Hua Primary, I met Syed Al-Hafiz, currently in Primary 5. He lives with his elderly grandmother, and their neighbour, Uncle Tan accompanies him and his siblings to school every day because his grandmother is occupied with looking after his younger siblings. Hafiz initially had trouble adjusting to school and used to misbehave. Under the care of his teachers, neighbour Uncle Tan and the SCC staff, Hafiz responded positively. The SCC provided Hafiz with a structured after-school environment for him to develop good habits and daily routines. He is now doing well and is happy to come to school. Hafiz’s experience shows that community support, coupled with the right care environment and encouragement, can make a big difference.

20. 2 Given the positive outcomes of MOE’s after-school care, we will adopt a three E approach - we will expand current provisions, increase enrolment, and enhance programmes to strengthen motivational support, resilience and holistic development.

21. Expansion. There are currently 170 SCCs in primary schools. Enrolment in school-based SCCs has increased from 3,000 in 2012 to about 25,000 this year. MOE is on track to having a SCC in all 184 primary schools by next year.

22. Enrolment. With increased SCC capacity, we can take in more children.

23. Schools will therefore make a more concerted effort to reach out to parents whose children would benefit from attending SCCs, especially those with no alternative care arrangements, and facilitate their enrolment.

24. We are studying the difficulties that disadvantaged families may face in enrolling their children into SCCs. One issue highlighted in our engagement is the affordability of student care for low-income families. Today, children from low-income families attending registered SCCs receive subsidies for their SCC fees, through the Student Care Fee Assistance scheme (SCFA). Nonetheless, some students on MOE’s Financial Assistance Scheme could still have to pay more than $100 per month.

25. MOE and MSF will therefore be reviewing the affordability of SCCs for low-income families.

26. Enhancement. Many primary schools work with their SCC vendors to take full advantage of the after-school hours to develop their SCC students holistically, for example, through enrichment and character-building activities. Parents and students have given positive feedback about such programmes. We will continue to build on these efforts and will introduce additional programmes aimed at strengthening students’ resilience and improving their socio-emotional well-being.

27. Next, secondary schools. As Ms Cheng Li Hui mentioned, the transition from primary to secondary school has to be smooth, especially for disadvantaged students. Currently, primary school counsellors or Allied Educators share transition support strategies with parents, as well as information of students with higher needs with their secondary school counterparts. The secondary schools then ensure continuity of financial support, provide academic bridging and extend other forms of additional support to those who need it.

28. Since 2014, secondary schools have piloted after-school programmes for students who need more support and supervision. The schools provide a room for the students, which they can use for self-study and various activities after school. The activities and programmes could be run by teachers, community partners or volunteers. Students are also mentored by teachers and external youth workers. These programmes have strengthened social-emotional support to students and improved their connectedness to their learning, peers and school.

29. Greendale Secondary School was among the 60 secondary schools that piloted after-school programmes, with very encouraging results. They adopted The Scaffold Programme (TSP) in 2016, in partnership with SHINE Children and Youth Services.

30. One Greendale student who benefited from TSP was Fida’iy. Fida’iy displayed anger management issues at first and was disruptive in class. His family was also going through difficult times. His teacher recommended he join TSP. After attending TSP’s programmes, and with guidance and counselling from his youth worker, Jie Xi, Fida’iy learned to manage his emotions better. He developed a good relationship with Jie Xi, who was also in regular contact with his family, to help create a supportive and conducive home environment. Fida’iy is now a positive influence in class.

31. MOE will expand and enhance the after-school programmes from the existing 60 secondary schools to 120 schools by 2020. The consolidated after-school programmes will be known as GEAR-UP. Through GEAR-UP, schools will work with community partners to provide customised support and after-school engagement, and strengthen our students’ social-emotional competencies and social skills. These programmes will be especially helpful to students from disadvantaged families, who will benefit from customised support and care.

COLLABORATION AND COORDINATION

32. The issues faced by disadvantaged students are multi-faceted, and not all the interventions or assistance can or should be school-based. Many other government agencies also provide assistance, as do community based organisations such as the Self-Help Groups, grassroots organisations, VWOs and individual volunteers.

33. Community partners play a crucial role in uplifting our students. One example is Care Corner. They offer a range of services to support children and youth from disadvantaged families such as after-school care and support within the community and programmes to build students’ motivation and resilience. Ulu Pandan Stars Programme is another volunteer-driven initiative which mobilises more than 100 secondary to tertiary student volunteers to provide academic coaching and mentorship to over 70 students from disadvantaged families in Ghim Moh. The programme engages and involves parents in the learning process and collaborates with schools to support students’ learning needs.

34. One clear theme that has emerged from all the engagement sessions is the need for better coordination to tap community efforts and resources more systematically.

35. Ms Tan Bee Keow and Ms Joy Lim of the Singapore Children’s Society said that the locale-based engagement sessions gave them a clearer sense of local needs, and a more complete picture of the programmes by other community partners in the same neighbourhood. They expressed a wish for a more coordinated approach among agencies to ensure that the children’s needs are well met and there is no duplication of services.

36. We agree. MSF is taking steps to strengthen social service delivery and coordination amongst agencies and community partners. MOE is also supporting MSF’s efforts to tighten local coordination among schools, Social Service Offices (SSOs), Family Service Centres (FSCs), other community organisations and VWOs. This involves strengthening outreach and case management for families who need it, for example, by improving data sharing and coordination of complex cases.

UPLIFT PROGRAMME OFFICE (UPO)

37. To further close the gap, MOE will set up the UPLIFT Programme Office (UPO) within MOE. The UPO will be a dedicated team to support and strengthen the interface and partnership between school and community partners. It will help in a number of ways.

  1. First, it will work with schools to identify disadvantaged students and map their needs to facilitate community-based outreach to the families, and matching to suitable community programmes or assistance.
  2. Second, to help schools better leverage community assets and volunteer networks to support after-school activities or holiday programmes for these students, UPO will match trusted partners and volunteers to schools, working with the SSOs and SG Cares Community Network, as well as tap on retired educators who wish to volunteer.
  3. Third, UPO will set targets, monitor feedback and track the outcomes of the various UPLIFT initiatives over time, to establish accountability and evaluate which pilots should be scaled up.
  4. In the first instance, UPO will focus on supporting school-community coordination in selected pilot sites which have higher numbers of students and families fitting the target profile.

38. UPLIFT has other initiatives in the pipeline, but this will get us off to a good start.

CONCLUSION

39. Let me end with a story about the power of strengthening resilience and motivation. Zhi Xian struggled with low self-esteem when he joined Assumption Pathway School (APS). Compounded with family and financial issues, he became rebellious and disruptive. Zhi Xian’s teachers supported him through counselling and constant encouragement. He was paired to cook with his teacher during certain culinary classes. This allowed the teacher to directly mentor and encourage him. He slowly built up his motivation and self-esteem, and became more confident. He was part of the school team that won the bronze medal in a culinary competition. He also started counselling and mentoring his peers. Zhi Xian went on to clinch the 2018 Award for Best Culinary Skills student in APS. He is currently enrolled in ITE’s Nitec in Asian Culinary Skills, and continues to strive hard and give his best.

40. For us, every child is precious and we want each and every one of them to achieve his or her fullest potential. This is especially so in the case of those from disadvantaged backgrounds, since they face more challenges than others.

41. Together, we can build a society of opportunities where every Singaporean can do well, succeed and progress, irrespective of background.