Speeches/Interviews

March 04, 2020

MOE FY2020 Committee of Supply Debate Response by Second Minister for Education Indranee Rajah

Opportunities for All – Education as an Uplifting Force

Introduction

1. Mr Speaker Sir, the Government is committed to nurturing every Singaporean to their fullest potential. Minister Ong has just shown you our roadmap through the tree of life. Even as we transform the education system to help Singaporeans seize opportunities of the future, we will ensure that education remains an uplifting force that provides opportunities for all, regardless of their background or the challenges they face.

Student Wellbeing

2. One key challenge our youths face today is mental wellbeing. Many colleagues have asked about how we can better support our students' wellbeing. Prof Lim Sun Sun spoke about the importance of building positive learning environments; Ms Rahayu Mahzam and Associate Prof Daniel Goh suggested strengthening mental health education in schools, to equip our students to handle life's challenges; while Ms Anthea Ong asked if we can increase the number of counsellors and introduce mental health screenings.

3. Thank you all for your thoughtful speeches and questions. Student wellbeing is of utmost importance to MOE. Our efforts in this area are guided by three broad questions.

4. First, at the most basic level, how can we create a positive learning environment in our schools, for all students? Second, how can we equip our students with the knowledge and skills they need to overcome challenges and setbacks? And finally, how can we support the small group of students with more serious mental health challenges? Let meaddress each of these in turn.

Positive learning environment

5. First, creating a positive school learning environment for all students. Our teachers and school leaders play a crucial role in this. . In our Singapore Teaching Practice (STP) model, creating a "positive classroom culture" is a fundamental teaching process. The STP is covered in pre-service training at NIE, as well as in-service courses by the Academy of Singapore Teachers.

6. In CCE, positive teacher-student relationships are strongly emphasised, and we will also be developing our teachers' competencies in establishing strong teacher-student relationships and providing a caring and enabling environment through the CCE practice area of SkillsFuture for Educators.

7. As Prof Lim Sun Sun acknowledged, the vast majority of our teachers undertake their roles with professionalism and care. There are times where teachers have to be more strict with students. This is a part of their duty. However, in cases of unprofessional conduct, such as deliberate attacks on students' self-esteem, schools will take a serious view, and intervene as necessary to safeguard our students' wellbeing, and maintain a positive learning environment.

Building resilience

8. Having laid the foundation of a positive school learning environment, the next step is to build resilience, by equipping our students with the skills and knowledge to overcome setbacks.

9. To help students face challenges confidently, we will help students develop the resilience mindset of "I am, I have, I can". "I am" is about helping students to appreciate their strengths and harness positive beliefs about themselves. "I have" is about enabling students to tap into their social and emotional resources, like peer and family support. Finally, "I can" emphasises skills that will enable students to cope and thrive, including emotion regulation, problem-solving, and managing relationships and conflicts.

Peer Support

10. "I have", which is about tapping on support, including peer support, can be really powerful in schools. Research has shown that having a sense of affiliation among peers, positive vibes, and feeling supported by one another, all contribute to positive well-being. Some of our schools have already introduced peer support structures, to good effect. To illustrate, I'd like to share an example from Bukit Merah Secondary School. We have changed the students' names to protect their privacy.

11. Last year, Steve from Bukit Merah Secondary started training to be a Peer Support Leader. He buddied up with his classmate Mark, who was frequently absent due to his gaming addiction. Steve encouraged Mark to come to school, and started eating with him during recess and breaks. Steve's friends also joined in, and got to know Mark as well. Whenever he could, Steve met with Mark after school to help him with work that he had missed. Gradually, Mark started coming to school more regularly, and more punctually. When we asked Mark what helped him make the change, he said he felt really encouraged when he asked Steve if anyone missed him when he was absent, and Steve replied simply – "have lah, have lah".

12. The smallest, simplest gestures can make a difference. Anyone can do it. That's what makes peer support so powerful. Therefore, we will establish peer support structures in every school by 2022, and continue to strengthen the peer support culture in our schools. Our vision is for every student to be a peer supporter, forming a strong network of support in their class, CCA or peer group, where they can look out for each other, and seek guidance from teachers or counsellors where necessary. The Institutes of Higher Learning, or IHLs, have also put in place peer support programmes similar to those in schools.

Mental Health Education

13. In addition to this, we will include mental health education in the CCE curriculum for secondary schools, to help students to understand common mental health issues and their symptoms, know when and how to seek help for themselves and others, and develop empathy and care towards persons with mental health issues. Similarly, the polytechnics and ITE have worked with the Health Promotion Board to develop mental health resources for their students.

14. The new mental health education in schools will complement our earlier efforts to help our students develop a resilience mindset, and to foster peer support cultures. Together, we will equip our students with the knowledge, skills and support networks to better overcome challenges.

Additional Support for Students with Mental Health Issues

15. Even so, there will be a small number of students who struggle with mental health issues. For these students, additional support by professionals is needed.

16. We need to identify these students in order to support them. Teachers in schools, and class advisors in IHLs, are trained to pick up signs of distress, reach out to students facing difficulties, and refer them to a counsellor if necessary. With stronger mental health education and peer support cultures, students will also be able to look out for one another, and seek guidance from teachers and counsellors if they notice that a friend is struggling.

17. Students who require additional support will be referred to the counselling professionals in schools, including counsellors and para-counsellors. Students assessed by counsellors to have more serious mental health issues will then be referred to external professionals for further clinical assessment and intervention. External professionals include the hospitals' REACH teams (Response, Early Intervention and Assessment in Community mental Health), and IMH's Community Health Assessment Team ("CHAT").

18. To Ms Anthea Ong's suggestion to increase the number of counsellors, MOE will continue to work with our institutions to review this regularly. For example, those with higher needs will be able to hire additional counsellors and are given the funding and manpower provisions to do so.

19. Counsellors are just one part of the wider ecosystem of support for mental wellbeing in our schools and IHLs. This ecosystem, comprising peer support networks, teachers, counsellors, external professionals, provides a robust and responsive approach to ensuring timely identification and targeted intervention for students with mental health needs.

20. While there are merits of universal mental health screening, mass screening can also raise complex issues, such as over-medicalising of behaviours in young persons, or negative labelling effects. We also need to evaluate the age appropriateness and effectiveness in the school context.

21. To illustrate how our system of support works, let me share another student's story with you – we'll call him Sam. A few years ago, Sam was suffering from panic attacks. He could not submit his work on time. His teacher referred him to the school counsellor. The counsellor learnt that Sam's parents were going through a divorce, and that was causing Sam to struggle with severe anxiety. The school counsellor taught him coping strategies, and worked with mental health professionals to address his anxiety condition. However, Sam still found the situation overwhelming, and stopped coming to school.

22. But the school did not give up. They continued working with a social service agency to reach out and support Sam and his family. Sam's classmates and CCA-mates also encouraged him to return to school, offering a listening ear and help in homework. Over time, Sam started to attend school again and re-joined his CCA. Today, Sam is doing much better. In fact, he has become a peer supporter himself, and is using his experience to help others who are going through similar difficulties.

23. Support for youth mental wellbeing is a whole-of-society effort. Outside of MOE, a lot of work is being done by other Government agencies, Social Service Agencies ("SSAs"), community groups, private organisations, and individuals. I agree with Associate Professor Daniel Goh that our youths themselves should be at the centre of these efforts. Earlier this year, MSF, MOH and MOE, in collaboration with MCCY and the National Youth Council, issued an open call to anyone interested in improving youth mental wellbeing. Last week, Minster Desmond announced that we will set up a new Youth Mental Well-Being Network, bringing together more than 700 people who responded to the open call, many of whom are passionate youths. Minister Desmond will share more about the network during MSF's segment.

Strengthening Support for SEN in Schools and IHLS

24. To ensure our education system provides opportunities for all, MOE is also committed to supporting students with Special Educational Needs (SEN) to reach their fullest potential.

25. Over the years, we have increased the variety of high quality educational settings. Today, around 80% of students with SEN learn in mainstream schools, supported by teachers and allied educators with specialised skills. Our Special Education ("SPED") schools, which provide customised learning environments, dedicated resources and specialised manpower, support the remaining 20% of students with higher needs. MOE's funding for SPED schools has increased by about 40% in the last 5 years.

26. Ms Denise Phua and Ms Rahayu Mahzam asked about MOE's plans to support students with SEN. We can and will do more.

27. For students in SPED schools, We are continually improving affordability and accessibility of education. Since January this year, six SPED schools have lowered their fees by at least 25% for Singapore Citizens.

28. We are also working with SSAs to open three new SPED schools. One will support students with moderate-to-severe SEN who have both Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) and Intellectual Disability, while the other two will support students with moderate SEN who have ASD and can access the National Curriculum.

29. Finally, we note Ms Denise Phua's suggestion to extend the exit age for SPED schools. While the exit age remains at 18, students offering an academic or vocational national certification may remain in SPED schools until age 21. This will allow them additional time to become work-ready. Of the 422 SPED students aged 18 years old in 2019, 150 remain in their schools this year, when they turn 19. Most will progress to open employment before the age of 21.

30. For students with SEN in mainstream schools, I am happy to announce two new initiatives. First, MOE has developed a professional development roadmap to enhance SEN training for all educators in mainstream schools. Second, we will provide more financial assistance to students with SEN in IHLs.

31. With regard to SEN training for educators - Minister announced earlier that MOE will embark on "SkillsFuture for Educators" (SFEd). Support for students with SEN is one of the focus areas of SFEd. We have thus developed a new SEN Professional Development Roadmap, or "PD Roadmap", to better equip our educators in mainstream schools to support students with SEN.

32. We want every teacher in mainstream schools to become more skilled in supporting students with SEN. MOE will work with NIE to strengthen the inclusion of SEN support strategies in pre-service teacher training. For in-service teachers, MOE will launch bite-sized online learning resources in phases, from this year.

33. The SEN PD roadmap will also provide more PD opportunities for educators who play a more specialised role in SEN support – namely, our Allied Educators in Learning and Behavioural Support, Teachers trained in Special Needs or (TSNs), as well as the school's management team. MOE will share more details in the coming months.

34. Second, MOE will extend the SEN Fund to cater to a wider spectrum of learning needs, beyond those with sensory or physical impairments.

35. The SEN Fund was established in 2014 to help polytechnic and ITE students with physical or sensory impairment to purchase education-related Assistive Technology ("AT") devices and support services.

36. Feedback on the SEN Fund has been positive. It has helped students to keep up with academic learning and improve day-to-day interaction with peers. Thus far, about $675,000 has been disbursed under the SEN Fund, benefiting more than 120 students.

37. In my engagement with students with SEN at the polytechnics and ITE, they told me it would be helpful to extend the SEN Fund beyond physical disabilities. They are right, as is Ms Phua. Advancements in AT devices have made it easier for students with other types of challenges to access education and prepare for independent work and life.

38. MOE will thus extend the SEN Fund to polytechnic and ITE students with language and learning difficulties, as well as social and behavioural difficulties, including conditions like dyslexia, ASD, and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder. These students will be able to tap on the SEN Fund to purchase AT devices, up to a cap of $5,000, from 1 April 2020. Eligible students can approach their SEN Support Office to apply.

39. I am also happy to say that the autonomous universities will be extending the same support to their students with SEN for the purchase of AT devices. Besides funding, the SEN Support Offices in our IHLs also provide support to students with SEN from pre-enrolment to graduation.

40. Before enrolling in an IHL, prospective students can approach the SEN Support Offices in IHLs to find out more about courses that better suit their interests and learning needs. After enrolment, the SEN Support Offices work with lecturers and tutors to make arrangements to ensure that students with SEN can access the curriculum and assessment tasks.

41. For students with SEN who require additional support to transition to the workplace as an intern, the IHLs also work with SG Enable and SSAs to identify suitable internship opportunities, prepare the students, and ensure that they get the support they need during internship.

42. MOE will continue to work with schools and IHLs to strengthen support for students with SEN, to ensure that they, like all other students, receive the support they need to maximise their potential.

Strengthening Financial Support

43. MOE is also committed to ensuring that financial circumstances are never a barrier to education for Singaporean students.

44. Students with financial difficulties can tap on a variety of MOE support schemes. In 2019, 52,000 students from low-income families at the primary to pre-university levels benefitted from the MOE Financial Assistance Scheme (FAS), SPED Financial Assistance, and Independent School Bursary. Another 72,000 students from low to middle-income families in our IHLs benefitted from the government bursaries in Academic Year 2018.

45. Last year, we announced changes to make Preschool and Higher Education more affordable. To ensure that education remains affordable at every stage, MOE will enhance financial support for two more groups – students on the MOE Financial Assistance Scheme at Primary, Secondary and Pre-University levels as well as full-time Nitec and Higher Nitec students in ITE. DPM announced this in the Budget statement, and I will provide more details today.

46. First, we will enhance the MOE FAS, which supports Singaporean students at the primary, secondary and pre-university levels.

47. Recognising increased transport costs, from April 2020, we will raise the public transport subsidy from $10 to $15 per month, for primary up to pre-university levels. For primary school students who take the school bus, we will also enhance the school bus transport subsidy to 60% of monthly payable fees, up from 50% today. This means that for parents paying a school bus fare of $110, out-of-pocket fees will drop to $45, down from $55 today.

48. Next, we will enhance the school meal subsidies for secondary school students from April 2020 to $2.90 per school meal, up from $2.50 today. The meal subsidy for primary school students will remain at $2 per meal.

49. Finally, to strengthen support for pre-university students, the pre-university bursary will be increased from $900 to $1,000 per year.

50. These FAS enhancements will be similarly applied to students in the lowest income tier of the MOE Independent School Bursary. MOE will also extend applicable aspects of the FAS enhancements to SPED schools.

51. Similar to last year, we expect around 52,000 students from the primary to pre-university levels to benefit from the enhancements. This will cost around $52 million each year, a 20% increase from today.

52. Second, MOE will increase support for full-time Nitec and Higher Nitec students in ITE, which Mr Ang Wei Neng, Mr Saktiandi bin Supaat, and Mr Zainal Sapari asked about.

53. Today, MOE subsidises over 90% of the total cost of Nitec and Higher Nitec courses. Lower- and middle-income students can receive further assistance through a cash bursary. MOE will enhance the cash bursary by between $50 and $200.

54. Beyond this, from April 2020, students from low-income families will also benefit from a full fee subsidy, in addition to an enhanced cash bursary of $1,500. This is for Nitec and Higher Nitec students from families with gross household income of $2,750 and below, or per capita income of $690 and below. We expect around 19,000 students to benefit from the enhanced ITE bursaries.

55. Students within the top 10% of GCE 'N' or 'O' level entrants in each Higher Nitec and Nitec course receive the Community Development Council/Citizens' Consultative Committee-ITE Scholarship. These scholars currently receive a cash award of $1,600 a year. From April 2020, the scholarship will be enhanced to also cover their fees fully. Around 1,400 Nitec students and 1,200 Higher Nitec students will benefit from this. We will also rename the scholarship the "ITE Community Scholarship" to better reflect its purpose.

56. With these enhancements, we will spend around $28 million a year on bursaries and scholarship for full-time Nitec and Higher Nitec students, an increase of around 20% from today.

57. To ensure that students can easily access financial support schemes, we agree with Mr Lim Biow Chuan that the application process should be simple, without causing any embarrassment. In MOE schools, teachers and staff keep a look-out for students who may require financial assistance. When approaching students, they take care to do so sensitively and discreetly. MOE also partners with Self Help Groups to support students and families who need additional assistance beyond MOE. In our IHLs, information on financial aid and application processes is readily available online, and can also be obtained at the institution's financial aid office.

58. The process is even simpler for families on ComCare assistance. Students in our schools, Polytechnics and ITE whose families are on ComCare assistance will be automatically granted MOE financial assistance, without the need for any more documentation.

Uplifting Pupils in Life and Inspiring Families Taskforce

59. Despite our best efforts, we recognise there are still some students who struggle in our education system. Each of these students has a unique set of challenging circumstances. We believe these can be overcome with the right support. That is why we set up UPLIFT – the "Uplifting Pupils in Life and Inspiring Families Taskforce". Mr Murali Pillai, Ms Cheng Li Hui, Mr Charles Chong, and Dr Lim Wee Kiak have asked about UPLIFT's work; Let me provide an update.

Strengthening After-School Care and Support

60. A key focus area of UPLIFT is strengthening after-school care and support for students. This is done through school-based student care centres (SCCs) in primary schools, and after-school programmes in secondary schools.

61. After-school support is especially important for students who do not have conducive home environments to return to after school. Providing these students with a structured and supervised after-school environment gives them the opportunity to develop good habits, routines and skills that will help them to succeed later in life.

62. Last year, I said that MOE would expand our current provisions for after-school support. I am very happy to announce that we have achieved our target of opening an SCC in all 185 primary schools this year, up from 170 last year. Since we started expanding school-based SCCs in 2012, we have increased the enrolment from 3,000 to about 27,000 this year. We monitor demand for our SCCs closely, and will work with the service providers to expand their capacity without compromising programme and service quality.

63. With more places in SCCs, we are now stepping up efforts to identify, enrol and provide support to students who would most benefit from SCCs. Over the past year, MOE worked closely with the community and MSF to study ground feedback, and walked the journey with these students and their families. We identified the main challenges that these families faced in enrolling their child in a SCC. Together, we developed solutions to address them.

64. One major challenge is affordability. Today, children from low-income families attending MSF-registered SCCs receive fee subsidies under the ComCare Student Care Fee Assistance (SCFA) scheme. However, some students on MOE's FAS still pay more than $120 per month, after SCFA subsidies. Making SCCs more affordable for low-income families is an important step towards getting these students into the SCCs and into the right environment for them to do well. SPS Faishal will share more about this in his speech for MSF later this week.

65. Beyond affordability, families face other challenges. For example, some may require their children to head home after school to look after their younger siblings or grandparents. Others may need help with the documentation needed to apply for financial assistance. Such complex challenges can only be surfaced and addressed through deeper, more personal, engagement with these families.

66. Recognising this, we have developed a more comprehensive, proactive approach to reach out to families, and tackle challenges together with them.

67. First, schools will proactively identify students who would benefit most from the SCC environment, and go the extra mile to engage and build trust with their families, encouraging them to enrol their child in the SCC.

68. Second, we will engage the community to help address each family's challenges in a holistic and targeted way. Some families are referred to Social Service Offices or Family Service Centres, to help with childcare for their younger children, so that the older ones can attend school and SCC, instead of having to look after their younger siblings.

69. Finally, we will make the enrolment process and application process for SCFA more user-friendly. For example, teachers will walk families through the various documents they have to submit, and guide them through the process, if needed. For families with complex circumstances, schools will exercise judgment and be more facilitative in the enrolment of children into the SCC.

70. We piloted this outreach approach in a few primary schools in July last year. I was struck by the passion I saw in our teachers, who went out of their way to engage families, understand their challenges, and work with the community to address them. They visited their students' homes – multiple times in some cases. They conducted tours of the SCC for students, and induction sessions for parents. And I am most heartened to announce that we successfully enrolled 87 of the 100 students that we identified for the pilot.

71. After these students were enrolled, schools brought in community partners to engage them through targeted programmes to strengthen motivational support, resilience and holistic development. And, within the short span of 6 months, we have already begun to see progress in our students.

72. In Boon Lay Garden Primary School, our pilot outreach efforts helped four siblings - let's call them Nadia, Adam, Sofia and Danial - to enrol in their school's SCC. The four siblings received limited support at home, as their mother was busy taking care of three other younger siblings. Adam and Danial, in particular, had longstanding difficulties with completing homework on time.

73. Since joining the school's structured SCC environment, Adam and Danial have improved their time management skills, and now manage their homework more confidently. As the SCC at Boon Lay Garden is run by Big Heart Student Care, a joint venture by the four Self-Help Groups, the brothers also enjoyed plug-in programmes run by the SHGs, like the "Backyard Science Workshops" run by MENDAKI. The oldest sister, Nadia, also benefited from the SCC staff's reinforcement of positive values and habits taught by the school. In recognition of her improvement, Nadia was awarded the school's "Good Progress Award" last year.

74. With Nadia, Adam, Sofia and Danial progressing well in the SCC, their mother no longer needs to worry about them completing their homework when they return home.

75. Given the positive outcomes such as these, MOE will be implementing this enhanced outreach approach in all primary schools. This will enable us to support more students from different backgrounds, and further strengthen social mobility.

Community Partnerships

76. Mr Ang Wei Neng asked about UPLIFT's progress in partnering with community initiatives, and how such initiatives could link up with UPLIFT. Since the Taskforce was set up, UPLIFT has been supporting collaboration between schools and the community. I am very encouraged by the number of people who have come up to me to say: "I want to be part of UPLIFT, how can I help?" It is not just individuals; community organisations and companies have come forward too, approaching schools directly, or working through the UPLIFT Programme Office.

77. One such company is Singapore Press Holdings' Chinese Media Group ("CMG"). Last year, CMG worked with New Town Primary School and Qihua Primary School to start a Chinese reading programme called "Reading with You".

78. Leveraging their student publication - "Thumbs Up Junior", CMG staff including journalists and radio deejays engaged the students in enrichment activities and conversations, with the support of volunteers from the Chinese Development Assistance Council (CDAC) and Ngee Ann Polytechnic. Apart from immersing students in a Chinese Language-rich environment and improving their fluency and confidence in the language, the journalists also shared about current affairs and their experiences, serving as positive role models for the students.

79. The students enjoy these interactions with their big brothers and sisters. Over time, we hope such programmes can help students hone their strengths in their mother tongue languages; as relationships deepen, the volunteers can also play a role in shaping the students' aspirations. Such mentorship opportunities can be valuable for students from disadvantaged backgrounds, as the mentors inspire them and broaden their worldview in a natural, informal setting.

Uplift Community Pilot

80. Another key focus area of UPLIFT is tackling long-term absenteeism. Early upstream intervention is critical to prevent occasional non-attendance from becoming long-term absenteeism.

81. Earlier, I spoke about upcoming enhancements to SCC provisions for primary school students. At the secondary school level, we have set up after-school programmes in over 70 schools under GEAR-UP, benefitting more than 3,000 students. These programmes focus on befriending and mentoring by trusted adults, peer support, and interest-based activities to engage the students. We are on track to scale up GEAR-UP to 120 secondary schools this year.

82. School-based support in SCCs and GEAR-UP can be complemented by community-based programmes like academic coaching, drop-in services, and parenting support. However, schools may not always know of these programmes. Likewise, community organisations may not always know which students and families need help.

83. To close this coordination gap, UPLIFT has worked closely with MSF to pilot a solution. I am happy to update Members that since January, we have embarked on the UPLIFT Community Pilot, appointing an UPLIFT Town-Level Coordinator in the Social Service Office of three towns – Woodlands, Kreta Ayer, and Boon Lay.

84. The Town-Level Coordinator will help integrate school-based and community-based support. Where students have emerging attendance issues and needs that can be met by community-based programmes, schools will refer them to the coordinator. The coordinator will identify the needs of the students and their families, source for suitable resources and programmes offered by the local community partners, and then connect them to the students and families. By improving coordination, we can set up protective factors around the students and their families faster, and address underlying causes of absenteeism earlier.

85. The UPLIFT Community Pilot will pool together the collective wisdom and resources of schools and the community, to better support vulnerable families. We estimate that more than 300 students could benefit from this pilot.

Conclusion

86. Sir, in conclusion, to ensure that education remains an uplifting force for all, regardless of starting point, we will need the collective contribution and conviction of every Singaporean. I hope that what I have shared today will inspire more individuals and organisations to step forward and partner with us. Together, we can ensure that every Singaporean is cared for and supported to become the best that they can be. This is how we will build a society with opportunities for all.