Speeches/Interviews

December 27, 2018

Opening Address by Mr Ong Ye Kung, Minister for Education, at the Appointment and Appreciation Ceremony for Principals

It is my pleasure to join you today at the Appointment and Appreciation Ceremony for Principals.

Achievements of Retiring Education Officers

1. Today, we are honouring 18 Senior Education Officers who will be retiring after many years of dedicated service, in both schools as well as MOE Headquarters. They have channelled a career lifetime of energy, ideas and leadership to develop and shape our young, and in so doing, mould the future of Singapore.

2. They are Mdm Moliah Binte Hashim, Mdm Quek Seok Noi, Mrs Jasmail Singh Gill, Mr Winston James Hodge, Mr Vasuthevan s/o K Ramamurthy, Mrs Margaret Tan, Mdm Ng Shok Yan, Mdm Leong Meng Har, Miss Cheah Poh Lian, Mdm Koh Eng Ngoh, Mrs Wong Siew Shan, Mr Richard Lim, Mdm Heng Sen Mee, Mrs Chia Siew Yong, Mrs Esther Mok, Mr Lee Kok Hong, Dr Sum Chee Wah, and Ms Tan Lay Choo. I have known many of them personally.

3. They can be very proud of their achievements. They have nurtured numerous cohorts of students who have grown up to be fine men and women in our community. They could not have accomplished this alone. Behind them are teams of staff with a broad range of talents whom they embraced and led through good times and challenging ones. They all had their share of supportive and demanding parents, our close partners in education, and parents have put their faith in our education system because of the professionalism and deep know-how of our educators.

4. Several of them have served in MOE HQ as Superintendents, and other senior appointments such as, Senior Quality Assessor, Principal/Special Projects, Advisor, Directors and Chief Executive of Singapore Examinations and Assessment Board. So in addition to being school leaders, they have also helped steer our education system – reviewing its standards, adjusting it to suit the times, injecting flexibility and agility to bring out the best in every child.

5. It is never easy to bid farewell to colleagues and friends. But retirement is a necessary part of the self-renewal and professional development of our system. Some of you look forward to retirement as you can finally take a well-deserved break and spend more time with family; others may feel that you actually have more years to contribute. Whatever the case, retirement is the final selfless act of a dedicated professional, and MOE owes you a debt of gratitude.

6. Let us express our deep appreciation for their service and the immense difference they have made to their staff and students, their peers and colleagues. Please join me in thanking all of them.

7. As we bid happy retirement to our colleagues, we also want to welcome and congratulate the ten newly-appointed principals and the 56 rotated principals who will be receiving their appointment letters today. We trust that they will lead their schools with the same passion and commitment as their predecessors.

Learn for Life

8. The gathering of senior educators today is also a good opportunity for me to share some thoughts on the future of our education system. At the recent Schools Work Plan Seminar in September, I spoke about the next phase of our development.

9. Our children face a fast-changing, technologically-advanced and rapidly evolving future which none of us can fathom or pin down with certainty. Their best preparation is to know and be committed to developing their passions, talents and strengths. The education system must lay a strong foundation for them to continue to stay curious, learn and improve long after they leave the school system, so that they will adapt and thrive whatever the future maybe.

10. Our efforts to bring that about is encapsulated under a movement which I call ‘Learn for Life’. We have gone past the phases of changes where we make major adjustments to the education structure, or invest significant new resources to build up the system and establish new pathways. The ‘Learn for Life’ movement is more about processes, know-how, innovation and how we translate the movement into school and classroom practices.

11. I have chosen not to launch the ‘Learn for Life’ movement with a big bang, listing comprehensively all the things we want to do after a major committee review. Instead, it comprises several threads and thrusts which different groups in MOE are working and coordinating on, and we will present them in stages when our plans are firmed up and the timing is ripe. Thus far, we have presented two thrusts publicly.

Education as an Enabling Force

12. The first thrust centres on education as an enabling force, enhancing the joy of learning and inculcating curiosity in our students, which will serve them well over their lifetime. A major impetus is to shift away from an over-emphasis on academic grades and assessment, and invigorate the classroom through applied and inquiry-based learning.

13. We are safeguarding learning fundamentals, while exploring and re-looking our assessment system to better achieve our objectives and intent. It started with a major review of the PSLE scoring system which will be implemented in 2021, and the widespread introduction of Applied Learning in schools.

14. More recently, we announced the reduction of assessment load in schools. I announced this with some apprehension as I was not sure about the reactions of educators and parents. Indeed, immediately after the announcement, some worried parents asked: “Are we becoming too soft on the children?”

15. We must remember that we are starting from a position of strength and very high rigour in our education system. I am very glad that since the announcement, many students, parents, teachers and members of the public support the initiative. They welcome the changes to free up more curriculum time for more engaged teaching and learning.

16. I have received many emails where parents express hope that this will do more to inspire and empower their children towards learning. Parents and students walk up to me in public to tell me that this is the right direction to go. School leaders and teachers whom I have spoken to look forward to having more time to provide more applied and inquiry-based learning opportunities. They understand that the professional demands on them have gone up, and welcome the challenge.

17. I visited Tampines North Primary School recently and learnt that the school had removed Continual Assessments (CAs) a few years before our recent announcement. At first, parents were sceptical and worried that without CAs, the children would not study hard. But the parents soon came around when they saw that fewer CAs actually made the students more interested in learning and teaching became better.

18. Now that we intend to remove mid-year examinations for P3 and P5 system wide, it means that for these levels in Tampines North, there will be no major exams at all for the first half of the year. I asked the school leaders if they therefore planned to reinstate the CAs that they had removed. They told me that they had no plans to do so. They have developed ways to assess the students and gauge their learning outcomes, without relying on CAs and examinations. And they will make use of the freed up time to further improve teaching and learning.

19. These changes are also sparking learning innovation in schools. Presbyterian High School, Riverside, and Yishun Secondary Schools are working with MOE to use the freed up time for an extended fieldwork experience for geography students in secondary one. Their students will learn how to map their neighbourhoods using geospatial technologies. They will then examine existing land use patterns to identify suitable sites for community activities and suggest improvements to enhance barrier-free access for the elderly and disabled. This is an authentic and enjoyable learning experience.

Education as an Uplifting Force

20. The second thrust strengthens education as an uplifting and integrating force in society. Since Singapore became independent 53 years ago, we have been tackling the problem of inequality. That is why we invested heavily in education, public housing, public healthcare and pursued economic growth, because these are the fundamental, vital drivers for social mobility.

21. The discourse on inequality continues today. The problem is manifested differently from 53 years ago, but tackling inequality remains an unfinished business of this Government.

22. In this regard education plays a special role. What better way to ensure social mobility than to make sure our children are prepared well for the future? In PISA tests of literacy, numeracy and critical soft skills, our 15-year-old students from disadvantaged backgrounds performed much better than their peers of similar backgrounds from developed countries. Singapore has one of the smallest proportions of low performers in PISA in the world and many of our disadvantaged performers registered average or above average scores compared to many other developed countries.

23. MOE recently launched UPLIFT (Uplifting Pupils in Life and Inspiring Families Taskforce), an inter-agency taskforce led by Second Education Minister, Ms Indranee Rajah. Through the Taskforce, we will enhance motivational support for students, and address long-term absenteeism and drop-outs.

24. Further, our schools are also where Singaporeans of all backgrounds mingle and make friends. This is most apparent in higher education. Today, about 35% and 50% of every cohort attends Government-funded universities and polytechnics respectively. Half of our students living in HDB 1-2-3 room flats attend these institutes of higher learning. So in the university and polytechnic campuses, our young make friends with fellow Singaporeans from all backgrounds. If you visit our polytechnics and universities, the atmosphere is palpable.

25. The situation is also healthy in primary schools, secondary schools and junior colleges. Today, over 80% of our schools have a relatively good mix of students, with at least 5% of their students from the top and bottom socio-economic quintiles.

26. But societal trends are not in our favour. The Prime Minister spoke very frankly about this during the debate on President’s Address to Parliament earlier this year. Popular schools, such as certain independent schools, are attracting a greater proportion of students from families with higher socio-economic status. So diversity in these schools has gone down over the years.

27. This issue is not unique to us. We have seen this happening in many other developed societies with longer histories than us. Successful parents have more resources to invest in their children, they pass on their social capital, and send them to the popular schools, which become less open and diverse over time. We cannot blame parents for wanting the best for their children, but we need to work hard against this trend.

28. From 2019, MOE has imposed on all secondary schools that a minimum of 20% of admission places should go to unaffiliated students. We will review this floor over time. We are leveraging the Outward Bound School and the annual Singapore Youth Festival, to bring together students of different backgrounds, to undergo outdoor learning or for art performances.

29. The school principals of independent schools are also working hard to widen their student catchment. They are reaching out to primary schools in the vicinity, to encourage eligible students to apply to the independent schools. Today, 7.5% of students living in HDB 1-2-3 room flats scored in the top PSLE quintile. These students are eligible for the popular secondary schools even those with the most stringent entry criteria. We should ensure that they are not held back to attend the school of their choice.

Enhancements to Scholarships

30. Today, regardless of family background, students who do well in PSLE or qualify for Direct School Admission (DSA) do look forward to the opportunity to study in a popular independent school. One potential impediment is the cost of attending independent schools. For those from lower to middle income families, we have the Independent School Bursary to cover school fees. Students from low income families receive additional aid such as free textbooks, free school attire, and transport and meals subsidies.

31. Notwithstanding this, some students and parents from lower income families are still worried about costs, mainly out of pocket expenses, such as equipment for CCAs, or student-initiated projects or activities. As a result, the students opt out of these popular schools even though they are eligible.

32. We will therefore enhance the financial schemes for independent schools, to put their minds at ease. We have recently reviewed the MOE Financial Assistance Scheme to provide more support to students attending Government and Government Aided Schools. We are now doing more for lower income students attending Independent Schools too.

33. First, we will make the Independent School Bursary more generous. For independent school students who are within the lowest income tier, currently defined as having gross monthly household income of up to $2,750 or per capita income of up to $690, they already enjoy 100% subsidy in school fees. But those above this income tier pay a percentage of the independent school fees. To illustrate, a student from a middle-income family with gross monthly household income of between $4,000 and $6,900, pays 30% of school fees in independent schools. This can still come up to over a thousand dollars per year which is not a small sum.

34. We will increase our subsidy level for such students, so that instead of paying a percentage of independent school fees, they pay a multiple of fees for Government and Government Aided Schools, from zero to 1.5 times, depending on household income levels after the enhancement. To illustrate, students from the lowest income tier continue to pay zero fees. As for the student I mentioned earlier from the middle-income family who used to pay over a thousand dollars per year today, he will now pay 1.5 times the fees of Government and Government-Aided Schools, which is about $450 a year.

35. Currently, we also have a merit-based Edusave Scholarship for Independent Schools (ESIS). So if these students from lower income families do well, they are also eligible for the Scholarship, which will cover the remainder of the fees.

36. Second, we will implement a new UPLIFT Scholarship for Independent Schools, to further help students from lower income families, especially with out-of-pocket expenses. This scholarship will complement the Independent School Bursary, and consists of a cash award of $800 per annum to help offset the out-of-pocket expenses for students from lower income households.

37. This scholarship will be offered to lower income students who are admitted to independent schools, and have performed well in PSLE or demonstrated talents to qualify for DSA. Through these additional financial assistance, all students, regardless of family income or background, can and should aspire to an education in a school of their choice, and need not worry about the cost of education.

38. I hope to see more promising or high performing students from these lower income families admitted into independent schools, have their school fees, uniforms, textbooks, meals covered under the Independent School Bursary, and on top of that, awarded $800 cash a year under the UPLIFT Scholarship to cover out-of-pocket expenses.

39. These are significant steps we are taking to enhance the diversity of our independent schools, while preserving their meritorious culture. We will implement them in 2019, and extend the initiatives to eligible students who are already in the independent schools.

Conclusion

40. Let me conclude. Today’s ceremony is especially significant in view of the next phase of education we are moving into. We are paying tribute and celebrating the achievements of generations of principals, who have brought our system this far. Educators, you are the heart, brain, muscle and backbone of our education system. You provide us the basis and foundation to explore new possibilities as we take Singapore’s education forward, through the Learn for Life movement. I look forward to working with you closely, learning from your experiences and making the necessary adjustments to our education system to suit today’s challenges and circumstances.

41. Thank you