Speeches/Interviews

June 28, 2020

Opening Address by Mr Ong Ye Kung, Minister for Education at the 2020 Schools and Institutes of Higher Learning Combined Workplan Seminar

Our Imperatives as an Education System

Dear friends and colleagues

1. Welcome to Workplan Seminar 2020. This year's seminar will comprise many discussions to be held over a month, and I will kick it off with this presentation. This year, I can't speak to you personally on a stage. I hope this will do.

2. Schools have been re-opening all round the world – in Europe, Asia, Australia, New Zealand. Why?

3. Because Governments and parents know that schools are essential to their children's development, and a very long break from school can have long term consequences.

4. That is why since the beginning of the year, when countries all around the world were closing schools, we kept them open, and kept them safe. Even when we went into circuit breaker, we kept learning going through Home-Based Learning, HBL.

5. Because of your efforts, we have saved the school year. You are one of the reasons there will not be a "lost generation" in Singapore.

6. I thank you all.

7. There is still a lot of work ahead of us. COVID-19 is changing almost everything, including the education system.

8. But we can ride this momentum. Let me explain how.

Accelerating 'Learn for Life'

9. We have launched a reform of the education system, called 'Learn for Life', which aims to eventually make every school a good school.

10. COVID-19 has not derailed us from this. Rather, it puts 'Learn for Life' on steroids. I give you a few examples.

11. We wanted to put stronger emphasis on Character and Citizenship Education. COVID-19 brought these lessons to life – such as those about personal and social responsibility, about caring for others, about emerging stronger.

12. Our schools and teachers have been helping students from vulnerable backgrounds through our UPLIFT programme. As a result, they have developed deep relationships with these students. So when we entered circuit breaker, instinctively, schools invited the students back, to continue to guide them in their learning. Some long-term absentees, in fact, returned to school.

13. To reduce the over-emphasis on exams and grades, we had planned to remove mid-year exams, for some levels, in some schools. The circuit breaker forced us to remove mid-year exams for all levels, in all schools, in one fell swoop. Most students, parents and teachers did not protest. They appreciated the time it freed up for teaching and learning.

14. There are many other examples. But the point is that COVID-19 showed us what we can, should and need to do more quickly.

15. There are four initiatives that we will immediately work on. They may have sounded impossible, even audacious in the past. Now they are possible, even necessary.

Normalising Home-Based Learning

16. First, we should make HBL a regular part of school life.

17. There were so many innovative HBL lessons during the circuit breaker. I have seen students conduct science experiments in their kitchens; play musical instruments together via video-conferencing; learn beyond the formal curriculum.

18. I met students who came to school to do their HBL. When I asked them 'How's everything?', they replied that they liked HBL. I asked 'Why?', and they said that they could learn at their own pace, pose questions to the teachers in private – no peer pressure.

19. What I found out is that many of our teachers noticed that too.

20. We all went through an unexpected crash course in HBL. Like all lessons and courses, we learn most when we adopt a mentality of humility.

21. When we do, we will accept that HBL can be a useful mode of education delivery, because it encourages more independent, self-directed learning. This is one of the most important lifelong skills.

22. We will also recognise that HBL cannot be a full substitute for school. Schools and classrooms will always be needed because this is where there are teachers, friends, values transmission, and face-to-face interactions. Education is fundamentally a social process.

23. The sensible thing to do is to complement classroom teaching with HBL, and make HBL a permanent and regular feature of education.

24. Perhaps once a fortnight, there can be an HBL day. It can be done at home, or in school. The HBL day should not be packed with lessons and curriculum teaching. Nor should it be a free-for-all where the student does whatever he wishes.

25. I think it would be most useful with a looser structure – getting students to go through some curriculum themselves, give them room to read on their own, explore some topics outside the curriculum.

26. Students can also review past lessons, and ask all the questions they want. The main point is to get students to chart their own learning journey, at their own pace.

27. Perhaps at the end of the day, there can be online discussions with classmates and teachers, to review and share what they have learned outside of the curriculum.

28. HBL can be a canvas for teachers to innovate, to inculcate independence in learning, and ignite students' curiosity.

Accelerating the National Digital Literacy Programme

29. Second, accelerate the National Digital Literacy Programme that I announced earlier this year.

30. Under the programme, we had planned to equip every secondary school student with a personal digital learning device.

31. But we did not want to give students the device first and then figure out what to do with it. That would have been placing the cart before the horse.

32. Instead, we wanted to put in place plans to ensure that we developed a good curriculum, an online curriculum, good digital lesson plans, trained teachers to deliver both classroom and online classes effectively, addressed parents' concerns about cyber addiction and wellness, before we equipped all students with a device.

33. All these preparations will take time. Hence, before COVID-19, we had planned to equip all Secondary One students with a digital device by 2024. By 2028, all secondary school students would have one.

34. But the circuit breaker changed all that. Within a few short weeks, there was universal adoption of digital learning.

35. Overnight, all teachers shifted to delivering online lessons. Those who were IT-savvy taught those who were not.

36. Parents helped to set up spaces at home where their kids could focus on learning, supervised the younger children, and accepted this mode of delivery.

37. Out of this crisis, and by virtue of necessity, we gained something quite extraordinary – mass acceptance of online learning.

38. However, online learning also highlighted the challenge of the digital divide. Many students did not have devices to participate in HBL.

39. Our schools loaned out over 20,000 digital devices to students, and more than 1,600 dongles. Community organisations also stepped up, and donated laptops to students.

40. Now that we have bridged the acceptance gap of online learning, it is time to also close the digital divide.

41. Instead of 2028, we will advance the plan – by seven years. As SM Tharman mentioned, by the end of next year – 2021 – every secondary school student will have a personal learning device.

42. For those without a Wifi subscription at home, we will work with IMDA to help them too with free subscriptions.

43. MOE will use bulk tenders to keep the devices affordable, probably several hundred dollars each. We have topped up students' Edusave accounts to help them purchase the devices. For students on financial assistance, we will provide further subsidies so that their out-of-pocket expense is zero.

44. The devices will be installed with device management software to prevent misuse and we will step up digital literacy lessons in schools.

45. The digital device, coupled with digital literacy, is a tool for life. This is a big step towards digital inclusion.

Uplifting Students

46. The third initiative has to do with uplifting students from vulnerable backgrounds.

47. COVID-19 has aggravated the challenges faced by these students. When schools close, they suffer the most.

48. During the circuit breaker, when agencies and charity organisations tried to render assistance to the students, we faced challenges.

49. With most of them being at home, we couldn't give them a meal in school. The ST School Pocket Money Fund tried to give them cash to buy food, but many of the students didn't have bank accounts to credit the money into.

50. Arising from this experience, MOE did a survey and found that about one third of our Primary One students do not have bank accounts.

51. This highlighted another imperative: We need to do more to ensure greater financial inclusion, from young.

52. Digital and financial literacy are synergistic. E-payments are becoming more common – in time, may be the default. To be an active participant of the future economy, you need to be both digitally and financially plugged-in.

53. For most of our students, by the time they reach secondary school, they will have a bank account and the basic skills to manage it. But some students, especially those on financial assistance, fall through the cracks.

54. We should have a safety net to catch these students, to make sure that they are financially plugged in. So this is what we will do.

55. Today, every Singaporean baby is given a Child Development Account (CDA). This is where the First Step Grant of $3,000 from the Government goes into. It can be used to pay for pre-school fees, or medical expenses.

56. But not all parents activate the CDA. We are reaching out to them to encourage them to do so, and enjoy the $3,000 First Step Grant.

57. Minister Indranee is also getting donors and charity organisations to help top up the CDA of kids from lower-income backgrounds. That way, they can take better advantage of the dollar-for-dollar matching from Government.

58. But beyond that, we want to equip every child with a bank account. As all our children will have a CDA, what makes sense is to make it a standard offer to parents, the convenience of opening a Child Savings Account, at the same time when they open the CDA.

59. This Child Savings Account, or CSA, will operate like a regular personal bank account. There will be no minimum balance requirement, fees, or charges. We will explore options to equip the CSA with digital enablers, like PayNow and SingPass.

60. Parents can opt out of having a CSA if they do not need it.

61. With bank accounts and e-payment, it becomes a lot easier for our students to receive monies from awards or financial assistance. We will put in place safeguards to ensure families manage their CSAs well.

62. Alongside parents, schools will come in, to teach students financial literacy – how to manage their account, about budgeting, and the virtue of savings. Our young must pick up financial literacy skills beyond just using physical money.

63. That way, we ensure financial inclusion for every child.

Inter-Disciplinary Learning in IHLs

64. The final initiative is to expand inter-disciplinary learning in tertiary institutions.

65. Our current model produces graduates of various disciplines that industries tell us they need. If you meet their needs, you are set.

66. So my parents, my wife and I, all believed that a good tertiary qualification could see us through our careers.

67. But not our children. They are growing up in a different world. Technology is advancing rapidly, industries are ever-changing. Solving big challenges like climate change or social inequality requires expertise that spans across disciplinary boundaries.

68. In time, when they step into the workforce, they will already be wondering what skills and knowledge they need a year or two later. COVID-19 will reset the competitive playing field, and accelerate these trends.

69. The imperatives of tertiary education have therefore changed. It has shifted to ensuring our young are versatile, adaptable lifelong learners.

70. Professional and specialised training of doctors, lawyers, and architects are still necessary. Some specialisation, including through applied learning, is also needed for students who are single-minded in pursuing their interest.

71. But a large proportion of our students enrol in more general courses. They will benefit from a broader set of skills that gives them a strong foundation. Based on that, they can discover their interests later in life, dive deep and specialise.

72. However, tertiary education as we know it today is not quite designed to do this. The polytechnics and universities are generally structured by schools and faculties in which students are admitted.

73. In response, the IHLs are moving towards inter-disciplinary learning. Polytechnics have started programmes with more common modules. NYP just announced a new teaching model where multiple disciplines will be taught concurrently. SP merged eight media, arts and design courses into one. SUTD's curriculum has always been founded on inter-disciplinary learning.

74. These are useful efforts, but we need a bigger transformative push.

75. I have discussed this with the leaders of our tertiary institutions. They all agreed that bolder moves are needed. As an example, let me share with you what NUS is working on.

76. One, together with their industry partners, they will identify the skills most needed to succeed in an Industry 4.0 world.

77. From there, NUS will offer 10 inter-disciplinary undergraduate programmes, which will pair disciplines with complementary applications – such as economics and data science, computing and project management, or engineering and business.

78. Two, instead of completing just a single major, which requires 80 to 100 credits, students will undertake two majors, each with 40 credits covering the fundamentals, and another 20 credits on integrative projects involving both majors.

79. Three, students in more general courses, such as Sciences or Arts and Social Sciences, may undertake a broad-based common first year with plenty of inter-disciplinary explorations.

80. Together these three ideas add up to a hyper-flexible NUS graduate, trained in a unique combination of skills which he had designed for himself.

81. These are initial ideas. NUS is conducting an in-depth review of its curricula structure and will implement the changes for Academic Year 2021/22.

82. The other universities and polytechnics are also embarking on similar reviews.

Post COVID-19 Education

83. COVID-19 is a devastating global event – but we have a choice about how we emerge from it, bloodied but unbowed.

84. I visited Oulu, Finland some years ago. This is where Nokia sited its mobile phone division. When the Division was closed in 2011, Nokia laid off 4,000 workers, including many researchers and engineers.

85. It was a huge blow for Oulu. But the people did not despair. A large critical mass of talent was set free, they went into new industries, established new companies, and Oulu today is a hub for start-ups and tech companies in Finland. It is doing research on 6G technology.

86. The province of Aceh was devastated by a tsunami in 2004. But from the rubble of the disaster, local groups made peace and put an end to decades of domestic conflict.

87. I don't think these places recovered from the setbacks and disasters through one, grand master move. But rather, people responded, one at a time. Policies responded, one at a time. New projects sprouted, one at a time.

88. These four new initiatives, they won't change Singapore, nor the education system in a drastic way. But they are our way of rolling with the COVID-19 punches, seizing opportunities even in the most difficult of times.

89. From the ashes of COVID-19, we will rise. Every dark cloud has a silver lining, and even the coldest winter will see spring. We will find strength in these new imperatives, and our children will once more, look towards all that a bright future would bring.

90. Education will not be the same post COVID-19. It will be better. Together we shall see to it.

91. I look forward to hearing your views and ideas. Thank you.