Speeches/Interviews

July 11, 2018

Parliamentary Motion “Education For Our Future” Response by 2nd Minister for Education, Ms Indranee Rajah

1. Mr Deputy Speaker, I thank the NMPs for moving this motion on the important topic on education. They have put the focus on the love of learning as the driving force for education, and called for government and people to work together to ensure that education is accessible, inclusive and lifelong. I would also like to thank Ms Rahayu for her amendments, which helped to flesh out how we should do this provided the frame for the action plan, as well as all the members who have spoken and contributed to this debate.

KEY THEMES OF THE DEBATE

2. As I listened to the speeches, there are some key themes which emerged.

3. The first is that parents want reassurance that their children will have a bright future and that they will not lose out. We have heard much about a future-ready education system, stress, competition, the PSLE, lifelong learning, and inclusivity. All these are really different aspects of the same concern - which is trying to ensure that your child has the best possible chance to succeed.

4. Second, even as we want our children to get ahead, there is also a strong sentiment that we want our children to be able to enjoy their years in school.

5. Mr Louis Ng, Mr Darryl David and Mr Kok Heng Leun spoke about this. We do not want the children’s years in school to be only about homework, tests, assessments, grades and exam scores. It must also be an enjoyable educational experience, built around a love of learning, of exploration, and of play. It must be holistic, teaching skills like critical thinking to prepare them for the new world ahead. And it must have the emotional well-being of our students at heart. Mr Ganesh Rajaram and Ms Kuik Shiao Yin also spoke about the need to change our culture: that as teachers, parents, and as a society, we need to give our children space to grow. We need to listen to them better, in order to support them better.

6. Third, many of you also spoke about how this love for learning must be a lifelong one. Ms K. Thanaletchimi, Mr Randolph Tan and Mr Darryl David urged that our children must continue to learn after they leave school, and throughout their working lives. Employees and employers alike must be nimble and receptive to on-the-job training.

7. Fourth, this debate reflects our social conscience. Many MPs including Mr Mahdev Mohan, Ms Kuik Shiao Yin and Mr Azmoon Ahmad have raised the issue of inequality - you worry that the vulnerable, the disabled and the low income will not be able to get as much out of the education system as those who are better off, that they will get left behind, and that the gap is widening. This shows that as a people, we care about those who are disadvantaged.

8. A fifth common theme was that of inclusivity, integration and social mixing. Ms Rahayu Mahzam, Ms Chia Yong Yong and Mr Henry Kwek spoke passionately about this. We are concerned that children born with special needs will go through life without being embraced and valued by society. We are concerned that the divide between rich and poor or between children from different backgrounds and communities may grow - this is important because it says something about our values and the kind of society we want, the kind of people that we are, one which is more equal, more unified.

9. Lastly, a call for us to work together to achieve these goals – Ms Denise Phua spoke about the need for Government to tap on the ideas, expertise of stakeholders to develop policies and programmes together, as we shape an education system for the future.

MOE’S MISSION: MOULDING THE FUTURE OF OUR NATION

10. On all these broad objectives, we are aligned. These are MOE’s objectives too. We want every child to have a bright future and do well. Like the MPs who have spoken, we want them to have a wonderful school experience. We are also concerned about the vulnerable and we want integration and inclusivity to be at the heart of our education system. Where we may differ in some aspects is on the strategies or solutions, but let me reassure the House that we are very much at one in terms of the overall aims and objectives.

11. Minister Ong and SPS Faishal have already explained some of our Ministry’s programmes and the considerations behind our work. Let me wrap up MOE’s response by sharing with the House where we are coming from, in terms of the big picture: our mission, what we have done, what we are doing and what we will be doing.

12. Everyday, many vehicles and pedestrians go past the MOE signage along North Buona Vista Road. Most people do not stop to examine the signage but if you did, you would see MOE’s mission statement on it, which is: “Moulding the Future of our Nation”. It is a mission we take very seriously. MOE has walked a life journey, not just with the nation, but also with every Singaporean who had passed through the education system. Let me show you that journey through the eyes of 3 generations of women.

13. When Singapore achieved independence in 1965, Mdm Iris Wong was 11 years old. She used to walk through the hot sun to May South Primary School. School was often disrupted because of social unrest and racial riots.

14. In those early years as a fledgling nation, MOE played a key role in racial harmony and integration, bringing children together in a national school system. Our priority for a newly independent country was mass education for a young population and to help people get jobs in an era of industrialisation.

15. Mdm Wong’s education journey ended after Secondary 4, which was considered quite a high attainment in those days. She began work in her father’s tailoring shop and had 3 children, one of whom was a daughter, Josephine.

16. Josephine went to Outram Primary in the 1980s. She drank milk out of little plastic packets and brushed her teeth over the school drain - as I did when I went to primary school in the 1970s! The milk was to help our children get strong bones because at that time, rickets was still a problem due to poor nutrition in a country that was still not well off.

17. By Josephine’s time, the economy had changed. We were moving up the value chain, from a lower skill manufacturing base, producing fish hooks and matches, to a more capital intensive and high-skills economy, producing electronics and petrochemicals. The education system had to adapt to equip Singaporeans to thrive in this new situation, and address high drop-out rates.

18. That was when streaming was introduced to cater to the different learning paces of our children. The school drop-out rate fell sharply after streaming. Attrition for the first Primary school cohort that was streamed was about 1 in 10 students, as compared to the previous rate of 1 in 3.

19. Josephine left school, went to poly, worked for a few years and then got a degree in Marketing Communications. By the time she was being courted by her husband-to-be in the 2000s, the education system was coming of age and undergoing a paradigm shift. We had entered the phase of the Knowledge-based Economy, where ideas and information are the key drivers of growth. We needed people with entrepreneurial spirit, the ability to innovate and we had to build intellectual capital. So then-PM Mr Goh Chok Tong introduced a new education philosophy “Thinking Schools, Learning Nation”, that reduced curriculum time to make room for more inquiry-based activities that would develop creativity and critical thinking. We also gave greater autonomy for schools to be innovative in programmes, and invested in Information and Communications Technology.

20. To deliver this, we hired more teachers and strengthened teachers’ professional development to improve teaching quality.

21. In the 2000s, to cater to new and different aspirations, MOE introduced more choice, diversity and flexibility in terms of types of schools and programmes.

22. In 2010, Josephine gave birth to a beautiful baby girl - Vera. Vera is now 8 years old. She started primary school in CHIJ Toa Payoh last year. The future that she faces will be very different from that of her grandmother and her mother. The beginning of this decade when she was born marked the end of the Global Financial Crisis and the beginning of what we call the future economy. The future economy calls for a very different sort of education from that undertaken by Iris and Josephine. It will be a VUCA environment: Volatile, Uncertain, Complex and Ambiguous. It is a future driven by the need for skills, innovation, adaptability and flexibility. It will be disrupted by technology. It will see the weight of the global economy shift towards Asia.

23. And members have correctly identified that our education system needs to be able to respond to this, to ensure that our children and our people can do well in this future. MOE has already embarked on this. We are undertaking a transformational change for the next phase in our development. And the reason I went through this history of MOE was really to show that at each stage, times changed and MOE has responded, our education has responded. It has adapted and adjusted in order to walk that journey with the nation and with Singaporeans. So where are we now?

DEVELOPING EACH INDIVIDUAL AND CREATING MULTIPLE PATHWAYS

24. First, we now put a lot more emphasis on developing the whole child – not just their academic achievements and this is key to our student-centric, values-driven philosophy. Basically, we put our child at the centre and we build around that.

25. MOE’s approach is best reflected in our 21st Century Competencies Framework. I have asked the clerk to place a copy of this framework on members’ chairs. It is often referred to as the MOE Swiss Roll, but I think if we want to be technically correct, it should be an Artic Roll. Baby boomers would know which ice-cream I refer to. If you look at it, you can see that values is at the core of the framework. Because at the end of the day, the most important thing is for the individuals to develop their character, with their values at the core of it. This ties in with character development, which we have made as a central part of our education. The next two rings reflect the social and emotional skills that our children will need to navigate the world ahead; the outermost ring shows what kind of people we eventually want them to be: confident, able to learn on their own, contributing actively in all their undertakings to society and to be good citizens. So for the members who have spoken about the need for character and good attributes, please be assured that this is actually a focus of our education system.

26. Next, we ensure that your children will attain knowledge, and have a solid foundation in literacy and numeracy.

27. But this book knowledge alone is not enough.

28. This year, the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) published a paper entitled “Education 2030: The Future of Education & Skills”. Future-ready students will need broad knowledge, but also practical skills, like the ability to utilise new technology. These skills will be in great demand by employers.

29. And even this is not enough. The churn and change caused by technology and other disruptive factors means that learning has to continue well into adult life. The ability to learn, un-learn and relearn will be key.

30. Much of the stress that we have talked about is really driven by the assumption that there is only one path to success - the academic route. This has led to a fear that if children do not get into certain schools or into the express stream, then they will not have a bright future.

31. However, there are in fact many different paths to success.

32. Different children have different personalities, talents and abilities. Some are more academically inclined. Others are much better with their hands or are more creative and artistic. Different children respond differently to different methods of teaching.

33. The future economy will be much more diverse than today. Doctors, lawyers, engineers, architects and accountants will still be around but the way they do their jobs will be very different. There will be increased demand for jobs in new areas like Financial Technology, Data Analytics, Artificial Intelligence, and Virtual Reality. Dell Technologies recently released a report based on a survey of 3,800 business leaders across the world. It estimated that 85% of the jobs in 2030 have not even been invented yet. When Vera enters the workforce in about 15 years, she may well take on a job that we have not even conceived of today. And yet, it is our task to prepare her for it.

34. So you cannot have a system that is one-size-fits-all. Nor is there any longer a single measure of success. Learning has to be lifelong.

35. In recognition of this, we have over the years introduced different types of schools and programmes to cater to the different strengths and talents of different individuals. We have the usual O and A level route, but we also have established the Integrated Programme in various schools to give students more time to immerse themselves in broader learning experiences. We have the Sports School to cater for sporting talent, School of The Arts for those artistically inclined, NUS High School of Math and Science for those who are STEM-inclined and the School of Science and Technology, which focuses on STEM as well, but their curriculum centres on applied and interdisciplinary learning. Then we have Crest and Spectra Secondary Schools which cater to students who would benefit from a skills-based, hands-on curriculum. There are NorthLight and Assumption Pathway Schools to cater for those who may be at risk of leaving school prematurely. We have secondary schools with Enhanced Art and Music programmes. Mr Kok Heng Leun spoke passionately about arts and the humanities. I would encourage Mr Kok and all members here to visit the Singapore Youth Festival Art Exhibition, which is at the National Gallery. You would be amazed by the quality of some of the art work that is being produced by our students. More recently, we have introduced Applied Learning Programmes (ALP) in all secondary schools. Changkat Changi Secondary School, whose programme is aptly titled ‘SOAR’, partners aviation industry giants to give students opportunities to deepen their understanding of aeronautics. At Teck Whye Primary School, students are introduced to design thinking concepts, using 3D printing technologies to bring their projects to life.

36. We have adjusted the system for different aptitudes and paces of learning. While streaming in schools – the old EM1, EM2 and EM3 system --did achieve the objective of lowering attrition rates, it also had the effect of too sharply categorising students at an early stage and did not sufficiently allow for the fact that different students may have strengths in different subjects. So in its place, we introduced differentiated learning, which recognises that different children have different strengths and also learn different subjects at different paces. This is the Subject- Based Banding (SBB) where students can take combinations of standard and foundation subjects. At secondary school, the Express, Normal Academic and Normal Technical streams cater for the different talents, strengths and abilities of the students. We have now also extended SBB to cover both the lower and upper secondary levels.

37. We also have many more subjects and many more subject combinations. Students can dabble in Food & Consumer Education, stand at work benches filled with different ingredients, instead of their usual desks; or they can take China Studies to learn about the complexities of the Chinese society.

38. In our Institutions of Higher Learning, we now also have subjects which were unknown to parents when they were in school. Singapore Poly’s diploma in Perfumery and Cosmetic Science taps into a growing global market for fragrance products. At least five of the world’s top flavor and fragrance houses are now based in Singapore, and these students’ skills will be highly valued. ITE offers a Higher Nitec in Games Art and Design: where you can learn how to create unforgettable characters, and entire virtual worlds! And our students are so good - they created games that ended up being finalists in showcases like the Tokyo Game Show (TGS).

39. In addition to all of these, we have created multiple pathways to success. Post-secondary, we now have ITE with three campuses, five polytechnics, and six Autonomous Universities. Many members of this House will remember the recommendations of the ASPIRE Report which were debated in this chamber and evolved to become SkillsFuture. The end result of that report was more applied learning; more career options, and more career progressions. We established the Polytechnic Foundation Programme for early entry into polys, and the ITE Work-Learn Technical Diploma so that students can undergo apprenticeships and study at the same time. When students graduate, they can continue to learn, making use of their SkillsFuture credits, or attend part-time courses. Traditional universities like NUS and NTU –based on the British model, or SMU – which is more a US-style business school. In the last few years, we have added three new publicly-funded applied universities: SUTD –for engineering, computing and architecture, SIT –for science and technology and SUSS –for the social sciences. And SIT and SUSS have a more applied pedagogy and curriculum. So, there are many different ways to reach an ultimate goal: you can go the academic route from secondary to JC to university; to polytechnic then work, or attend ITE and work through the Work-Learn Technical Diploma. You can also go to ITE, then polytechnic, then university, or go to polytechnic, work, and then move on to university or other professional certifications. There are multiple permutations.

40. We have made SkillsFuture a movement for lifelong learning, supported by the many SkillsFuture Programmes under MOE, as well as the Adapt and Grow Programmes under MOM. Minister Ong also recently announced, at the ITE graduation ceremony on 3rd July, that working adults will be able to apply to polytechnics via the Early Admissions Exercise from 2020 onwards. This means that adults can secure places in diploma courses through course-specific talents, because the polys will better recognise work experience, instead of relying only on academic results. So this is yet another example of our commitment to ensuring that people have many opportunities to progress.

41. That said, we do acknowledge that there are concerns about over-drilling and an over-emphasis on grades. We on our part have made moves to reduce PSLE stress: we stopped revealing the top PSLE scores and we removed banding of schools by academic results.

42. We are now going one step further. As announced previously, in 2021, we will be making changes to the PSLE scoring and Secondary One posting systems. We will replace the T-score with wider scoring bands. This means that there will be only 29 possible PSLE scores, compared to the more 200 in the current system. This will reduce fine differentiation and comparison between students. This means more schools will share the same cut-off points. We will also introduce tie-breakers – choice, for example – that are not related to academic results.

INCLUSIVITY

43. SPS Faishal has addressed this. But let me just affirm that this is an area in which we want to provide the best possible support to those with special needs and will continue to be an important part of our work. Ms Chia Yong Yong spoke very passionately just now on this topic. And Ms Chia, I would like to say that she is definitely not a burden. In fact, she is very much a blessing. Her disability, or rather special ability has enabled her to give this House insights and perspectives that we would not otherwise have had. This has enriched our debate and informed our policy, and she has provided positive contribution. This is the value and the benefit of inclusivity and being able to draw on people, different talents and different abilities.

44. We will continue to ensure that education remains an integrating force that brings everyone together.

JOY OF LEARNING

45. Many members spoke about this, and the importance of giving our students space and time to discover who they are. They’ve shared their concerns about the culture of over-drilling, over-testing, and stress.

46. We agree. Nurturing a love for learning in our students is equally important to us. We start earlyfrom the pre-school years. Our Nurturing Early Learners curriculum, as Mr Louis Ng pointed out, recognises the importance of purposeful play. This framework is shared with the entire pre-school sector. The Early Childhood Development Agency’s regulations have also placed more emphasis on outdoor play and physical development. We have taken steps to unlock curiosity and encourage the joy of learning in our teaching pedagogies. For example, our Programmes for Active Learning, and learning through ‘unstructured’ play, where children can engage in open-ended, free play. In Punggol Primary, teachers set up stations full of supplies for children –nets, leaves, twigs, for them to create their own rules and games. At Yangzheng Primary, students learn English through performing and dramatising stories together. Teachers also create games to teach Math. We are facilitating sharing among educators on how to adopt innovative and engaging teaching practices so that students will enjoy learning, through initiatives like the Singapore Teaching Practice, an online portal for teachers.

47. We acknowledge sentiments from the public, from the House, about how we can work to free our students from the never-ending worksheets and tests. For example, Keming Primary School is exploring moving away from Common Tests, which used to take up about three weeks of curriculum time, to regular checkpoint assessments instead, so that more time is freed up for other learning experiences. MOE’s Director General of Education, Mr Wong Siew Hoong, recently sent a note round to the fraternity. In it, he affirmed the good work of teachers and encouraged everyone to adopt a spirit of introspection, to reflect on whether some of our practices, despite being done out of love for the child, may have unintended consequences. For example, by giving them too many tests, which may deprive them of time for other activities. So we will do our part, but we do need parents and other stakeholders to do their part too.

48. Mr Louis Ng called for a review of performance-based ranking for teachers, because he was concerned that they might teach for the test. I would like to reassure Mr Ng and members that teacher performance is assessed holistically and is not dependent on their student’s academic performance. Teachers are assessed on a wide range of criteria: quality teaching and learning, character development of students, professional development of self and others, demonstration of desired personal attributes, professional values and ethics, content mastery and pedagogy of instruction.

BRIDGING THE GAPS

49. Members have also expressed concerns about for students who are less well-off and disadvantaged. We pay a lot of attention to this group, with interventions and financial assistance. This has enabled students from disadvantaged backgrounds to do better. Today, 9 out of 10 students in the lowest SES quintile progress to post-secondary education, up from 5 in 10, or 50%, 15 years ago.

50. We top the world PISA scores in mathematics, science, reading, and collaborative problem solving. We also top the world in TIMSS – the Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study – in mathematics and science. We are number two in the world in PIRLS, the Progress in International Reading Literacy Study.

51. What this shows us is: there are high peaks. We have one of the highest proportion of students performing at the highest levels of proficiency- about one-third to half of our students. Mr Mahdev Mohan asked if this means that our Singapore students are ready for the brave new world. The fact that our students come out tops in collaborative problem solving is promising because it measures not just their content knowledge, but their ability to work with others, communicate, and solve complex problems. This will serve us in good stead for the future.

52. However, what is also notable is that there are no deep valleys: we have one of the smallest proportions of low performers in PISA, TIMSS and PIRLS. What this means is that our schools are supporting students from all socio-economic backgrounds to do well, and that they do better than their peers in other countries.

53. Nevertheless, like members who have spoken today, we too are concerned about the widening income gap even as the middle class are uplifted and do better over time. The solution is to uplift those at the lower end and close the gap, without chopping the top and holding back those who do well, as Minister Ong spoke about just now. This is something we are committed to do.

54. I also want to say that what drives much of our work to support and uplift students are our committed educators, who are at the heart of the system. It is our educators who motivate students, and who identify opportunities for them. Outram Secondary has a remarkable principal, Mr Boo Hian Kok. He formed a task force, consisting of teachers and Student Welfare Officers, to address Long Term Absentee cases. For those teachers, their calendar is cleared for the first few periods in the morning. If the students don’t show up to school by 8am, these teachers will make phone calls, visit homes, knock on their doors, and encourage the families to send them to school. The taskforce makes a special effort to understand and empathise with the family’s difficulties. They build rapport, so that the family trusts that the school has their child’s welfare at heart. And this has helped students like Jimmy (not his real name) feel welcome and safe. He used to skip school because his stepmother has a chronic illness, and he had to buy her meals. With the school’s help, he now stays with his grandparents, who are better able to care for him. He loves soccer, so the school placed him in a special soccer programme to encourage him to come back. His attendance is now regular. In the three years since the taskforce was set up, Outram Secondary has managed to reduce their Long Term Absenteeism rate by half.

PARTNERSHIP

55. At the end of the day, you can see that all of us – parents, teachers, MOE – want the same thing. We want our children and our people to do well. We want them to have as enjoyable an education as possible, and we want them to enjoy learning. The key is in striking the right balance and having the right mindset.

56. On balance,Mr Louis Ng called on us to de-emphasise academic content and to emphasise play and exploration. At the same time, Mr Randolph Tan cautioned that “the last thing we want is for everyone to discard the foundations currently offered by our education system” and that “having a solid foundation in the basics also prepares them for self-directed learning throughout the rest of their lifelong journey as a learner.” Both of them have slightly different perspectives but on the same spectrum. The question is, where do you strike the balance? And that is MOE’s task, what MOE strives to do.

57. We have already embarked on the shifts which embody what members have called for. We are not removing the PSLE, but the transformation is still taking place as we move more towards Applied Learning. The process is on-going and we do welcome the ideas and suggestions that have been put forward by members.

58. Ms Denise Phua called for a committee to develop an education masterplan. The form that this takes is perhaps not so critical, but the key thrust of her suggestion is that achieving our education objectives is really a partnership between all stakeholders. We will continue to engage and hear from the House, from parents, from teachers, and from our youth themselves. Another important aspect is mindset. I have outlined some of the steps that we are taking to reduce stress, to try and create a better and more important and supportive environment for our children, by telling them and society that there is much more to life than just grades. But mindset is a difficult thing to change. It takes time, and so we call on all partners to do that.

59. As I was reading the morning papers today I flipped through The Straits Times and saw a letter written by a young, 17-year-old Junior College student, Teo Chen Wei. He was talking about the PSLE and wondered whether removing the T-Score might actually result in other means of stress. But the most telling thing about his letter was this, “the most effective way to improve the education system is for parents and children to accept that failure in exams is not failure in life”. That is correct. So what are we doing? We are balancing various things. We want excellence, but excellence does not mean excellence purely in academic grades alone. There are many other paths, as I have pointed out. So you could be excellent in Aeronautics, Culinary, and whatever it is, we want excellence because we want our people to do well. At the same time, does failure mean that you cannot progress? The answer is no, because we have created so many different pathways and we hope that people will see that a setback is just something on which to learn and move forward.

60. Much of the stress is driven by the belief that there is only a narrow gateway to one path of success. However, as I have explained earlier, there are many paths and I would really urge parents and students to explore what is available and choose the option that is right for a particular individual.

61. There is a group of parents who have started a campaign- ‘Life Beyond Grades’ – to demonstrate that the path to success does not depend on grades alone. Parenting is one of the toughest but most fulfilling roles, and they all just want the best for our children. So I hope that more people will adopt this kind of mindset.

62. Our system has enabled people to rise from disadvantaged circumstances and do well. With the creation of multiple pathways, it means that there are many opportunities with potential for good outcomes - not necessarily the same outcomes - but good outcomes for all.

63. Mr Deputy Speaker, I support the motion.


Download the full speech here.