December 29, 2020
Speech by Mr Lawrence Wong, Minister for Education and Second Minister for Finance, at the Appointment and Appreciation Ceremony for Principals, at the Edutorium, Ministry of Education
My Parliamentary Colleagues, Dr Maliki Osman, Ms Gan Siow Huang,
Director General of Education,
Colleagues and friends,
1. I am very happy to join you at this year's Appointment and Appreciation Ceremony for Principals (AACP). This event, as you are typically aware, is typically a major milestone in the MOE calendar. Unfortunately, because of COVID-19, we are unable to hold it in the same event scale as we did typically in the past. And also, we have to put in place new requirements like testing before you come in and safe distancing with the seating arrangements. I am still glad we can at least have the chance to do this face-to-face with all of you here rather than to have an event that is entirely virtual. Hopefully, the circumstances will continue to improve in the coming year and we can progressively resume more activities. To our school leaders, I hope this experience of getting tested and seeing the arrangements will also give you a sense of how some of the events will adopt similar formats. Just like in some ways, after 9/11, security screening at airports became a norm. Moving forward, testing and new safe requirements will be a new norm for a while – certainly through the coming year.
Recognising Retiring Educators
2. Let me start by expressing my heartfelt thanks to all our 30 retiring senior educators. On average, each one has served more than 37 years as educators, of which nearly 20 years were in Principal-equivalent roles! Collectively, they have together more than 1,000 years in education. Imagine the number of lives all of you have touched along the way. You have experienced both inspiring moments as well as challenges throughout your careers. In fact, many of you were already leading schools as early as the year 2000. You have gone through many changes and reforms in our system. You have gone through many public health crises – not just COVID-19, but also SARS and H1N1. Through it all, you have shown your commitment, perseverance and resilience as leaders. You are living testimonies of the passion, courage and grit required in school leadership work.
3. I'd like to acknowledge and recognise each of our retiring Principals. In no particular order, they are: Mr Lee Yip Khei Marcel, Mdm Yazilah Binte Amir, Miss Josephine Ng Siok Ching, Mdm Elsie Selvaranee Jeremiah, Mrs Pauline Wong, Mdm Aini Maarof, Mdm Balakrishna Vyjanthimala, Mrs Angeline Loh, Mr A Sivam Reddy, Mdm Rashidah Bte Abdul Rasip, Mr Goh Aik Choon, Mrs Chandrika Manogaran, Mrs Tan Jong Lek, Mdm Kwan Liam, Mr K Govindan, Miss Tay Lai Ling, Mdm Ng Ngoing Keng, Mr Teo Song Khuang, Ms Magdalene Chin, Mr Ng Teng Joo, Mdm Edelweis Yzelman, Mdm Lim Geok Cheng, who incidentally is also the chairman of AACP. Well done. Dr Hang Kim Hoo, Mr Manogaran Suppiah, Mdm Lee Poe Kim, Mdm Lee Tee Choon, Mrs Teo Khin Hiang, Mr Puvan Ariaratnam, Mrs Chua-Lim Yen Ching and Mdm Low Khah Gek.
4. I would like to tell stories of all 30 of them but it would take a very long time. Let me say a few words about two of our retiring leaders in education. First, Mdm Low Khah Gek. She has helmed several key leadership positions in schools and in MOE-HQ, for example as Principal of Victoria JC and Anderson Secondary, Director (Curriculum Planning and Development), and more recently Deputy Director-General of Education (Schools) & Director of Schools. She has spearheaded many key initiatives such as the Applied Learning Programmes, Learning for Life Programmes, Subject-Based Banding and the revision of the School Excellence Model. Known for her clarity of thought, she is able to simplify complex issues and cut to the heart of the matter. She rolls up her sleeves and leads by example. Since 2017, Khah Gek has held the role of CEO of ITE and pioneered innovations such as the Work-Study Diploma Programmes. ITE has benefitted greatly from her experience, capability and leadership. I look forward to her continued strong contributions to ITE and the higher education sector.
5. I would also like to mention Mrs Chua Yen Ching, who is another pillar in our education fraternity. As a Principal, she took up a challenge and started Northlight School to develop students who were unable to find success in our primary schools. She believed in working with our most disadvantaged students and help them succeed. She also took on many other appointments in schools and MOE HQ, including the Principal of Zhonghua Secondary School, Shuqun Secondary School, Director (Curriculum Planning and Development) and more recently, Executive Director, Academy of Singapore Teachers, and Deputy Director-General of Education (Professional Development) [DyDGE(PD)]. She has played an instrumental role in reframing the philosophy of Professional Development (PD), and building a closer network amongst our teaching fraternity, to enable teachers help and lead one another. She also spearheaded the development of the Singapore Teaching Practice, and forged stronger partnerships between NIE and MOE HQ. With her belief in people and strong sense of care and responsibility, Mrs Chua lives and breathes values, as well as people-centred leadership. She is truly a master of master teachers. I am very glad that after her retirement, she will be reemployed and stay on in her current position as DyDGE(PD) and continue to lead with gumption.
6. As I mentioned, I could only share two stories and I wish I could say more but to all our retiring educators, thank you very much. Please join me in giving them a warm round of applause.
7. For all of you who are retiring today, this is not an end. I am reminded of when my mother retired as a teacher. She swore she would not teach again but a few weeks later she went back to school. So this is not the end, truly. Rather it's the start of a new phase in your life journey. You are our Learn for Life ambassadors and I'm sure your days ahead will be filled with new and exciting learning experiences. I also have no doubt that you will continue to contribute in different ways in this new phase of life.
Recognising New or Rotated Appointees
8. There is another group of you who are embracing a new challenge, either rotating to a new appointment in schools, or stepping up as Principals for the first time.
9. I want to welcome in particular our newly appointed Principals. All of you have years of experiences as educators. You are now stepping forward to lead your own school community. We have confidence and faith in you and your leadership abilities
10. Always remember as a leader you are not just a receiver or an implementor of instructions. You are an active shaper of the environment in your schools; You are a change agent. You are the catalyst for change, and you are the ones who make the critical difference in our education system. So your sense of conviction in our goals in education matter. You need to hold on to your convictions and have the moral courage to do what is right in education – not just meeting targets that are most visible or most easily measured. Never forget that leadership is not just about knowing what to do; it's also about getting people involved in the decision-making process, and building confidence and trust. And we saw many good examples of that. The signals you send on the ground will shape whether teachers feel supported in trying out new things, and in motivating their students beyond their exams. The roles you play have critical bearing in school culture and what teachers do.
11. We all know that this is a complex and demanding job – it is challenging under normal circumstances, even more so now during this COVID-19 period. But you can draw inspiration from those who have gone before you, including many role models here today. You can take heart that you are not alone in your leadership journey. Our education fraternity has always been a close-knit community, with a strong collaborative spirit. And the silver lining in the pandemic is that it has taken the camaraderie to a new level. We have seen many examples of such collaboration over the past few months. Teachers adapting to the changing environment, picking up new roles, and supporting one another. Principals tapping on support networks through chat groups and video conferencing, to exchange good practices and keep each other's morale high. That's the spirit of unity and teamwork which we must continue to uphold.
Moving Forward Within and Beyond the COVID-19 Crisis
12. Looking ahead, I think we now have a better handle in managing the COVID-19 pandemic. But we all know the fight is not over. The virus is still with us. In fact, if you look around the world, COVID-19 is raging in countries everywhere. We even have a new threat of a more infectious strain. We must stay vigilant and we cannot afford to let our guards down.
13. As part of Phase 3, the overall posture for education is to gradually resume more CCA and school activities, but ensure these are done in accordance with prevailing national guidelines. We will resume the National School Games (NSG) and Singapore Youth Festival (SYF) next year with the appropriate Safe Management Measures in place including for example requiring some of the participants to do pre-entry swab. We will resume non-residential outdoor adventure learning activities. I think these experiences are important for the holistic development of our students; and they are where some of the best memories of school lives are created and lasting friendships are forged. So I think it is important that we are able to resume these activities and do so in a safe manner.
14. At the same time, we need to think about some structural changes to better nurture our young and ensure that they are ready to face the challenges that lie ahead.
Move Towards Blended Learning
15. Prior to the pandemic, we have already initiated several bold moves under the "Learn for Life" movement. Our key goal is to help students develop the joy of learning and an intrinsic motivation to learn; and to correspondingly reduce the over-emphasis on academic results and exams that unfortunately, despite our best efforts so far, continues to loom large in many minds today. So we must continue to push at this. The changes in PSLE scoring system, the removal of streaming and the move towards Full Subject-Based Banding (Full SBB) are all part of this important shift.
16. In fact, the experiences over the past few months has reinforced the need to go beyond single-dimension measures of learning. We all want our students to be adaptable and nimble, and to keep learning and picking up new skills. We all want our students to have a positive attitude towards learning, and be more self-directed and intrinsically motivated
17. To achieve this, learning must take place not just inside classrooms and schools. Our students must be able to initiate their own learning and not just rely on teachers for guidance and information all the time. This idea of being able to learn independently, learn from home is not new. We have talked about this. In fact, someone mentioned to me that back in 2010, when we held the Youth Olympics, we set up the Youth Olympic Park, and we had some student works showcased there. If you go there, you will see a piece of work by a 12-year-old student from CHIJ Our Lady of the Nativity, and she had this to say about her dream of future learning: "In the future, teachers can also teach and students can submit their homework through the internet. Best of all, we do not need to go to school". In 2010, she dreamt of a future where learning can take place at home and do this online, independently.
18. It has taken us some time to realise this dream. It is a bit of an irony but we were forced by circumstances during the Circuit Breaker to plunge head-on into full Home-Based Learning (HBL). But it was also this time that many educators saw the benefits of this new mode of learning. I have heard many stories and positive feedback. During one of my school visits, a teacher expressed her surprise at the initiative shown by her students during HBL. To complete a group-based assignment, her students spontaneously organised themselves into teams, and delegated tasks to one another based on their strengths and interests. They carried out their research online, they shared and discussed their findings with one another using online collaborative platforms. And then they presenting the final project in creative ways, such as short videos or photo montages. In fact, from her point of view, her students appeared more motivated to learn, and could discover and further their knowledge on topics of interest that were outside of curriculum. This is just one story related to me by a teacher during a school visit. But there are many more positive examples of educators who out of necessity had to go into HBL but soon realised that there were new ways of teaching and learning.
19. The question now is how we can lock in these gains, mainstream the new practices, and build on the progress made by our teachers and students during HBL. To do this, we would need to adopt a new model of Blended Learning that combines more independent learning and exploration with the in-school experience. Hopefully, this will further develop our students' ability to be self-directed, passionate and lifelong learners.
20. MOE has been discussing this with school leaders and stakeholders for some time. How can we evolve this new model of Blended Learning? I am happy to share that all secondary schools, junior colleges and Millennia Institute will start to implement Blended Learning for some levels from Term 3 next year. Basically, there will be regularly scheduled HBL Days for students throughout the term to help students develop the mindsets and habits for self-directed learning. HBL Days will comprise time for curriculum learning, and dedicated time and space for student-initiated learning, where students pursue their own interests and learn outside of the curriculum. HBL Days will also be less structured than a typical day in school to allow students to exercise initiative in learning. Students who require closer supervision and those who lack a home environment that is conducive for learning, or who may need access to certain school facilities, we will still allow them to return to school on the HBL Days.
21. From our focus group discussions, we know that majority of teachers and parents welcome these initiatives. But we have also heard several concerns on the implementation process. So let me address them in turn.
22. First some teachers have asked for more support with regard to training and resources. We will certainly do so. MOE has implemented a Professional Development programme to equip our teachers with the competencies to design effective Blended Learning experiences for their students. Teachers can access online learning modules and participate in Networked Learning Communities, where they can learn from and collaborate with one another in the design of Blended Learning experiences for their students. Teachers can also access curriculum resources on the Singapore Student Learning Space (SLS) for their use or adaptation in delivering Blended Learning.
23. Second, we will make sure that every secondary school student is well equipped with a Personal Learning Device (PLD) and with internet connectivity. Under the National Digital Literacy Programme (NDLP), all secondary school students will own a PLD selected by the school by the end of 2021. To ensure the PLD is affordable, we have provided a one-time $200 Edusave top-up for all eligible Singapore Citizen (SC) students, in addition to the annual deposits made into their Edusave accounts. With the top-up, most students will have sufficient funds in their Edusave accounts to pay for the device. There may be students from lower-income households who still need assistance. The schools can help by further subsidising the cost of the PLD. If their accounts are insufficient, then they will be provided with additional financial support so that no out-of-pocket payment will be required for the PLD. MOE is also working with IMDA to provide subsidised broadband access for students from lower-income households. So we will ensure every student in secondary schools gets a PLD, affordably and also internet access.
24. Finally, we will ensure that the PLD is an enabler for learning and doesn't become a distraction. Every PLD will be installed with Device Management Applications to provide a safe and more regulated digital environment. Cyber wellness education in Character and Citizenship Education (CCE) lessons will be enhanced so students will learn to keep safe, and be respectful and responsible users when navigating the digital landscape. Our curriculum in schools will continue to provide a wide range of learning experiences, including a balanced proportion of technology-enhanced learning activities. The amount of time that students spend on their PLDs will be managed, and this will be further supported by classroom rules and routines. Finally, MOE will continue to partner parents so that they can play a proactive role in helping their child learn to use the devices meaningfully.
25. I have described what we are doing for the older students. We are taking a more calibrated approach for our younger, primary school students. A small-scale PLD pilot involving five primary schools, will be conducted next year, for upper primary students. And through this pilot, we hope to better understand how the use of PLDs might impact younger students and improve their learning outcomes, before we decide on next steps.
26. Principals play a crucial role in the success of Blended Learning and the use of PLDs. Your experience during full HBL will serve you well. We will also give Principals the flexibility to adjust the implementation of Blended Learning, to suit your students' profiles and learning needs. This is where your curriculum leadership comes in to ensure that every child in your school will benefit from this mode of learning. So I would encourage all Principals to continue working closely with school staff and teachers. For those who are willing to embrace the changes and innovate, do stand behind them and give them your fullest support.
Uplifting Students in the Future of Learning
27. As we embrace a future of learning with more possibilities, we must also continue to support students who come from homes with less support or who struggle to progress through school. Over the years, we have rolled out many programmes for these students. for example, learners requiring educational support, we have put in place programmes to support them in a targeted manner, and to customise the curriculum as needed.
28. We will continue to do more in the coming years. At the primary level, we now have school-based Student Care Centres and will roll out more after-school programmes especially for students from lower-income families. At secondary level, we will run more special programmes to provide school-based integrated support for the vulnerable and at-risk students. We will also double the number of Student Welfare Officers (SWOs) in our schools, up from the current 60 to 130, over the next few years.
29. At the end of the day, it's not simply about individual programmes; it's about the culture of care and inclusivity we must instil in every school. This is again an area where our Principals play such an important role. You can bring together the diverse programmes within the school in an innovative and coherent manner for the holistic development of every child. You can ensure that more school resources are appropriately allocated to the students with greater needs. Most importantly, you can provide good opportunities for all students to be developed to their full potential, regardless of their starting point or learning needs.
30. There is a lot that can be done as part of this shared vision of uplifting our students. And we want all our schools to focus on this in an effective, sustained and innovative manner. So how do we encourage this? At MOE, we have cut back on school awards. But if I had to choose one award to give, it would be to recognise schools that do well in uplifting their students, especially the more disadvantaged students. Today we have the Lee Hsien Loong Award for Innovations in the Normal Course. With the removal of streaming, this award is no longer relevant and will be ceased from next year. In its place, we will establish a new award called the Lee Hsien Loong Award for Innovations in Uplifting Students. All primary and secondary schools will be eligible for the award and we hope that through this award, we will recognise schools' efforts in supporting the needs of a more diverse group of students – this includes students from lower-income families, at-risk students, students with learning difficulties, as well as learners requiring educational support.
31. I certainly hope this new award will send an important message to all our educators: that our school system must always do more to support the students with greater needs. We must help the weaker students; we must help those from disadvantaged backgrounds; we must help those with family problems and who lack home support. We must reach all of them, uplift these students, and help them achieve their fullest potential.
32. This year has been challenging on many fronts. But I think it is also a timely reminder of the important role that education plays and what school leadership is all about.
33. Since joining MOE, I have made an effort to visit as many schools as I can. This year, I must have visited about 10 to 15 schools. And each time I visit, I am heartened by their strong spirit of solidarity and mutual support amongst our school fraternity – helping one another through the Circuit Breaker, and going the extra mile to take care of their students. I have also been very encouraged by the responses of the students themselves. Every time I meet the students I will ask them "Do you prefer HBL or do you prefer to come back to school?". Earlier, I talked about the student in 2010 who spoke on the future of learning. So I expected at least half of the students saying they preferred HBL while some preferred to return to school. To my surprise, an overwhelming majority, perhaps 99%, said that they wanted to go back to school. They miss school. They want to be in school. They enjoy school. And this shows that we are doing something right for our children. They enjoy schooling and the school environment. It says a lot about our Principals, our School Leaders, our teachers and the work that you do to make teaching and learning enjoyable and fun for all our children.
34. So I have full confidence that all of you, our Principals, are up to this important task in managing this change in education. MOE will continue to support you in your work. Let us continue to work together to achieve better outcomes in education, to uplift our students and bring out the best in each and every one of them. Thank you.