Monday 24 September 2012

Keep the Singapore Dream alive

Scrapping PSLE won't help. Try sending best teachers to under-performing schools instead
By Han Fook Kwang, The Straits Times, 23 Sep 2012

Education is said to be the great leveller in Singapore. Study hard, get top grades at school and university, and it doesn't matter if you come from a three-room Housing Board flat. You could land a better job than someone who lives in District 10, move up the economic ladder and transform your life and that of your family.

It's the Singapore Dream, and one that we know has come true for many people.

But, increasingly, critics say, it is getting harder because how well you do depends more on your family background than it ever did in the past.

These days, the students who ace the examinations in school, including those who win prestigious scholarships, are more likely to come from homes where the parents are university graduates, live in bigger houses, and move around in their own social circles. Fewer of them come from those three-room flats.

Education is no longer the leveller it used to be because the better off have more resources to provide for their children - they get expensive tuition lessons, go for enrichment classes and enjoy a more stable and richer home environment.

In the top schools such as Raffles Institution (RI) and Hwa Chong Institution, a much higher proportion of students have fathers who are university graduates than those from neighbourhood schools.

Former prime minister Lee Kuan Yew was quoted in a report last year citing schools such as RI, Anglo-Chinese School (Independent) and Nanyang Girls' High as having more than half of their students with fathers who were university graduates. In contrast, of the four neighbourhood schools he had obtained data on, the highest percentage was only 13.1 per cent, at Chai Chee Secondary.

The Government itself recognises this problem, that it is more difficult today for those from the lower-income group to move up.

In his speech at the opening of Parliament last year, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong did not mince his words, saying: "Our society is stratifying. The children of successful people are doing better, the children of less successful people are doing less well. Fewer children from lower-income families are rising to the top of the heap."

This isn't unique to Singapore and the same trend can be seen in many other developed societies in Europe and the US.

The important question is, given the inevitability of this, what is the best education policy to pursue so that every student is able to do his best and fulfil his potential, whatever his talent might be?

Looking at how other societies organise their education systems, there seems to be no consensus worldwide, and different countries have very different ways of doing it.

Just to give a small example - I was surprised to learn from a recent conversation with a Swiss journalist that in his country, the majority of 16-year-olds do not choose the tertiary education route. Instead, they become apprentices in companies which take them under their fold and train them for a career in their organisations. During this time, they attend school perhaps two days a week. After this training stint, which can last up to four years, they decide whether to continue working or go for further studies.

His 16-year-old son, for example, had just joined Swiss bank UBS as an apprentice.

In other places, notably the US, the best universities are privately run - they attract the best students, who invariably come from better-off families, although many of these institutions also try to recruit students from disadvantaged families. But there is no denying where the large majority of their students are drawn from.

Every country has to choose its own path, partly the result of its own unique history, the culture and tradition of the people and a host of other factors. All want to fulfil the aspirations of their people to get the education they believe will enable them to do well in life.

When we study the examples of other countries, I hope we take into account their own unique set of circumstances. Education is not a commodity that can be copied and transplanted wholesale.

So what's best for Singapore?

Whatever changes are made to the system here, one thing mustn't change - education should continue to be seen by the majority here as the social leveller it has been.

While the levelling might not be as widespread as before, the great hope of the vast majority in the HDB heartland - that if their sons and daughters do well in school, they will live the Singapore Dream - still burns bright and should never be extinguished.

I worry that some of the suggestions that have been raised recently may have the unintended effect of diminishing this hope.

One such suggestion, by the Member of Parliament for Bishan-Toa Payoh GRC Hri Kumar Nair in a recent blogpost, is to abolish the Primary School Leaving Examination (PSLE) because of the amount of time and resources children (and their parents) spend preparing for it.

Whatever the flaws of the PSLE, and it can certainly be improved to encourage less textbook-based and more rounded learning, it represents, for the families in the heartland, that one chance of a lifetime for their children to have a shot at academic stardom and that coveted place in a top secondary school.

Remove it or change it in a way which makes it less objective as a test and you risk diminishing or extinguishing that hope.

There have also been suggestions to provide greater variety and differentiation in the system and to move away from a one-size-fits-all approach.

The logical outcome of this is to privatise education, or at least parts of it, and let different operators do their own thing.

In fact, we are seeing the early stages of this development, with the growth of independent schools.

The idea is a good one: With greater autonomy and resources, they attract better teachers and administrators and can try out new ways of teaching.

RI and Hwa Chong have blazed the trail here and achieved much as a result. When I watch and read about what the students in these schools are doing, I know we have come a long way from the RI I studied in at Bras Basah.

For these schools, going completely private is the next logical step, as has happened in many other countries.

I hope, though, that it will never happen.

Keeping education in the public sector is the best guarantee of keeping the Singapore Dream alive for the majority.

And it is not true that the Government cannot do as good a job.

The experience of the Institute of Technical Education (ITE) is as good an example as any that government-funded and run schools can produce first-rate results, equal to the best in the world.

The ITE's success could not have been achieved by the private sector, not on the same scale and in such a short space of time.

It shows what can be done when the Government commits resources and political will.

And when it takes place at the lower end of the education spectrum, with students who would normally struggle academically, the results can be spectacular because the improvements they make are so much more evident.

The ITE experience is not the only example; the other is Northlight School, which admits only those who repeatedly fail the PSLE.

By all accounts, Northlight has achieved results far beyond expectation.

Most heartening for me is that there is no shortage of teachers who want to go there and be part of this ground-breaking experiment.

They know that when they succeed in Northlight, they make a bigger difference to the lives of these students than if they had gone to a better school.

One of my colleagues has a story to illustrate this point.

He used to be a teacher who was also a keen hockey player and started a hockey team in a school that had no tradition of playing the game.

The team did well for several years and, as happens so often in sports, he was approached by a top school to become its hockey coach and teacher.

He accepted the offer but he says he now regretted making the move.

The hockey team he started at the first school disbanded two years after he left. Without his passionate leadership, it couldn't make the grade.

Now he laments: How many boys could have benefited from playing hockey at that school if I had stayed?

But that top school would have had a successful hockey team anyway, whether he was there or not.

The moral of this story?

When under-performing schools are given the resources to do better, the difference they make to the students there will be much greater than in schools with brighter and better-endowed students.

My suggestion?

Send the best teachers and principals to the neighbourhood schools and especially those which are perceived to be the least attractive to parents.

That's the best way for the Education Ministry to live up to its mantra that every school is a good school.

And it will send a clear message that everyone in Singapore, even the weakest student, will be given every opportunity to realise the Singapore Dream.

MP echoes calls for PSLE to be scrapped
Primary Colours Part 2: The PSLE Dilemma -Hri Kumar
Scrapping PSLE not the solution: Lawrence Wong
Primary Colours Part 3 : 49 Shades of Grey -Hri Kumar

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