Friday 14 September 2012

MOE scraps secondary school banding

Move part of changes to get parents, schools to focus on more than grades
By Ong Hwee Hwee, The Straits Times, 13 Sep 2012

EDUCATION Minister Heng Swee Keat yesterday announced a string of reforms to the education system aimed at getting schools and parents to look beyond grades.

These include abolishing the nearly decade-old system of banding secondary schools based on their academic results, which has led to keen and sometimes unhealthy competition among schools.

Some awards which schools currently get from the ministry for academic achievements will also be scrapped.

Instead, the ministry will recognise schools that do well in areas such as encouraging all-round learning, and imbuing character and citizenship values.

Schools will also get $55 million over the next five years to develop their own niche programmes in non-academic areas, which can be anything from martial arts to ballroom dancing.

This will allow their students to develop other interests and be more well-rounded.

In making these changes, Mr Heng said he hopes to send this message to schools and parents: There is no single yardstick to measure how "good" schools are.

"Each of our schools is good in its own way - as long as we continue to take into account the unique needs and abilities of our students," he said.

Mr Heng, who became Education Minister last year, made these announcements in an impassioned two-hour speech to 1,000 principals and educators at the ministry's annual workplan seminar at Ngee Ann Polytechnic.

He said that academic banding will be abolished with immediate effect, while the scrapping of some awards, such as the School Excellence Award, will take place in 2014.

Explaining the rationale for doing away with banding, he noted that the system was introduced to spur schools to higher standards.

But school banding "now gets in the way of 'every school, a good school' as it creates a perception that MOE measures our schools strictly by academic grades", he said.

Banding was introduced in 2004 to replace the more controversial practice of ranking schools by their academic score down to the last decimal point.

Secondary schools are grouped into different bands based on their O-level results. The ministry publishes information on schools which make it to Band One to Nine.

To qualify for the top tier of Band One, schools have to meet a cut-off point of below 11. Integrated Programme schools and specialised schools are not banded.

But some have said that banding does not go far enough to address the problem of unhealthy competition among schools.

Mr Heng also tackled the main bugbears of parents and students: homework, tests and tuition.

He noted that these are issues common to "any society which prizes achievements". But schools can do their part by not giving students unnecessary stress. Teachers, for instance, should not set exam questions assuming that their students get help from tuition.

The key, he said, is not to remove all stress but to strike the right balance.

Principals welcomed the changes but some observers wondered if the changes go far enough.

On the scrapping of banding, MP Hri Kumar Nair said: "Even if you don't band schools, parents will have the impression as to which are, in their view, the better schools...this will be evident from the PSLE cut-off... By itself, it is not going to address the issues of competition and stress."

Housewife Gwen Cheng, 40, who has a son in Primary 6, agreed but was more optimistic: "It won't change attitudes overnight. But it is a good move in the right direction."

At a glance: Key changes on the minister's mind

IN A wide-ranging speech to educators yesterday, Education Minister Heng Swee Keat threw up ideas for change for various stakeholders in schools:

"The fact is there is no single yardstick to measure how 'good' our schools are," he said. The ministry will:
- Stop excessive focus on grades; banding of schools to be scrapped 
- Spend $55 million in next five years to help schools find their niches 
- Simplify school assessments; reduce time spent on reporting scores; awards system trimmed to focus on best practices 
- Fund schools better; consider funding schools on the basis of need, not number of students

"Our education system must have sufficient rigour and strength - it must not become soft. The key for us is not to reduce stress to zero, but to strike the right balance."

This means:
- Less homework; teachers to coordinate homework to avoid overloading students 
- Less tuition; schools must not set exams on the assumption of outside help 
- No unrealistic exams; questions to be set at appropriate difficulty level

"Our high quality teaching force is equal to the best in the world but we need to keep up with the changing demands of a teacher's job," he said. The ministry will:
- Review appraisal system and scale up 2011 mentor scheme for new teachers

"...parents and educators share the same goal - to bring out the best in our children. So let's work together." A new website with parenting tips will be launched.

Principals cheer, parents unsure
Education is about more than good grades. School is not just about homework and tests. And parents can play a bigger role in their child's learning. These are some points made by Education Minister Heng Swee Keat yesterday as he set out his ministry's priorities for the year ahead.
By Stacey Chia & Matthias Chew, The Straits Times, 13 Sep 2012

SCRAPPING secondary school banding will curb unhealthy competition. It will also force parents to consider a school's other strengths, besides O-level results.

This was the majority view voiced by 10 principals The Straits Times spoke to yesterday, following the Education Ministry's announcement in its annual work plan seminar.

"With the banding, parents may choose only schools that are high up, they may not look at the other qualities of the school," said Mr Abdul Mannan, principal of Ang Mo Kio Secondary School.

Parents, however, were less positive. They said removing information about a school's academic performance made things "inconvenient". Others said unofficial rankings would still emerge.

Housewife Jeanie Lim, 44, who has a daughter in Primary 6, said: "There'll be no basis to follow if you're concerned about results. As parents, we'll have to do our own research, finding out from friends, how this school is and how the teachers are."

The latest move to stop banding schools takes the ministry back to the pre-1992 days. That year was the first in which schools were ranked in a table, according to their average O-level grades.

In 2004, the ministry decided to group schools with similar scores together. Those in Band 1 had students with an average aggregate O-level score of fewer than 11 points. On the other extreme, schools in Band 9 had students who scored 18 points.

Specialised schools, such as the Singapore Sports School and Integrated Programme schools, are not banded.

In encouraging schools to look beyond academic achievements, the ministry said also that it would simplify the school awards system. A key award scheme - Masterplan of Awards - will be removed.

In its place will be recognition for best practices in five areas, including teaching and learning, and all-round development.

Meanwhile, school appraisals will be simplified, to make reporting less onerous.

"This is better than an awards system, because it allows schools to pick up good ideas from one another," said Mrs Dolly Ong, principal of Zhonghua Secondary.

Retired principal Paramita Bandara said that banding and the pursuit of awards have taken away the "focus on the child".

"There have been so many stories of schools that will discourage their students from taking arts subjects like literature for fear that it will bring down the academic standing of the school," she said. "For the arts, no one is assured of an A1."

Teck Whye Secondary principal Ong Kong Hong said banding took into account "absolute performance" and not a school's "value-adds".

At least two teachers interviewed yesterday were in support of keeping the banding system.

"For less established schools, there will be some ambiguity about their performance," said an English teacher from a school that was established less than 10 years ago. She declined to be named.

Another mathematics teacher from a secondary school in the north said: "Without banding, how would parents know when schools improve their academic performance?"

Property agent Choo Soo Hwee, 41, who has a Primary 6 daughter, said banding may not be a factor at all for some parents.

"Most Band 1 schools are top schools," she said.

"If you can't even get in the school based on your PSLE scores, why even look at the band?"

The relationship between parents and their children loomed large in Education Minister Heng Swee Keat's speech at his ministry's work plan seminar. He narrated stories to illustrate lessons that families can learn.

"A father let his three-year-old daughter pick a place for dinner each night. He wanted her to learn about freedom of choice.

"But one night, he could not accommodate her choice as he had to work. She threw a tantrum. When teaching her, he forgot that freedom to choose must come with respect for others."

"(One father) complained to me that the school conducted extra lessons during the vacation. I checked and found that it was optional. But he replied: 'So what? My son has to go, otherwise he will lose out. It's best that MOE scraps the whole thing?'

"So, while some parents know that extra lessons could take up too much time at the expense of time with the family, they still send their children for tuition and enrichment classes for fear that they may fall behind."

"A parent told me about his experience during a 'Dads for Life' programme. At the end of the session, parents had to stand behind a curtain and say 'I love you' and their kids had to identify them.

"This dad... was quite distraught because other parents had to say 'I love you' only once, but he had to repeat himself before his son could identify him!

"He reflected on it and realised that he had never said 'I love you' to his son. It was a transformational moment for him, and he never looked back. His relationship with his son improved, and his son has gone on to do very well."

"I also discovered that students learn empathy through 'Circle Sharing', where they bring items that are meaningful to them to share with the group.

"One student, Jinson, showed his school bag which he had been using for over a year. It looked brand new. In fact, this bag had been bought by his mother much earlier, but he could not bear to use it until his old bag was completely worn out.

"He explained that his mother had saved up the money with great difficulty to buy him the bag... Through this sharing, the many children in the group learnt a thing or two about love and empathy, and care for family and other people. These are deep and powerful lessons."

'Don't overload them with homework'
By Kezia Toh, The Straits Times, 13 Sep 2012

EDUCATION Minister Heng Swee Keat yesterday spoke up for students facing the three bugbears of education: homework, tuition and tests.

He said that when schools set more difficult tests to "wake up" underperformers, it discourages them, and causes them to lose interest in learning. His ministry, therefore, will begin working with schools to set questions that are appropriate and not overly tough.

And while weaker students may benefit from extra help, excessive tuition for other students can be harmful.

Mr Heng said that the ministry would do its part not to contribute to the need for tuition. He said some parents had complained that teachers have told their children to get help from their tutors. "If this is true, we must put a stop to it."

Tuition is a familiar experience for many students here - a July report by the Asian Development Bank and the University of Hong Kong showed that 97 per cent of all Singaporean students receive some form of tutoring.

Mr Heng said that schools should coordinate the amount of homework assigned, citing some schools where teachers use a homework board detailing assignments and tests to make sure that students are not overloaded.

His ministry had considered - and rejected - a guideline to fix the amount of homework at each level, as the demand of homework on each child is different, he said.

At the same time, schools "should not be apologetic" about giving homework, as it reinforces learning and understanding, he stressed. Instead, he urged educators to improve the quality of homework by assessing students and targeting their weak areas.

MP Hri Kumar Nair, who posted on his blog a note about primary school education last week, said that while a sound homework policy can point educators and students in the right direction, the "devil is always in the details".

"If principals and teachers want kids to pursue grades, what happens on the ground may not reflect the minister's sentiments," he said yesterday.

Parents said that the minister's comments came with good intentions, but would not be easy to put into practice.

A child's performance depends on how competitive his cohort is, said Mr Teh Tuan Ann, 48, an academic staff member at ITE College West. "The bell curve is at work, and parents want the best for the children - which means sending them for tuition classes if you can afford them," he said.

Housewife Gwen Cheng, 40, who has a son in Primary 6 at Anglo-Chinese School (Junior), said doing away with overly difficult tests can cut the need for tutors.

Ms Saliza Ramilan, 45, also a housewife, welcomed the minister's call not to overload students with homework.

Her son, who is in Primary 6 at Park View Primary, spends two hours daily on homework, on top of working on assignments in between classes. She said: "It is not good to give too much homework because children will lose interest - less is more."

$55m over 5 years to develop niche programmes
By Matthias Chew, The Straits Times, 13 Sep 2012

TO MAKE schools more diverse, the Ministry of Education (MOE) wants every school to find its own path to excellence.

It will spend $55 million over the next five years so all schools can develop unique niche programmes, said Education Minister Heng Swee Keat at the MOE Work Plan Seminar yesterday.

About half, or 191 schools, now have recognised niche areas. These range from sports and the performing arts, to specialised fields such as environmental education. These schools get an extra $150,000 every three years.

One school with a distinctive programme is Edgefield Primary School in Punggol, which specialises in dancesport.

Pupils spend each of their six years learning a different genre of ballroom dancing, from the cha-cha to the waltz.

After it received the extra funds, the school was able to send more than twice as many pupils for overseas competitions, said principal Willy Tan.

In his speech, Mr Heng also spoke of the ministry's desire to meet the different needs of various schools. One way to do this, he said, was through funds.

Instead of deciding a school's budget based on the number of students it has, Mr Heng said this formula may be changed to a needs-based model.

Those with smaller cohorts may get more money because, unlike larger schools, they do not enjoy economies of scale and cannot offer as many programmes, he said, adding that schools with academically weaker students may also get more money to test new teaching strategies.

The minister said also that he would look into how he could help more struggling students receive post-secondary education.

'Quality educators the key, not class sizes'
By Bryna Sim, The Straits Times, 13 Sep 2012

IT IS the quality of teachers that matters - not class sizes.

Quality educators were a key touchstone in the Education Ministry's Work Plan Seminar yesterday. The quality of teachers needs to be continually raised, said the minister Heng Swee Keat.

Although the ministry has reached its 2015 target force of 33,000 teachers, a quarter are below 30 years old and have less than five years of experience. "Some of our new teachers are still finding their feet," he said.

He urged experienced teachers to mentor the younger generation, and commended the Skilful Teaching, Enhanced Mentoring programme initiated last year by the Academy of Singapore Teachers."This programme is doing well and we will scale this up," Mr Heng said.

Ms Nur Asyikin Mohd Agos, 27, a teacher at Tanjong Katong Secondary School for two years, said of the programme: "I learnt teaching strategies and other useful topics in a structured way."

On the subject of class sizes, Ms Asyikin said: "Class management is key, not class size. It's pointless to have a small class size if the teacher cannot manage that."

Mr Heng said class size was not a "silver bullet", and added that Singapore's overall pupil-teacher ratio (PTR) is not unfavourable.

It is just below 18 for primary schools and 15 for secondary schools; the average ratios among the countries in the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development are about 16 and 14 respectively, he said.

The minister added that schools should deploy teachers in areas of greatest need, rather than aim for an "across-the-board" reduction in class sizes.

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