Tuesday 30 October 2012

Tharman supports rebalancing of PSLE system

His experience as education minister tells DPM exam sorts pupils too finely
By Matthias Chew, The Straits Times, 29 Oct 2012

DEPUTY Prime Minister Tharman Shanmugaratnam gave his views yesterday on calls to ease the pressure pupils face at the Primary School Leaving Examination.

The heart of the problem, he observed, was that the exam differentiates pupils based on an aggregate of their exact score.

Noting that this meant Primary 6 pupils are sorted even more finely than students in Secondary 4, who receive a letter grade for their exams, he said: "It is inevitable that parents and teachers will place great emphasis on preparing their children for the PSLE."

He said fine-grain differentiation at a young age was something that will have to studied.

Also to be considered are how pupils are posted to secondary schools on the basis of those grades, and how schools, particularly the top ones, can be made more diverse.

DPM Tharman was speaking at an event commemorating the 40th anniversary of the death of philanthropist Tan Lark Sye.

He stressed, however, that he was not making policy pronouncements but rather drawing from his experience as the education minister from 2003 to 2008.

He said reducing the focus on exams at an early age will allow attention to be placed on the other goals of education.

"In my opinion, it's only possible to succeed in character education and encouraging students to question and think originally if we create real space for it in the education system," he said.

In recent months, there has been a growing debate about the PSLE, an exam that many parents and MPs have criticised for being too high-stakes. Last month, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong said in an interview that the exam needed to be reviewed to reduce the over-pressure felt.

Education Minister Heng Swee Keat has been tasked to engage Singaporeans in a national conversation on key issues facing the nation, including educational concerns.

Exam strain had prompted some to even call for the PSLE to be abolished entirely. But Mr Tharman warned that any change to the PSLE system is something that has to be studied carefully, to ensure that it does not undermine the meritocratic basis of the education system.

Stressing the need to find the right trade-offs, he said: "This is a complex issue and we cannot rush any changes."

Speaking to a primarily Chinese-educated audience, Mr Tharman also took the opportunity to defend the Government's language policy.

Addressing concerns that Chinese proficiency among the young is falling, the Deputy Prime Minister said that views hinged on one's point of reference.

If one compares today's level with the proficiency achieved in the Chinese-medium schools of old, then standards have fallen. But if compared to the standards among English-educated Singaporeans in the past, it is an improvement, he said.

"We have to remember that in the pre-independence period, it was not compulsory to study the mother tongue. Many could not even write their names in Chinese, or were embarrassed to speak in Chinese," he added.

He noted that there was now a lot of interest in learning the language.

Education Ministry surveys show that more than 90 per cent of English-speaking Chinese parents feel it is important for their children to learn Chinese, he said.

"That is an achievement, and it came about because of our bilingual education strategy. We lost something, but we gained something," he added.

Learn from past philanthropists for inclusive society
By Matthias Chew, The Straits Times, 29 Oct 2012

BOTH government action and active citizenry are required if Singapore is to build an inclusive and vibrant society, Deputy Prime Minister Tharman Shanmugaratnam said yesterday.

"If it is only a matter of government, we will achieve something, but it would not be a vibrant society," he said.

"If it is only a matter of community initiatives, without an active government playing its role, it is not sustainable either and we will not hold together as a nation in the true sense."

Speaking at an event held yesterday to mark the 40th anniversary of the death of philanthropist Tan Lark Sye, Mr Tharman spoke of the need to replicate the model of philanthropy from Mr Tan's era.

"The lessons of Tan Lark Sye, Tan Kah Kee and others like them are that it was not just about giving money.

"It was about putting great energy, effort and leadership into the causes they believed in," he said.

Mr Tan Lark Sye, a rubber tycoon, was known for pouring much of his wealth into charitable causes and led the establishment of the Chinese-medium Nanyang University in 1953 with the support of the Chinese community. He died in 1972.

But with the level of philanthropic giving slowing in the decades after independence, as the Government provided the social services that the colonial authorities neglected, the Deputy Prime Minister said the challenge was how to build a stronger civic culture in today's Singapore.

For its part, Mr Tharman said the Government was investing heavily in social mobility, spending on health care for the elderly and education.

He saw focusing on values in the education system as one way to inculcate that spirit of philanthropy.

With the abolition of Chinese- medium education, Mr Tharman acknowledged that "we have lost something in the values and ethos of the Chinese-medium schools".

Among the values lost were the reverence for high standards of conduct and desire to contribute to society.

"We have to find ways to recreate this in a realistic way, accepting that the environment today is very different from the early years," he said.

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