Sunday 15 September 2013

Invest in pre-schools to narrow the gap

By Lee Wei Ling, Published The Sunday Times, 15 Sep 2013

My father felt unwell on the day his Tanjong Pagar GRC held a dinner to mark National Day last month.

Still, he insisted on attending - not least because he has never failed to attend his constituency dinner since the first National Day in 1966, but also because the establishment of a new PAP Community Foundation (PCF) pre-school, Hampton@Tanjong Pagar, was being announced that day. Its programme aims to help children develop a natural love for Mandarin.

My father is obsessed with a number of things he believes are fundamental to Singapore's well-being - but nothing more so than education and bilingualism. At the age of 90, he still has daily lessons with a string of tutors to improve his Mandarin.

As a paediatric neurologist, I have long known the importance of pre-school education. Indeed, it was I who first alerted my father to the importance of early childhood education by showing him a video clip explaining how babies learn language.

The most critical period in language development is when babies are between eight and 10 months old. That is when they master the sounds used in their mother tongue. The ability to acquire a second language varies with age. Children acquire a second language quickly and easily until they turn six or seven. After puberty, acquiring a second language becomes slower and more difficult.

Learning a language requires interaction between the learner and the teacher. Just watching television or hearing speech in a given language is not enough.

By the time my father was persuaded of the benefits of learning languages at the pre-school stage, he had left the Cabinet. So I was thrilled when the current Cabinet decided to make massive investments in pre-school education.

I have a wish list for Singapore's pre-school education. We must continually strive to give children who come from relatively deprived backgrounds a better chance to succeed in life. In addition, pre-schools should help instil moral values, build character and help children be competent in both English and their mother tongue.

The founder of the Jesuit order, St Ignatius of Loyola, was reported to have said: "Give me a child for his first seven years and I'll give you the man." He knew a thing or two. Early education is indeed the foundation for all further education.

In the late 1980s, I studied more than 1,000 Primary 1 to Primary 4 pupils from Henderson, Keng Seng and Nanyang primary schools. I found that the best predictor of academic success was a good command of English.

The pupils from Henderson and Keng Seng had a poor command of English. By Primary 3, they were struggling to pass their tests and examinations.

In Primary 1 and 2, almost all pupils from both these schools scored 80 per cent or above in English, mathematics and Chinese. This came as no surprise as most came from PCF kindergartens and what was taught in those kindergartens then was the Primary 1 and 2 curriculum. Much of it consisted of rote learning.

So the children entered Primary 1 reasonably well-primed. But when they got to Primary 3, when all subjects except mother tongue were taught in English, they began to founder.

They were mostly from homes that did not speak English. They were also not taught English in the correct way in PCF kindergartens. So their marks plummeted once the effects of rote learning in pre-school wore off.

The pupils from Nanyang Primary came from better-off homes, the vast majority of whom spoke English. They attended non-PCF kindergartens where English was the main language.

So while the Nanyang pupils did not score higher marks than those from Henderson and Keng Seng in Primary 1 and 2, they zipped past them after Primary 3, though they often had to struggle with Mandarin.

One other thing we need to work at is improving the teacher-pupil ratio in pre-schools.

Hampton@Tanjong Pagar is on the right track. Its ratios are as follows: Pre-nursery: 1:6; Nursery One: 1:10; Nursery Two: 1:12; first- year kindergarten: 1:15; and second-year kindergarten: 1:20. Its ratios are well below benchmarks established by the Ministry of Social and Family Development.

Of course, running kindergartens with such low teacher-pupil ratios will cost more. Hampton@Tanjong Pagar's fee of $720 per month for half a day is midway between what PCF and private centres charge. Children from poorer families get more subsidies, so they pay less.

Language is taught in a natural fashion. For example, the teachers take the children to the market and tell them to observe what is going on. When they return to class, teachers talk to the children about what they saw, working in small groups with active participation. This is not that different from the way mothers taught their children to speak over the millenniums.

In addition to language, PCF kindergartens should also build character and instil moral values. One must not cheat in tests, not even in games. One must have empathy for the beggar sitting outside in the heat, and invite him in and offer him a cold drink.

Will we be able to provide better-quality pre-school education to all Singaporean children, regardless of their social backgrounds?

If we want to give children from poorer homes a chance for a better life than their parents, we must continue to invest in pre-schools. This will help narrow the gap between rich and poor. If we fail in this, Singapore will not thrive.

The writer is director of the National Neuroscience Institute.

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