Sunday, 23 August 2015

Singapore 'has built a first-rate education system': Heng Swee Keat

And Govt has ensured that all Singaporeans have access to varied pathways
By Sandra Davie, Senior Education Correspondent, The Straits Times, 22 Aug 2015

Over the years, Singapore has built a first-rate education system that offers many choices and pathways to young Singaporeans from primary to university level and, more recently, even through continuing education that helps workers hone their skills and expertise, said Education Minister Heng Swee Keat.

The Government has also ensured that all Singaporeans have access to these varied pathways, regardless of their family background or starting point.

Mr Heng, who has held the education portfolio since he entered politics in 2011, sketched out to The Straits Times how the education system has been built up, "layer upon layer" - in every school, at every level and no matter what the child's starting point is.

He took pains to show how learning, for example, is not just confined to the classroom but also includes music and sports and programmes to build character. This also helps to equip students with skills needed to navigate a more complex and uncertain world.

He pointed out the variety of pathways available to students - from the Integrated Programme schools to the Singapore Sports School to the School of the Arts.

With the recent initiative to build deep expertise and skills in workers, there are even more pathways for those pursuing post-secondary studies, through the Earn and Learn programmes where they gain qualifications while working in companies.

He stressed it was a "student-centric" system that recognises that every child is different, and it is all about helping them discover their strengths and interests.

He also sketched out the various efforts by the Government to enable children from disadvantaged backgrounds to level up and progress through the system.

These include the Ministry of Education kindergartens where one- third of the places are reserved for children from low-income families, as well as the learning support programme in English and Mathematics for students lagging behind.

The Government takes this aspect of building "high averages through the system more seriously than any other school system in the world", he said. Almost all schools here are publicly funded and almost all school teachers and leaders are employed by the ministry, which can deploy them to the schools where they are most needed.

All this has helped to build a system with "high averages" across the board, he said pointing to the Programme for International Student Assessment figures which show that, in Singapore, a large proportion of those from lower socioeconomic backgrounds perform better than expected.

This has been built on the strong literacy and numeracy foundation laid in previous years, he said.

"And this is in sharp contrast to many school systems around the world where a different minister comes in, a different party comes into power, and then you have a new policy that is very disruptive.

"You need very thoughtful long- term strategic thinking and to monitor the results of the changes every step of the way. And there is no substitute for very dedicated implementation. That is our strength."

He stressed that there should be no let-up in the pursuit of excellence - it should be "part of Singapore's DNA", but added that there is a need to broaden the definition of excellence and to recognise everyone for achieving his personal best.

He said that the pursuit of excellence must also be coupled with a sense of purpose and gratitude, so that Singaporeans will contribute back to society.

To sum it all up, he went to describe what lies at the heart of the education system.

"It is really about the child and how do we help the child be successful in life.

"Not just in the material sense but in leading a purposeful life," he said.

Uni for poly grads seeking degrees set for major expansion
Minister wants SIT to have central campus to house its growing student population
By Sandra Davie, Senior Education Correspondent and Pearl Lee, The Straits Times, 22 Aug 2015

The Singapore Institute of Technology (SIT), set up to offer degree opportunities to polytechnic graduates, will be expanded to offer more courses and take in up to 3,000 students a year by 2020, up from this year's intake of 2,000 students.

To house the much bigger student body, Education Minister Heng Swee Keat has called on the Government to allocate space for the university to build a central campus.

Currently the university, set up in 2009, runs its courses at its satellite campuses in the five polytechnics. Its offices are in Dover Road. "Given the expansion of SIT and the nature of SIT courses, such a campus will also enable active interaction and engagement among students, and between students and their community and industry partners."

Mr Heng made these comments during a wide-ranging interview with The Straits Times, in which he touched upon the different educational choices and pathways that are now available to all Singaporeans - irrespective of their family backgrounds and starting points.

In this context, he mentioned the "distinctive" model of education being developed by both SIT and SIM University (UniSIM), Singapore's sixth university which launched full-time degrees last year, offering over 200 places in marketing, finance and accountancy.

This year, UniSIM added a human resource management degree and increased its intake to 288. It has been offering part-time degrees for working adults since 2005.

Mr Heng said SIT, which offers over 30 degree courses, can be nimble in launching "niche degrees" to plug specific needs in industry. "Its graduates will have interesting pathways and career opportunities."

The two universities offer an applied learning approach where classroom learning is integrated with real-life, on-the-job application through work attachments.

"Students can learn theory in the classroom and apply it at the workplace, and take the issues and challenges they have at the workplace back to the classroom."

While SIT concentrates on science and technology, UniSIM's programmes focus more on business, management and human services.

This year, a record 15,000 polytechnic graduates and A-level school-leavers entered the six universities here, raising the cohort's entry rate to university to 32 per cent, up from 30 per cent last year.

Mr Heng said the goal was to hit a 40 per cent cohort participation rate by 2020, and most of the additional places will come from the expansion of SIT and UniSIM.

Including part-time degree programmes offered at UniSIM, the cohort participation rate in 2020 is likely to hit 50 per cent.

But Mr Heng emphasised that with the SkillsFuture initiative, courses and programmes should be seen as "a means of building knowledge and skills, which can be deeply internalised and become a part of one's strength", instead of a chase for qualifications.

Parents, pupils will get time to adjust to PSLE changes
By Pearl Lee, The Straits Times, 22 Aug 2015

The makeover of the Primary School Leaving Examination (PSLE) is still some time away, with the announcement to come next year at the earliest, said Education Minister Heng Swee Keat.

Parents and pupils will be given enough time to respond and adjust to the changes when they are implemented, he added.

Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong had said two years ago in his National Day Rally speech that the high- stakes exam would be revamped, and the aggregate T-score done away with.

Instead of getting a score out of 300 points, pupils will get grade bands - similar to how students get graded from A1 to F9 for the O levels or A to E for the A levels. The grades will then be converted to points to be used for admission into secondary schools.

Mr Heng said the Ministry of Education (MOE) is already putting diverse programmes in place in primary and secondary schools to meet the needs of different children. For instance, each secondary school has to develop two distinctive programmes by 2017 to cater to students' interests.

"It is about choosing the school that has the programme, the emphasis and the fit, rather than about that one school that you must go to," he said.

Recent SkillsFuture initiatives - such as the Earn and Learn programme for polytechnic and Institute of Technical Education graduates as well as the introduction of modular courses at the post-secondary level - also aim to send a message to parents and students that the emphasis is on lifelong learning and helping students enter their areas of interest, said Mr Heng.

"Some of us may take a longer pathway to reach our peak. Some of us may take a shorter pathway, and some will take a path less travelled and go do something completely different," he said.

"There are many good pathways and I don't need to cram at just the PSLE level and say that I must get into that one school."

The MOE is still in the process of implementing programmes in secondary schools - especially in neighbourhood schools - to create differentiation, said Mr Heng.

These initiatives to create a more diverse secondary school landscape, with different schools offering different niche areas, will come before the PSLE revamp.

"Some parents believe that a certain school will help their child succeed better... It will take some time for this mindset to change," said Mr Heng, adding that the end goal is not just about grades, but also about finding success in life.

Initiatives in place to ensure poor students get help to succeed
By Pearl Lee, The Straits Times, 22 Aug 2015

Stories of poor students who make good and enter top schools may be harder to come by these days, but the Ministry of Education (MOE) has put in place initiatives to ensure that every child is given the resources to succeed, Education Minister Heng Swee Keat said.

While rich parents can send their children to more tuition classes which may translate into better exam scores, the education system here is one that ensures even the less privileged children are not deprived of opportunities, he said.

"I will say that we are probably one of the very few systems where if a child has the ability, he will not be held back because there were no opportunities," he said, citing subsidised support programmes that self-help groups such as Sinda and the Chinese Development Assistance Council provide as an example.

Mr Heng added that well-educated and well-resourced parents are able to give their children a head start in their early childhood years. But his ministry will work to ensure that children who are not born to such environments are not left out.

"I cannot stop parents (from doing that) but I can have MOE kindergartens where I can hire good teachers to help our kids so that they don't lose out," he said.

The MOE-run kindergartens, a pilot started last year, place strong emphasis on bilingualism and children are exposed to both English and their mother-tongue languages daily.

Mr Heng's remarks come after Raffles Institution (RI) principal Chan Poh Meng made a hard-hitting speech on how the school now largely caters to the affluent segment of the population and is at risk of becoming insular.

Mr Heng, an old boy of RI, said the broader message of Mr Chan's speech was about gratitude.

"Students who have had the opportunity to study in RI, and indeed any of our schools, should give back to the community, and feel grateful for the opportunities they've been given," he said.

Mr Heng added that these messages apply not only to RI, but also to all schools here.

"The broader message is quite in line with our focus on character and citizenship education and our values-in-action programme. So I hope the discourse is not about one or two schools," he said.

Initiatives are in place to ensure that schools do not become closed circles, Mr Heng added. For example, in the Primary 1 registration exercise, 40 places must be allocated to children with no ties to a school. There is also the independent school bursary scheme, which offers subsidies to low-income students in independent schools.

"We are expanding opportunities right across the system. There are many opportunities for everyone regardless of their strengths, interests and pace of learning, because we have such diversified pathways," he said.

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