Monday, September 17, 2012

Steering the education mothership

Education Minister Heng Swee Keat made a speech on the upcoming changes to the education system last week and there were many things in it that made me go "YES!" You can read the full speech here, it's much more comprehensive than in the media reports.

He touched on many points but here are a few that particularly resonated with me:

1) School banding will be abolished with immediate effect (paras 55-56) - YES

For those who don't know, secondary schools used to be banded from 1 to 9 based on their O level results and these figures are published. Although banding was purely by academic results, it gave the impression to parents that the higher the band, the better the school. Following that logic, band 9 schools then must be really terrible, which isn't a fair assessment. By scrapping school banding, MOE is signalling that schools should not be assessed narrowly by academic grades.

Some people people are saying that MOE should then scrap the Cut-Off Point (COP) for each secondary school as well, if we want to eliminate this academic ranking of schools. I don't see how this is possible. P6 students need to see what see what schools they are eligible for based on their PSLE results, so the indicative COP of each school still serves a purpose.

2) School Excellence Award and other similar awards will be scrapped (paras 57-64) - YES

I think the biggest damage to the school system was done when some HR or management idiots decided that it would be a good idea to turn schools into mini factories, by implementing all sorts of accreditation schemes and their accompanying KPIs. Whoever thought you could measure how good a school was with a checklist of ticks and a best practices award should be slapped silly and made to stand in the corner.

Say it with me: education is NOT a business. We saw the effects - teachers had their focus shifted from teaching to administration, principals from running the school to chasing awards. By all means, encourage best practices. But ditch those darn awards.

3) Schools and exams should not be run based on the assumption that students have external tuition (paras 119-123) - YES YES YES

I am so tired of my kids coming home with questions on their exam papers that they haven't been taught how to do. This just creates so much anxiety among parents and exacerbates the tuition culture. Incidentally, briefly running through a method once or twice does NOT constitute teaching. Teaching means going through something extensively enough until most of the students in the class can understand and apply it.

I was so excited to read this para that I had to highlight it:
"MOE can do our part not to contribute to the need for tuition. Our schools and our examinations must not be run on the basis that students will have tuition. Some parents complain that our teachers tell the students to seek answers from their tuition teachers. If this is true, we must put a stop to it."
Why was I so thrilled? Because this is the very first time I've heard MOE acknowledge that they have a part to play in curbing the tuition culture. May not seem like much to some but for me, it's a big step forward. As I've written previously, I've always felt that when the national body for education does not speak out against certain unhealthy practices occurring in the tuition industry, this indirectly encourages the practice to flourish. It's not about legislation or regulation. It's about influencing public mindset through endorsement or rejection.

For too long, MOE has remained silent on the issue of tuition, so going for indiscriminate tuition, whether there is an actual need or not, has become de rigueur, even a badge of honour (especially going to high end tuition centres). By publicly denouncing such practices, they are reducing the positive attachments, hopefully causing parents to give pause before embarking on such a practice. Tuition centres will also think twice before taking out full page advertisements trumpeting the names of their top students.

Of course there will always be kiasu parents who will not change their ways, come hell or high water. But we have to stop rewarding their behaviour and it's about time we held up the non-kiasu parents as the ones to emulate and support.

I don't know about you but I was very heartened by this speech. Minister Heng seems to understand the depth of the challenges involved and addressed issues that would block the path on which he's trying to steer this mammoth education mothership. I like that he didn't just glibly promise changes to score brownie points with parents. In fact, he didn't mince words when asserting the rights of teachers over unreasonable parents. I'm so over politicians trying to be politically correct - let's just say it as it is.

Some issues are impossible to solve overnight and declaring instant measures would simply be irresponsible. For example, I know many people are calling for the PSLE to be abolished. I, for one, agree there's no need to subject 12-year-olds to this stressful and largely meaningless exam.

However, it's easier said than done. Suka suka abolish one meh? Off the top of my head, I can instantly think of several repercussions this might cause. What if you abolish PSLE and suddenly, 70% of the p6 kids decide they want to study at schools like RGS and RI (because they don't believe the MOE slogan "Every School a Good School")? So who gets in? Ballot ah? Unfair (not to mention chaotic). Proximity to school? Wah, watch property prices in Bukit Timah and Bishan skyrocket. What's likely to happen is popular schools will hold their own entrance exams. Tuition centres will offer prep courses. Enterprising individuals will hawk top school entrance exam papers. Cramming. Tuition. Sounds familiar? It's PSLE 2.0.

Some people say get rid of the PSLE and revert to a 10-year through train education from p1. In principle, I agree with this but this is feasible only if you're designing an education system from scratch. With current schools in place, how to execute? How do we decide which primary school should be linked to which secondary school? For example, if MOE decides that Tanjong Katong Primary School students will now move directly to Dunman High and there's a mad surge in admissions to the former, then how? The bottleneck will be shifted downwards from sec 1 to p1. As if there isn't already enough stress over p1 registration.

In short, there are no simple solutions and anyone who suggests otherwise is being naive. I'm glad MOE is taking it step by step rather than announcing big, grand schemes that have not been properly thought through. One of my biggest bugbears of gahmen policies is that they are sometimes implemented as if they exist in isolation. More often than not, one gahmen policy will impact on something else, sometimes an area not under the purview of the same Ministry *cough immigrationandhousing*.

My gut feel is that MOE is considering eliminating PSLE but they're looking at the issue from all angles to see if there is a painless way of killing this sacred cow (insert all the Mr Brown sacred cow jokes).

Disclaimer: I don't have connections with any MOE officials or hear anything from the grapevine, so don't bet on it! This is pure guesswork on my part.

At the end of the day, execution is key. What I found encouraging about the speech was the direction MOE seems to be taking, towards a more holistic, less competitive and academic-focused type of education. Some people remain critical but I don't see how constantly pouring cold water on efforts or declaring "you just watch, nothing will happen!" is helpful. Even if you're right, how is that constructive? There's a world of difference between being smart and being a smart-ass.

I know these are just baby steps but instead of saving my happiness for the improbable time when the glass is totally full, I prefer to be thankful for small victories.

We're not there yet, that much is for sure. But at least we're that bit closer.


Lilian said...

Great post! Agree with all your points :D You know, the response to Minister Heng's speech proves one thing: Netizens can be reasonable, they give credit where it's due. I saw so many comments online praising the minister and the direction MOE is taking. There will always be detractors but I'd say most were in agreement that this is a HUGE positive step forward.

Anonymous said...

Hi Monica

Currently all these top schools like RI and RGS are already admitting most of their students via the DSA route, leaving only a few vacancies for after PSLE results. They don't have to conduct entrance exams - just make the admission totally 100% via DSA. That would solve the top schools while the rest would abolish the cut-off points and admit students based on other criteria.


monlim said...

DH: That's actually not true. Even for independent schools, there's still a quota for DSA admissions. The vast majority of students still enter via PSLE results.

monlim said...

Lilian: Yup, it's very encouraging to know that most netizens are critical but fair. Being antagonistic for its own sake is so pointless. There's hope for Singapore yet!

Anonymous said...

Oh, I was refering to your comment "What if you abolish PSLE and suddenly, 70% of the p6 kids decide they want to study at schools like RGS and RI (because they don't believe the MOE slogan "Every School a Good School")? So who gets in? Ballot ah? Unfair (not to mention chaotic). Proximity to school? Wah, watch property prices in Bukit Timah and Bishan skyrocket. What's likely to happen is popular schools will hold their own entrance exams" - there is no need for ballot, or entrance exam, just carrying on with the DSA exercise and make it the only way to go to these schools. That was my suggestion to the "dilemma" you posted.

monlim said...

DH: Thanks for clarifying. The problem with DSA is that there still needs to be some sort of criteria, either school results or interview or admissions test or a combination of all 3. Which comes back to the same problems arising from preparing for school entrance exams.

Anonymous said...

Congrats Mon, all your feedback coming to fruition. Can at least benefit your grandkids next time.

It is good to see MOE responding and making changes and a change of parents' mindset will help to make the change a success. It takes all to clap


monlim said...

QX: Hey, I was just thinking about you and how I haven't heard from you in a while! Hope everything is great with you and your lovely daughter :)

Yes, sometimes I feel a little sian that I lobbied so hard but neither of my kids will benefit from any upcoming changes. I guess in life, we have to take a long-term view, as you say, may benefit my grandkids!

Anonymous said...

Mon, thanks for thinking of us... :)
I have a confession to make. I think I have proven myself as a robot because I have made comments and typed in the codeword without realising that it never got through. Until yesterday I did not know that the number has to be included in order to pass through successfully. And when I posted early I also did not notice that the update was not successful and I left the page. It was only yesterday that I knew better.

So now I feel more joker than my kid. LOL Hope this explains my absence. LOLLLL


monlim said...

QX: LOL!!! Alamak, you must be thinking then how come Monica is ignoring all my comments... glad you figured it out :D

Anonymous said...

LOL, Actually that did not cross my mind, trust you enough.....I just thought the blogger' software lifespan is expiring with so much tech glitches.... Bwaaahahaha.... :p


EL said...


I've been a silent reader for sometime. Did not comment much as I am not quite in the same phase with my kids, but with the recent announcements and my eldest being 2 years away from P1, I have no choice but to start noticing lah. Anyway, like you, I have been quite happy about the announced changes. At the same time I am apprehensive still, the devil is in the details. Having been in the system (from both sides) before, I somehow know execution will be the difficult part of this whole thing. Nevertheless, let's wait and see right?


monlim said...

EL: Yeah we have to wait and see but it looks promising. For the kids who are already in pri school, they may not feel the changes in time but for kids like yours, there's definitely hope!

Brian Lee said...

Monica, thank you for your blog. I discovered it quite recently and have enjoyed reading your writing. It's thoughtful and articulate.

Anyway, I just want to second the proposal made by Anonymous on Sept 17 on using pure DSA for tops schools like RI and RGS. Here's my thought: PSLE is currently being used to meet two objectives. To test how well 12-year-olds know the primary school syllabus (as the name implies) and as a placement exam to enter top secondary schools. Over the years, kids get better prepared for the exam. So if the exam standard remains the same, then you will have too many students acing the exam, and the top schools won't know who to admit. So the only way to differentiate these students is by making the exam more difficult each year. By throwing some curve-ball questions that only a few can answer.

So the proposal is really this: let's make PSLE an exam that tests the preparedness of P6-leavers. Base it on what 12-year olds should know. Base it on what they learn in school. It's okay if everyone aces the exam. If you pass you are ready to move on to secondary school. As for the RI and RGS of the world, they can administer their individual entrance exams, or the MOE can set a common set of papers just for these elite schools. By all means, put in all the tricky questions here. But make the exam optional, only for students who want to get into these schools. The kids, together with their parents and teachers, can decide if they should sit for this extra exam. (This is not unlike the extra exam one has to take on top of A-levels to enter Oxford/Cambridge.)

In the current system, every kid has to sit for PSLE. There is no choice even as it has turned into a placement exam for the elite schools. It might be fine for the top 10-20% students. But it causes an unhealthy level of stress and anxiety as the standard becomes too high for many students who may not have the ability to get into the tops schools. I know that some parents would tell the children that it's okay if they don't know how to answer certain questions and that exam is really beyond their level. But what kind of message is that? That they shouldn't try if something is too hard? It's quite a sad state of affairs when the best hope we have for a child going through primary school is for him to not lose his self-esteem.

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