The Education Conundrum

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By Alfred Dodwell 

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Many are of the view in Singapore that the people are her only resource. There has been much emphasis on education and some would say not always with best results. There is a feeling that the tinkering with the education system is unhelpful. Others believe the system encourages rote learning and should be abandoned in favour of a more creative one to teach the children to be articulate and think for themselves.

Amidst this education conundrum, PM Lee Hsien Loong, speaking at the National Day Rally, announced what many hailed as welcome changes.

First, Edusave is extended to all students, including those in madrasahs, being home-schooled or studying abroad. This is commendable. It is unfortunate that such students were left out earlier.  They should have been brought under the scheme decades ago. Hopefully, they would get all the benefits enjoyed by other students, including the preferential transport passes.

Second, PM Lee announced the addition of 20,000 pre-school spaces over the course of five years. That amounts to adding 5,000 spaces every year. This is commendable. But it does not take a rocket scientist to figure that pre-school education costs have sky-rocketed over the years.  So spaces should have been increased years ago.

Third, PM Lee announced a new PSLE scoring system more akin to the O levels. This is commendable. However, it is several years too late. Why did the strategic thinkers at the MOE take so long to realize that children as young as 11 or 12 should not be subjected to these stress-laden score cards? Generations of PSLE students, now adults, have suffered from the stigma of the score cards. However, at a post NDR seminar Minister Heng said what we need is a change in parents’ mindsets…

PSLE exams are known to be extremely difficult and many have complained over the years. Yet the system remained in place though, as PM Lee himself says, it is pointless putting such pressure on children. Decades of Tiger Moms have dedicated their lives to the PSLE and, even with the new scoring system, it would be wishful thinking to conclude that these fierce, driven ladies would put less pressure on their kids. They would still push their children to be straight A students – and deserve an E grade for EQ themselves.

Fourth, PM Lee said, “I believe we can make every school a good school.” This is wishful thinking. For centuries Oxford and Cambridge have been top tertiary institutions and will remain so. Closer to home, Raffles Institution and Victoria School have a name and reputation that draws the crème-de-la crème. Can any neighbourhood school achieve a similar standing? Perhaps a few students from these neighbourhood schools will make their way to Raffles Junior College but most would not. So, instead of aiming for the sky, a more realistic measure would be to turn some of these schools into specialized institutions. Schools can carve out a niche and make a name for themselves by excelling in sciences or maths or the humanities. Teachers and students with the requisite skills and abilities could be posted to those schools, which would bring out the best in them.

We need more changes in our country – that is for sure. Still, PM Lee should be commended for taking new initiatives and moving in the right direction. These are measures which should have been taken years ago, sparing generations of students the agony of the stressful Singapore education system. But the burden is somewhat being eased at last. And perhaps, I can leave the readers with a food for thought – why not scrap the PSLE altogether?