What would Goh Keng Swee do?

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By Yudhishthra Nathan

In attempting to envision a new consensus for public institutions and systems post-GE 2011, there has been a desire for reform of our public education system. Before anyone should wish to delve into the intricacies of policy, however, we need to come to a common agreement on the desired outcomes of education. Have they changed since then Minister for Education, Dr Goh Keng Swee, published his influential Goh Report in 1979 that helped to cement the framework of our public education system?

A main objective of our education system is to empower students from across the socio-economic spectrum with the promise of the ideal that hard work will always be fittingly rewarded. Meritocracy is meant to offer social mobility. In fact, some might go so far as to postulate that meritocracy, first in schools and subsequently in the workplace, is complementary to incorruptibility which Singapore often prides itself on upholding.

Meritocracy, in and by itself, is not the problem our education system faces today. On the contrary, the relentless and mismanaged application of meritocracy is to be blamed for producing an education system too often labelled as unforgiving, stress-inducing and even unhealthy to the common psyche of young Singaporeans.

Quite ironically, this has done nothing to close  the divide which exists between those who are academically successful and more likely to enjoy stable future careers and those who are at risk of falling into the gaping holes between the rungs of the steep academic ladder, left behind to either bloom later or perhaps not at all. However, the appropriate answer to reform is nothing short of challenging.

How do we make the education system less stressful but more equitable whilst continuing to improve academic standards across the board?  Do we, on the one hand, seek to reduce stratification and create a level playing field through making examinations and streaming easier or even doing away with them entirely at earlier stages of education? Or, should we, on the other hand, introduce a great deal of flexibility to the criteria for admission to secondary schools and post-secondary academic institutions through an extension of schemes such as Direct School Admission (DSA)?

Unfortunately, solely pursued together, both of these policy shifts alone will result in arrangements that are antagonistic to meritocracy. What, then, of the kind of academic excellence one can find in Raffles, Hwa Chong and other top JCs? What of the international progress we have made in ensuring that our syllabi prepare our pre-university students with the best exposure the GCE ‘A’ Levels can offe? What of the great leaps and bounds made by Polytechnics and the Institute of Technical Education (ITE) over the decades that have made them, in their own right, respectable academic institutions with quality programmes that add diversity to the range of pathways available to students?

The idea that a relaxation of examination procedures and admission criteria across the board will lead to a deterioration of academic standards in our best institutions amongst the JCs, Polytechnics and ITE courses is not entirely inconceivable and unwarranted especially with problems such as grade inflation prevalent in countries like the United Kingdom and across the Causeway.

Equally, it must be seriously questioned if those who have proven themselves to be academically stronger at a younger age should be the only students deemed fit to enjoy the benefits of alternative methods of instruction and teaching strategies through elite programmes such as the Gifted Education Programme (GEP) and the Integrated Programme (IP).

Another point worth recognising is that changing the way students are taught without also significantly changing the way they are examined will not result in a reduction in the degree of stress our students are subjected to as the race for grades will continue as before, in the classroom and, more worryingly, in the hundreds of tuition centres across the island.

Will such approaches truly prevent the academically disadvantaged from falling through the gaps? Moreover, any sound individual would not be able to concur that ‘Every School is a Good School.’ It cannot be convincingly denied that schools vary in the quality of their academic and non-academic programmes.

The challenge of our meritocratic education system, therefore, is to ensure that every school strives to become a good school by delivering programmes that are executed well by teachers who are equally qualified and determined to help their students whilst actively seeking out and guiding those who lag behind. That will be the true test of whether we can make meritocracy with safety nets work.

Another overarching objective of the education system is to grow leaders in a myriad of fields out of the permissibly unwitting children each and every one of us starts off as at Primary 1. After all, the term ‘education’ stems from the Latin term ‘educo’ which translates to mean ‘to lead and to raise.’ Providing inspiration and genuine social engagement to students are forms of teaching, just as forced CIP and CCAs are. Policy planners need to realise which type of teaching will produce students who are more motivated to pursue non-academic interests they are passionate about.

Education helps us to not merely comprehend the world for what it is but also serves to guide us in understanding the roles we can play in it. This intrinsic value of education makes reform of the system a serious business.

The multi-faceted nature of the slate of problems presented by the prospect of education reforms will have to be solved by a plurality of means. Firstly, through suitably tweaking testing and admissions. Secondly, through accordingly revamping teaching and learning pedagogies.Thirdly, though rather crucially, re-energising the Teaching Service by reducing bureaucracy without compromising the professionalism of the Service.

Moreover, appropriate changes to the Ministry of Education’s administration will also be required eventually, should reforms ever be carried out. MOE is to be congratulated and thanked on a number of counts for attempting to make our education system fairer in recent times. On a note of caution, however, failing to seriously question the very foundations of our education system during the Ministry’s periodic reviews might be costly to future generations of Singaporeans. One cannot help but wonder – what would Goh Keng Swee do?