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Wheels set in motion for attitudes toward academic success to change: Ong Ye Kung

SINGAPORE — While Singaporeans are known to be obsessed with academic success and grades, Education Minister Ong Ye Kung is hopeful that the country will see a shift in attitudes within this generation.

Wheels set in motion for attitudes toward academic success to change: Ong Ye Kung

Education Minister Ong Ye Kung (second from left) at a panel discussion held at the National University of Singapore on March 27, 2019.

SINGAPORE — While Singaporeans are known to be obsessed with academic success and grades, Education Minister Ong Ye Kung is hopeful that the country will see a shift in attitudes within this generation. 

For one, the Government has sent a clear signal by “freeing up” the education system’s attachments to grades, with its recent announcement that streaming at the secondary school level will stop in 2024.

Besides that, Mr Ong said that his ministry has also done its part by removing the 20 per cent weightage given to O-Level examination results when polytechnic graduates apply to study at universities here.

Selected examinations in primary and secondary schools have been removed, freeing up about three weeks to one month of curriculum time, he added.

Mr Ong, who was a panellist at a forum organised by the National University of Singapore (NUS) on Wednesday (March 27), stressed that there has been a shift in focus to assess people based on their skills, experience and passion.

“I think the signal has been sent. Society at large, employers, are beginning to change the way they hire. Many parents, too, are getting the message,” he said.

“I hope that within the generation, this culture will shift to something that is a lot more nurturing, a lot more compassionate for our young.”

Reiterating that grades “must become less important”, he added: “I wish I can pass a law and make grades not so important, but that is not for us to decide. It is what society and employers put value on.”

Employers have to change their attitudes first so that parents will “get influenced” to realise that grades are not everything, he said.

The topic of the NUS forum was whether education still remains a social leveller today and its other panellists included Professor Tan Tai Yong, president of Yale-NUS College, and Mr Andreas Schleicher, the director for education and skills at the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD).

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MERITOCRACY UNDER FIRE

With the pros and cons of meritocracy widely debated here in recent times, Mr Ong said that it was the “best (out) of imperfect” systems and that he could not think of a better system to tackle the issue of social inequality.

“We now see meritocracy as a problem, but… do we replace it with nepotism? Kleptocracy? There is just no other system that I think works better,” he told the 300-strong audience comprising students, NUS alumni and educators.

Meritocracy has come under fire because it has worked too well. Singapore’s first generation of parents benefited from it by putting their children in schools, while the next generation of parents who are now more affluent invest in their children’s education “at all costs”, he added.

He also noted that there is the sense that inequality has become worse in Singapore society. Many more families have been lifted out of the lower income brackets, but those who are left behind appear to be in a “more dire (state) than before”.

“It starts to look unjust. The irony is that meritocracy started to appear to be unjust because it succeeded, in a good way… The ones that got help kept moving up, and whoever is left at the bottom, in Malay, we say more and more ‘teruk’ (miserable).”

Stressing that Singapore has a “working system” that appears to look worse the more meritocracy succeeds, Mr Ong then said: “Is education still a social leveller? Definitely, it is.”

“We’ll do a simple test. Tomorrow, let’s close down all schools, fire all the teachers… Does inequality get better? Definitely, no. This system can continue to work well.”

What needs to change are features of the system, parts of which have been tweaked as society progresses, he said.

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One solution is to fix the notion of meritocracy, which had been too narrowly defined, for it to differentiate and recognise the talents of different children, he added.

With some parents going the whole hog when it comes to investing in their child’s education, Mr Ong said that simply capping what people do is not the solution.

“It is natural for parents to get the best for their child, to invest in their child. It does aggravate inequality, but is it a bad thing for people to think that way?”

The solution is “not to cap the top, but to lift the bottom”, Mr Ong said. One way was the Government’s “meaningful intervention” in starting Ministry of Education (MOE) Kindergartens, which are not low in quality and they give priority to low-income families.

When asked by Yale-NUS College student Ng Qi Siang whether the Government will consider "nationalising" pre-school education to close the gap from the youngest possible age, Mr Ong said that would be “too drastic” a measure.

‘VERY HEALTHY’ STUDENT-TO-TEACHER RATIOS

Another hot topic raised at the forum was whether MOE would consider reducing class sizes from 40 to 25 students to allow teachers to give more attention to their charges.

However, Mr Ong pointed out that the 1:40 teacher-student ratio in a classroom is actually 1:15 for primary schools in terms of the overall numbers of teachers and students in a school, with the ratio reduced for secondary school (1:12 or 1:13) and junior colleges (1:11).

These are considered “very healthy” ratios by OECD standards, although they are higher than that of Finland, he said.

“So you feel incredulous. Why is the class size 40?... It is because the extra resources are (there) to pull out weaker students to teach them, sometimes four-to-one, eight-to-one, one-to-one.”

Pointing out a lesson he gleaned from studying Finland’s education system, Mr Ong said: “The moment the government does the popular thing to say, ‘I legislate class size to 20’, the (extra) resources disappear. The weaker students are deprived of teachers.

“This would be something I will be extremely reluctant to do.”

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