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Get back to basics of education: Heng Swee Keat

SINGAPORE — Announcing a slew of measures geared towards giving a leg up to weaker students and providing all pupils a strong foundation — including a move to have the Ministry of Education (MOE) set up and run 15 pilot kindergartens over the next three years — Education Minister Heng Swee Keat yesterday made the call to get back to basics as national soul-searching over where the Republic’s education system is heading goes on.

SINGAPORE — Announcing a slew of measures geared towards giving a leg up to weaker students and providing all pupils a strong foundation — including a move to have the Ministry of Education (MOE) set up and run 15 pilot kindergartens over the next three years — Education Minister Heng Swee Keat yesterday made the call to get back to basics as national soul-searching over where the Republic’s education system is heading goes on.

And after months of speaking to thousands of Singaporeans, including more than 5,000 educators — as part of the first phase of the Our Singapore Conversation project — Mr Heng cited two areas where more “in-depth conversations” are needed: An “over-focus” on examinations and grades, and concerns over “opportunities, social mobility and inclusion”.

On the latter, Mr Heng said: “Some parents are concerned that, without tuition, their children cannot cope, or cannot do well enough to excel ... Some are concerned that, in some schools, students tend to come from similar social-economic backgrounds and have similar academic abilities ... But some have also cautioned that if we mix up our students too much, it will be harder to cater to the learning needs of different groups.”

Amid the tensions and differences in opinions, and before Singapore changes its major policies, “we must get back to fundamentals”, said Mr Heng. “First, re-affirm the basic goals of education, and second, in the light of the changing circumstances ... and the differences in views, the fundamental strategy of how we will achieve these goals.”

He added: “We do not know how the world will turn out, but our best guess is that the pace of change is going to be even faster ... To enable Singaporeans to continually learn, unlearn and relearn, every child needs a strong foundation for lifelong learning”.

And to achieve education’s “basic goals” — Mr Heng mentioned developing a love for learning, building a strong foundation in self-confidence, literacy and numeracy, among others — the MOE is looking to start young.

Resisting calls by Members of Parliament (MPs) to nationalise the pre-school sector, Mr Heng reiterated that the diverse pre-school landscape affords choices to parents. But what the MOE can do is to provide affordable and quality pre-school education by piloting the 15 kindergartens, all of which will be located in the heartlands. The MOE will also work to innovate best practices and possibly share them across the industry, added Mr Heng.

Mr Heng stressed that the MOE’s move to operate kindergartens was a “significant undertaking”. While his ministry is prepared to set up more of these kindergartens, “how far and how fast (the) MOE proceeds will depend on our experience and assessment of it, and the feedback from parents”, he said.

The MOE will also help to develop educational resources for the pre-school sector and tap institutes of higher learning to provide training for kindergarten teachers.

The ministry will also provide additional support to boost basic literacy and numeracy skills by extending literacy assistance to more pre-schoolers, and implementing learning programmes to help weaker pupils from Primary 1 to Secondary 4.

Character and values education remains the key in schools, Mr Heng said. Among other things, the MOE will develop a core group of character and citizenship educators to spearhead school efforts in this area.

Mr Heng noted calls from MPs such as Mountbatten MP Lim Biow Chuan to reduce stress in the education system and address the clamour for tuition among parents.

Citing examples of mothers taking leave for an entire year to prepare their children for the Primary School Leaving Examination, Mr Heng said: “We have to see education as a lifelong journey, not a destination ... It is an exciting journey of continual learning, discovery and mastery, not a competitive sprint.”

Nevertheless, Mr Heng pointed out that there are others who saw the value in high-stakes examinations, regarding it as a source of motivation.

He warned against moving too quickly to drop national exams or make the exams easier as a short-term relief to stress, citing examples of Japan and the United Kingdom where there are concerns that their youths are not equipped to compete globally.

While acknowledging that Singapore’s education system is imperfect — with MPs and Singaporeans frequently citing Finland as an ideal model — Mr Heng noted that the Republic is being admired by many countries for its ability to level up all students.

Still, he noted that as Singapore becomes a more developed society, achieving high social mobility will be harder than before. There ought to be a broader definition of merit, he said.

He added: “It is also critical for us not to see our education system in isolation ... Education alone cannot give us a good life, and we need to be clear what a good life is.

“If a good life is simply about getting ahead of others, and achieving the 5Cs ... Then no amount of changes in the education system can alter the reality of each of us chasing after material and positional goods ... In many respects, the education system reflects societal norms and expectations.”

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