Can we really have a brand new education system?

I’m glad my post An open letter to all principals spurred some other bloggers to pen their views on our education system. Whether we agree with one another or not is another matter, but at least we are trying in our own small way to effect some change. The livelier the discussion on this subject, the better. An ex-teacher wrote a post on her blog, titled “What’s wrong with the world’s best education system?“. She feels it is not so much the principals but the system which is the problem.

She believes that the way the ministry runs its schools are very much corporate world-like. Yes, I totally agree with her. In fact, I heard that the EPMS could have possibly been adapted from the Ministry of Defence. How is that even remotely possible, many parents must be thinking. Well, I hope it was not. But I can see why teachers say they feel they are like just another machine, tasked to churn out more and more As. And yes, I do agree that the system needs a major overhaul. And I hope they can scrap the EPMS and replace it with something more humane. But in the meantime, we cannot just sit and wait for change to manifest as it would take years. #1 entered Primary 1 almost a decade ago. 9 years later, nothing significant on the ground has changed. That is why I hope principals and teachers could stand their ground, leave the KPIs aside and put the children first. Yes, even at the expense of a lower salary and probably zero chance of a promotion. I know, it is much, much easier said than done. That is why only a handful have done it or are doing it. And in my books, they deserve the highest accolades and the deepest gratitude from parents.

A fellow blogger, Petunia Lee, who is a seasoned education blogger, agrees with me that principals have a lot of leeway and power in running their schools. She explains the nuts and bolts of how schools are run in her post titled “Power & Influence in the MOE“. Her post begins with the observation that “Principals of schools run little fiefdoms within each school”. She also notices that principals are all rowing their boats in different directions, and the only way Mr Heng’s vision for ‘every school a good school’ can be achieved is if power is brought back to MOE HQ.

About 2 months ago, our PM announced that they would do away with the T-scores and use broad-based banding to allocate places in secondary schools. Since then, there are no follow-up concrete information on what other criteria they will use to differentiate the students when there are more applicants than places. I find it incredibly unbelievable, but I hear parents saying that they have to start changing their strategy. They can foresee that there will be a horde of students with similar grades, so how to differentiate their child? These ultra kiasu parents are now searching for enrichment classes in music, sports, and the arts to beef up their child’s portfolio. This brings to mind the university admission requirements in the U.S., where the competition for places in top schools is so keen that they not only require stellar results, but the students need to show a whole portfolio of extracurricular activities, including community and charity work, and outstanding personal qualities such as leadership, self-confidence and good character. Will our 12-year olds be put through that in the future? 

Another parent blogger, Pamela Tan, who’s husband is a Math teacher in a secondary school shares the plight of secondary students who come from dysfunctional families and her disbelief that it is actually in the interest of the schools to expel these students so that their performance or non-performance (as the case may be) will not hinder the school’s performance. Read her post in “The story of the stationery Bento“.

Amidst all these seemingly depressing and unsurmountable challenges facing our education system, I see a glimmer of hope after reading an article in the Straits times. Lawrence Lien, a NMP (Nominated Member of Parliament) and chief executive of the National Volunteer and Philanthropy Centre and chairman of the Lien Foundation mooted the idea of setting up a prototype full school that is child-centric after his education study trip to Finland. I quote: “The philosophy of the school should be child-centric, process-driven and geared towards holistic learning. Assessments should be focused on tracking progress against a child’s individual potential, not on how he or she compares with others. Since the school will include both primary and secondary levels, no PSLE will be necessary.”

I love it already! This is exactly the type of school I have been envisaging for my kids. I have always wished that our schools would adopt many aspects of the Finnish education system. Dare I dream that it could materialise in my children’s time? For Kate perhaps. She still has 5 years before she enters Primary 1. Mr Lien speaks of what he wants for his 3 children: “I want my children to be developed holistically as whole persons. I wish for them to witness and practise values every moment, so that values become part of their being. I hope they will become lifelong lovers of learning, motivated to acquire new knowledge to serve and transform society. I desire their school to be a genuine community that reflects a society that I want to live in – warm, collaborative, inclusive and oriented towards a common good.” AH… if only our schools were a fraction of what he has painted, I would be contented. Sad, how sad that we have been eating dirt for so long, even grass tastes good.

The ex-teacher I mentioned earlier explained that she left the system because of a fundamental crisis she faced in the values system and the dissonance between what’s professed and practised. I have heard that sentiment echoed by many teachers who have left the teaching service. Perhaps we can gather all these like-minded and passionate teachers who truly love teaching young people and who see it their mission to impart values along with knowledge, to staff this school. There are many opportunities for teachable moments which do not require any extra time or effort, only the willingness to do so. 

#1 was so fortunate to have had a form teacher in her P5 year who wove values and morales into her lessons. How do I know? #1 constantly shared with me what her teacher taught them and I watched how she interacted with them on the many excursions I accompanied them on. Teachers do play a big part in a student’s life. Many children have told me how they dislike a particular teacher and how they hate that subject. On the other hand, I have seen how good teachers are able to motivate their students to push beyond what they can comfortably achieve. The exceptional ones are able to go as far as to change the lives of their students. It’s time we provided an environment which will support these teachers.  

I am very excited at the prospect of a school where they are competing with no one other than themselves and where the joy of learning is eminent on all the children’s faces. I will be the first to put my kids in that school!

~ – a blog on parenting 6 kids in Singapore ~

2 Replies to “Can we really have a brand new education system?”

  1. Sometimes I wonder if it's our innate Singaporean kiasuism that is killing us here. Parents try so hard to make their children distinguishable from the rest. I mean, we've got a decent schooling system and good teachers, and most schools try to create a holistic learning environment…but I hear stories of nightmare parents who fight tooth and nail to push their children ahead and teach them to succeed by any means possible. It makes me wonder whether or not adopting a brand new education system will just mean that it will become corrupted by kiasuism.

  2. Yes, the kiasu parents are a big part of the problem. Some teachers tell me it's gotten to such an extend where her primary students will ask her, "Is there marks for this?". And if there is not, the kids say, "then ask someone else to do it". The parents have totally distorted the poor kids' perception of what education is all about.
    I think if they craft a whole different type of education where the parents are not able to get them past year papers to drill them to death with, then they just can't be kiasu even if they wanted to. A friend of mine has kids in Tanglin Trust. She is actually a very kiasu parent. However, she says that there's only so much extra she can do to give them a leg up as she does not even know what they are going to test them on. There are no big tests and the teachers assess them continually throughout the year. She is amazed that her 5 year old can name the islands in the archipelagos and can explain to her animatedly what they are all about. She has given up being kiasu and realise that the way their school is teaching them is more effective then the assessment books she has been making them do.
    For a start, I hope they can establish this prototype school, and as there is no PSLE and no tangible exams, probably the kiasu parent will not want to send their kids there. Over time, after this school proves itself, that it can emulate the Finnish system of producing top students without the extra tuition and through more play and experiential learning, then it can slowly convince the kiasu parents that there is another way.

Comments are closed.