• The Prime Minister spoke about the state of education in Singapore in his Teachers’ Day Rally speech. I shall share my thoughts on the following topics that had been mentioned in his speech: parental expectations, methods of instruction, and the possibility of setting up private schools.

    Parents acquire their own experiences and lessons learnt through their childhood and education. One is not born with the instinct of wishing that one’s offspring would be successful in life. Rather, it is a social behaviour that stems from the inculcation of societal values. We as a society have advocated for outstanding academic results as the only measure of a person’s competence and knowledge. It certainly has become the basis for the recruitment of politicians and civil servants.

    Furthermore, the government and the media have also contributed to the moulding of such a social value. Since parents today have grown up in such an environment, it is natural for them to believe that for their children to be considered outstanding, they have to score the highest marks or the most number of A’s in their examinations.

    It is true that there are some parents who do not completely buy into the idea that academic results are the be-all and end-all of life, when they think about their own childhood experiences and their current life and achievements. However, after making comparisons and sharing real-life stories with their neighbours, relatives, and colleagues about “what would happen to those who are academically weaker”, they still decide that it is better to be safe than sorry.

    It is a gamble that parents feel that they cannot afford to lose, especially for those with only one or two children. They are fearful that their rebellion against prevalent social values would hurt their children. The consequence is the common phenomenon of parents pushing their children to achieve high scores: one needs to score more than 90, or even 100, to avoid being placed in the less desirable ‘streams’ by our education system.

    Due to their perceived ‘sense of crisis’, parents are driven to arrange for their children to attend all kinds of classes — tuition, courses, and lessons — during weekends and school holidays. While parents do not intentionally seek to subject themselves and their offspring to additional stress, they dare not rebel against the social values out of fear that their children may indeed be deprived of higher-quality educational options.

    Appealing to parents to ease up on their children would not change their ‘sense of crisis’. The only way is for the government to take the lead in implementing some changes. We should strike a balance and correct our over-emphasis on ‘outstanding results’ by starting to commend good performances in other areas other than academic achievements. We should even consider making modifications to the demands of examinations and assessment methods, so as to reduce the stress brought on by examinations, scores, rankings, and streaming. The media also has a role to play in the shaping of public opinion and social values. Hence, a coordinated effort by all parties is needed to help parents to change their behaviour and stop exerting undue stress on their children.

    The Ministry of Education (MOE) has spared no effort in improving the teachers’ methods of instruction and spending considerable amounts of money on teacher training each year. The aim of advocating the creative teaching method and project work in recent years is to expand the children’s scope of thinking for themselves and allow them to engage in process learning. However, the benefits for the children have been limited.

    The crux of the problem lies in the fact that there are too many students — an average of 40 — in every class. Since the government acknowledges that human resources constitute our most valuable asset, then the costs of training the future workforce should not be an issue. It is vital that this practice of having too many students in every class be stopped. Since it has been ascertained that process learning could instil in children the desire to learn and inspire them to take the initiative to learn, instead of relying solely on teachers to instruct, then we must accept that process learning requires a generous timeframe. If the teachers have to oversee and guide too many students in the class, it would undermine the effectiveness of project work and process learning.

    Furthermore, the educators’ responsibilities should extend beyond that of classroom instruction to include moral cultivation as well. With changes in the family structure in which both parents work and the children are estranged from their grandparents, coupled with a kaleidoscope of external influences on the children, teachers have their work cut out for them in the area of shaping the moral fibre of our youngsters. It definitely takes far more effort and infinitely more time to correct a child’s misbehaviour than it does to impart knowledge. It is a task that is can be achieved in one moment, but one that could take years to bear fruit.

    When there are too many students in every class, it is inevitable that the moral development of all 40 students would be compromised in some way, not to mention their academic learning. It is simply not possible to show equal and sufficient care for everyone in class. Hence, this issue should be dealt with head-on.

    As the Chinese saying goes, “An army is maintained for a thousand days to be used for a moment.” Thus, though the maintenance costs of additional classes are high, they should not be considered exorbitant. Since education involves the development of human resources in terms of knowledge, capability, and morals, why should costs be cited as the overriding factor in determining the number of students in each class?

    With the number of students per class reduced, it would be necessary to add classes, teachers, and facilities. The country’s resources are sufficient for handling these demands. A poll could be conducted to determine how the country’s budget should be allocated: Do people prefer to spend the money on covered walkways to cater for rainy and sunny days, or on additional facilities and schools to have smaller class sizes and achieve better results.

    And in my view, private schools do not constitute the solution to the problems that exist in our education system. Many people who are concerned and unhappy about the direction that our education system is heading believe that the establishment of private schools would provide their children with an alternative outside of the system. Such schools would be more flexible in catering to the learning requirements and interests of the kids, perhaps even providing classes with smaller numbers of students. However, if they are private entities with no affiliations to any organisation such as churches, they would not receive any subsidies including those provided by the government, the fees they charge would then be comparatively higher than those of existing independent schools.

    Take preschool education, for instance. The kindergartens and childcare centres that employ university graduates and boast of comprehensive facilities usually charge monthly fees that go up to $1,200 to $1,500 (full day). We could then imagine that households with average incomes would not be able to afford the fees charged by privately-run primary and secondary schools. As a result, private schools would become the bona fide schools for the elite. This is probably not the original intention for their establishment, but this would most likely be the outcome in practice. Thus, I hope that the government and non-governmental organisations would look into the issue and engage themselves at a deeper level to resolve the problems.

    In a nutshell, the root of the problem lies within the education system. Thus, we should undertake a thorough and in-depth study to identify the core issues. If we conclude that the system requires a fundamental overhaul, then the whole nation should embrace the process of change together.

    The education system underwent major changes in 1979. We shall leave the academics to study and assess the overall effect of the past reforms on the development of the nation, its people, and the society. I am fairly certain that we as a nation are not averse to reforms; what is at issue though is whether they would ameliorate the education system.

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