(Delivered in Parliament on 8 April 2016)
Ensuring Every School is a Good School – Png Eng Huat
The 7 neighbourhood schools that received no secondary one postings from MOE this year were attributed to the falling cohort size. Indeed the 2015 cohort of 38,600 secondary one students is about 10 per cent lower than the previous year.
However, if MOE were to divide the 2015 cohort size by the number of secondary schools, it can easily fill all schools, including these 7 schools, with at least 5 to 6 classes of 40 students each. Thus, the reality is all schools are created not equal as popular schools will continue to attract more students at the expense of neighbourhood schools. This calls into question about the mantra that every school is a good school.
The mad rush to become a parent volunteer, join the Residents’ Committee, or even relocate just to secure a better chance in the balloting exercise for admission into popular primary schools for their children has become a stressful ritual for parents year after year.
So in the minds of parents, every school is definitely not the same. But what do teachers and principals think? I am sure when teachers and principals come together, the issue of funding for their schools will surface somewhere down their conversations. It is my belief that MOE must walk the talk that every school is indeed a good school by addressing the funding issue first.
In a reply to my PQ on the funding for schools, the Minister said it is not meaningful to compare funding per school but rather, we should look at the per capita funding per student.
Madam, I believe comparing funding per school is meaningful because we are taking about every school is a good school at the school level. So while we know that every student can be a good student because they are given the same per capita funding, I am not sure if every school can be a good school in the context of funding at the school level.
Popular schools with higher enrolment numbers, by default, will have more budget to work with. This, in my opinion, creates an unlevelled playing field for less popular schools. I shall confine my speech to primary education to illustrate this point.
Let us compare Rosyth Primary School, with an enrolment of over 2,000 students, with Bendeemeer Primary School, with an enrolment of about 1,200 students. Based on per capita funding per primary student, Rosyth Primary School is effectively receiving $7.8 million more than Bendeemer Primary School every year. This disparity is significant and needs to be addressed because smaller schools will always face a budget constraint by default.
This disparity will perpetuate year after year as popular schools with bigger budgets will be able to do more for their students, and at lower costs due to economy of scale. And when these schools churn out even more top students, it will be a hard sell to tell parents that every school is a good school because neighbourhood schools will be shrinking in size and disappearing over time.
Madam, we are living in a social media world. We do not need the mainstream media to publicize anything anymore. The popular schools will get more popular through the grapevine.
Does the Minister not agree that it makes a world of difference for principals and teachers of smaller neighbourhood schools to have comparable amount of funding as those popular schools to run their programme each year?
For less popular schools with smaller cohorts, the extra funding will come in handy to compensate for the lower economy of scale in the procurement of products and services for their students. These schools will also be able to do more in sports and enrichment programmes, which I strongly believe, are important activities for small neighbourhood schools to build character and instil a sense of belonging and pride in their students.
I urge the ministry to release such funding data so that all stakeholders can have a meaningful discussion over this mantra that every school is a good school.
Next, I wish to suggest a fundamental change to the Secondary One Posting Exercise in the context of every school is a good school.
I propose that graduating students finishing in the top tier of their primary schools based on PSLE results be given a direct admission to a secondary school of their choice. Currently, primary schools are already recognizing their top PSLE students.
So the chances of top students from neighbourhood primary schools going to popular schools like Dunman High, Hwa Chong or Raffles Institution are no lesser than their peers from popular primary schools now, and still based on merit at the school level.
This will ensure a good mix and spread of students from all spectrum of primary schools going into the secondary schools. This will also prevent elitism from entrenching itself in the feeding primary schools and the popular secondary schools.
This new posting exercise will make every primary school a good school as the top graduating students in each school will have a direct entry to a school of their choice. For parents who want their children to attend a popular secondary school, every primary school is a good school to start the journey now.
Equitable Funding for Schools – Dennis Tan
Madam, in FY2013, the per capita funding per student for secondary schools was $11,400, and for independent schools it was $14,100. That is a 24% disparity. In FY2015, the disparity decreased to about 10%. This is a step in the right direction but the Ministry needs to commit to 100% equitable funding for all schools.
Equitable funding means levelling the playing field for neighbourhood schools so that they will have additional funds to invest in varied arts, sports and enrichment programmes. This will help develop students more holistically and improve overall quality of schools. Currently, neighbourhood schools have less disposable funds than independent schools, putting them at a distinct disadvantage.
The Ministry has a longstanding position that schools are resourced on a needs-basis, depending on programmes offered and enrolment of the school. I have two concerns on this:
One, if a neighbourhood school has lesser funding to begin with, how can the school even start to invest in, say, a niche elective in the first place to justify for additional funding?
Two, neighbourhood schools do not enjoy the privilege of independent schools like higher school fees and a wealthy alumni. How does the Ministry take this into account in schools’ funding criteria to ensure fairness?
As we see more schools merge due to lower enrolment, it is a good opportunity for the Ministry to redistribute funding across neighbourhood schools to equalize the disparity.
Yes, resources may only be a part of the solution, but it is a basic and critical component. I believe that equitable funding is a realistic and worthwhile objective that the ministry should seriously consider. Improvements have been made in recent years. It is possible.
Assistance Schemes, Awards and Funds – Muhamad Faisal Abdul Manap
Madam, first, please allow me to declare that I have a child who is receiving her education at a private institution.
Madam, the Ministry has put in place good and comprehensive financial schemes and funds to assist Singaporeans students from needy and lower income families who are receiving their education at a Government-funded institution. These schemes and the relevant awards are significant in motivating students who display excellence and commitment during the course of their educational endeavors.
Members in this House would be familiar with some of these schemes. These include the (i) Financial Assistance Scheme, (ii) Edusave Scheme and the (iii) Opportunity Fund scheme. In their respective ways, these schemes go a long way in helping and supporting needy students in their educational, enrichment and personal pursuits. The Ministry took a big step forward in 2013 by extending Edusave contributions to all Singaporean students. Upon deliberation and discussion, the national examination fee waiver was also extended to all Singaporean students.
It is in this spirit of lending a helping hand to our children and fostering their respective development, where every child is an invaluable asset to the future of this country that we should further assess the feasibility of extending all MOE assistance schemes, awards and funds to all eligible Singaporean students, including those who are receiving their education in private institutions and madrasahs.
As a Ministry that is tasked to nurture the holistic development of every precious Singaporean son and daughter, the extension of its schemes to all eligible Singaporean students regardless of their choice of school is a bold act of inclusivity that will motivate our children to aim for the horizon and pursue the rainbow before them. Let’s partner our children and lead them down the many unknowns in their educational life with anticipation, hope and joy.
Cultivating Non-Academic Attributes – Leon Perera
Madam Chairperson, good KPIs make for good outcomes. The MOE KPIs in the 2016 Budget Book are still heavily skewed towards academic credentials, stressing the number of passes and so on. This is important.
But in the 21st century we will increasingly need soft skills and qualities like leadership, initiative, confidence, creativity, communication skills and altruism.
While we have stopped publishing PSLE top scorers and the like, I fear credentialism is still deeply entrenched among parents, teachers and students and we need to break this self-reinforcing loop.
For example, in Singapore, parent teacher meetings or PTMs often take the form of the teacher explaining the gaps in the child’s performance (without the child being present) with a view to the parent helping to remedy those gaps at home. I don’t blame our teachers for this at all, they are doing their jobs defined by the system and usually they are motivated by genuine care for their children.
But contrast this with a PTM held at one Western international school here that I learnt about. The PTM was run by the children themselves! It was the child who led the PTM by explaining to their own parents what they had done that term, what they would try to do next term and so on, with the teacher’s facilitation. Wouldn’t this breed leadership, wouldn’t this breed confidence?
I suggest that MOE give some thought to designing and measuring KPIs for such softer but critical qualities. There are a number of international measures of such qualities that could be surveyed each year without recourse to mass standardized testing and which warrant further study by MOE.
One such KPI I’d like to suggest is the number of student self-initiated projects which enjoy positive peer and teacher reviews and can sustain a critical mass of student participation.
Initiating one’s own project – setting up a new club, a new sports activity, a charitable project, an informal small business and so on – both reflects and nurtures just the kind of qualities that we need in the 21st century.
CCAs in Schools – Chen Show Mao
Madam, schools widely have encouraged the active participation of students in various Co-Curricular Activities (CCAs) in order to promote a more well-rounded and holistic education. We believe CCAs inculcate values such as perseverance and help students develop transferable skills in organisation, planning, self-discipline and others, CCAs also foster integration and deepen the students’ sense of belonging and responsibility towards the community.
However, CCAs have increasingly become more exclusive in two aspects – the cost of taking part in them and the push for deliverable results. There are stories of students turned away from certain CCAs because they have no prospects of winning trophies, for lack of prior training or natural ability. In fact, it appears that the further students progress in their education, the more difficult they find it to participate in CCAs in sports or the performing arts. This seems even more so if the CCA is known to be a niche CCA that the school is good at, and where presumably there are teachers and fellow students with much to share. There are also stories of schools that have closed down popular CCAs because they have been unable to deliver quantifiable results.
I would like to call on the Ministry to look into how CCA participation may be broadened and made less exclusive. CCA participation should importantly be based on students’ keen interest to take part, in addition to demonstrated competency. Allowing students to follow their interests will keep them motivated to remain in these CCAs for the long term, and reap the rich educational benefits that CCAs in schools have to offer.
Teach for Singapore – Daniel Goh
Madam Chair, no matter how meritocratic our education system is, no matter how well trained our teachers are, there will be inequality in two areas. There will be students coming from underprivileged backgrounds who would need closer attention and motivation. And there will be teachers who are by nature more caring and motivated to go the extra mile to change the lives of their students.
I ask that the Ministry consider establishing a Teach for Singapore programme to match exceptionally motivated teachers to underprivileged students. This would be modelled after the US Teach for America and the UK Teach First programmes, both of which have good track records in improving educational outcomes for underprivileged students. But we should, of course, make specific adaptations to the Singapore context.
Practicing teachers could apply to join Teach for Singapore, with a select group chosen each year to train in a one-year diploma programme in counselling, cultural sensitivity and teaching for social mobility. Graduates could then be deployed as Teach for Singapore fellows for three years to schools with high numbers of students on financial assistance. Teach for Singapore alumni are then free to develop their teaching career. The aim is create a national corps of dedicated alumni who would continue to inspire and improve each other through conferences, courses and retreats. This will seed and grow the pursuit for educational equality and social mobility among our teachers as well as close the school quality gap in an organic way.
Teacher-Student Ratio – Daniel Goh
Madam Chair, the average class sizes at primary and lower secondary levels in OECD countries are 21 and 24 respectively, while MOE’s planning parameters are for 30 students per class at lower primary and 40 at upper primary and secondary levels. Only in the Gifted Education Programme (GEP) are class sizes capped at 25 to promote better teacher-student engagement.
I understand that the pupil-teacher ratios for primary and secondary schools are equivalent to OECD averages, but teachers are deployed to provide support and extra classes for low-progress students rather than to reduce class sizes. However, reducing class sizes would remove the need to provide these extra remedial classes, which reinforce a stressful tuition culture. Nothing beats the close attention paid to students by the primary teacher in class and only a smaller class size can facilitate this.
In light of the falling student enrollment numbers, and instead of closing down schools and merging them, I ask the Minister to again consider reducing class sizes to the OECD and GEP equivalent.
Civic Consciousness in Schools – Png Eng Huat
We have spent the first 50 years of our nationhood trying to clean up the country in every sense of the word. I must say we are making some progress albeit not to the level of civic consciousness we hope to see like in Japan or Switzerland.
We all know we need to cultivate a mindset of civic consciousness and we need to start young. We all know that but for some reason, this mindset gets reset rather easily each time we are out in the public.
We are taught to clear our own trays from pre-school to university, in the army camp, and at home, and yet, we have so much problem doing that in our hawker centres, food courts and even in this Parliament.
I always wonder what is impeding our effort to become a gracious society after 50 years of nationhood. Perhaps, we need to refocus, reset, and redouble our efforts to achieve that in the next chapter of our history.
Last year, I urged the Ministry of Environment and Water Resources to bring back the spirit of the “Keep Singapore Clean” campaign. This COS, I would like to urge the Ministry of Education to re-plant the seeds of civic consciousness into our young again.
We not only need to teach our young about ownership and responsibility, we also need to make them appreciate how hard our cleaners are working every day, and that keeping Singapore clean is not just the job of the cleaners but everyone else’s responsibility as well.
Madam, after 50 years of nationhood, we need to make civic consciousness a way of life soon. It has to begin at home and in the school. We have to constantly work to get the mindset right in our young so that they will lend themselves readily to acts of kindness, volunteer work and philanthropy for the betterment of society when they grow up.
While I urge all parents to do their part at home, I urge our schools to teach our children well so that, together, we can make civic consciousness a way of life.
Sugar in Schools – Chen Show Mao
The great harm done to our bodies by the unchecked consumption of refined sugar and other types of sugar is increasingly clear. Research has also shown that eating habits and food preferences are typically acquired early in life and are more difficult to change after adolescence. Our schools therefore have a large role to play to help foster healthy eating habits and food preferences in young Singaporeans.
I wish to commend the Ministry of Education and the Health Promotion Board for their efforts in the area resulting in the Healthy Meals in Schools programme 2016. I would like to learn about any other proposed efforts in the area, and look forward to the testing of innovative policy solutions, perhaps developed in partnership with the private and people sectors. I hope these will enable the Ministry and the Board to further cut the amount of sugar allowed in the food and drinks sold in our schools, be they juice drinks, carbonated drinks, dairy and malted drinks or other types of drinks, for the further promotion of health among our school children.