Ministry of Education Committee of Supply 2017 – Cuts by WP MPs and NCMPs

(Delivered in Parliament on 6 March 2017)


Sports in Schools – Png Eng Huat

Madam, the journey to becoming a sporting nation and achieving sporting glory at the highest level surely must start somewhere. Look at the vibrancy of the sporting scene in the schools in the United States. They used to send their college teams to compete at the Olympics. Every young athlete there harbours a dream to compete for sporting glory at the highest level, be it local, national, or international.

However, the dream of becoming the next world champion, especially for a young athlete living in a small country like Singapore, should not rest on the individual and his family alone. The nation must share that dream, and it must filter down to the schools to begin with.

The fire in the sporting belly of our schools has dimmed. I remember back in the seventies, competitions among the schools were keen and sporting rivalries were strong, all in good spirit and character building. There was always a lesson to be learnt, in victory or defeat.

The “New Nation”, the predecessor of The New Paper, gave generous coverage to school sports with large photo spread. You don’t see that anymore. And what you don’t see often, you don’t think much of it over time as well.

Madam, football is one of the most popular sports here and yet some schools do not even play the sport anymore. How can we dream about competing against the great footballing nations at the World Cup Finals when our youth are not even fired up to compete against each other in schools.

Sports in schools can build camaraderie, character, and sense of belonging in our youth. I urge the Ministry to look into promoting a vibrant sporting culture in schools because the future of our dream for sporting glory is at stake.


Promoting Entrepreneurship in Schools – Dennis Tan

Last month, in this House, we heard about the progress of the YES! Schools programme. My colleague, Leon Perera, also suggested at the same sitting that we should consider a “push” model instead of the current approach. Currently, the YES! Schools and other programmes are open on an opt-in basis.

I would like to ask the Government to consider making ALL students go though such entrepreneurship programmes and from a young age. The Government should develop such entrepreneurship programmes progressively for different levels from primary school upwards to tertiary levels.

I believe that that making such programmes available to every student will bring benefit not just by way of general education and exposure, but from this much larger pool of students exposed to such education, we should be able to inspire many more young Singaporeans to be entrepreneurs and/or to develop a nose for businesses.

Through such programmes, we should let students try their hand at starting a business even when they are still in school. Give them practical experience in thinking out of the box, selling, raising capital, even getting rejected and learning to be resilient.

Ultimately, we need to develop a mindset change in our young students in looking at life and business and how we view risks and possibilities in life. And I believe early exposure to entrepreneurship training and development can help to bring about such a mindset change. I hope we can change the mindset of our young people to consider entrepreneurship as a worthwhile ambition, alongside, if not ahead of, working for the public service or for an MNC.


Class Size – Leon Perera 

Madam Chairperson, we have debated the issue of class size in this House before. Class size is distinct from teacher-student ratio, which can be affected by many other factors.

While there are different perspectives in the academic literature on the merits of smaller class sizes, some facts stand out. Class sizes of international schools in Singapore are smaller than in local schools. Our class sizes are still significantly higher than the OECD average. And our typical class size has not changed very much since I was a child.

Our large class sizes are supplemented by remedial classes which can provide weaker students with more focused teaching and engagement. However remedial classes have their downsides. Students who are required to attend remedial classes may feel stigmatized and become demoralized. Morale and self-esteem can have an effect on academic performance. Moreover remedial classes extend hours for students and crimp time for other kinds of academic or character development.

I would like to ask – has MOE conducted any studies or does it have any data that assess the relative merits of smaller class sizes as opposed to maintaining the current system of larger class sizes plus remedial classes?


Equitable Funding for Schools – Png Eng Huat

Madam, this is the second year in a row that I am raising the issue of equitable funding for schools.  The Minister’s replies, when I brought up the issue twice last year, were along the line that MOE resources schools based on the needs of students, programmes offered by the schools and the enrolment of the schools.  In other words, MOE does acknowledge that there exists a distinct disparity in funding between the brand name schools and the other schools.

I have highlighted that the per capita funding for schools favours popular schools with high enrolment.  Parents can see the disparity for themselves, which manifests in differences in the range of arts, sports, and enrichment programmes offered by schools.  When this information makes its way through the grapevine, the perception that certain schools offer more and better opportunities for student development will perpetuate.  This drives the enrollment numbers for the schools, and consequently, the amount of funding that the government disburses to them, based on enrollment figures.  Even without factoring in the higher fees, greater economies of scale, and contributions by well connected alumni, the brand name schools are already competing in league of their own.

The per capita funding for student may seem fair at the micro level but at the macro level there has to be a baseline funding for schools. If per capita funding is the great leveller in developing our students fully and holistically in all schools, why did MOE need to close down 7 neighbourhood schools last year. Falling enrollment numbers should not be a reason for these schools to shut their doors then, because the Government is still committed to fund them on a per capita basis.

When some schools are forced to do more or the same with less while others are spoilt for choice in terms of what they can offer their students, can we say that this model of funding is in the best interest of every student?

Last year, my colleague, Mr Dennis Tan, asked the minister if the government takes the higher school fees and contributions from wealthy alumni into account when providing funding to schools. The minister did not provide a response to that. I hope the minister can provide an answer to this important question, and release details on the funding given to each school to support the notion that every school is a good school.


School Buses for Special Needs Schools – Leon Perera 

Madam, for many special needs students, navigating the public transport system on their own may be a daunting task. As a result, SPED schools and parents of special needs students depend on school buses.

As a parent of two primary school children, I trudge down to the void deck of my flat to see my kids off on their school buses on most mornings. Our school buses are a Singaporean institution. Special needs students need to have stable and effective school bus services too.

Madam, I have encountered feedback from some VWOs running special needs schools that it is difficult to engage school bus contractors to support special needs schools. This is because the operators of such routes may need to deploy additional manpower or special processes and equipment that may degrade commercial viability. What would a VWO do if no operator wants to take up a school bus tender? Not all VWOs have the means to buy and operate their own vehicle.

Will MOE consider fresh ideas to help special needs schools address this issue?

One suggestion is to require bus operators to support a certain number of special needs school bus routes as part of the contracting requirements under the bus contracting framework.

Another idea is to apply a state subsidy to bus contracts for special needs schools to make these more commercially attractive.

A one-off financial assistance package could also be applied to help school bus operators retrofit their buses to better cater to transporting special needs children, similar to the LTA’s assistance package rolled out in 2008 to help retrofit seatbelts and provide booster seats on small buses.

If successful, such schemes can be extended to day activity centres and sheltered workshops for persons with disabilities operated by VWOs.


Early Detection of Dyslexia – Daniel Goh

Madam, it has been reported that globally, 4 percent of each cohort of students suffer from dyslexia severe enough to require intervention. This would mean that there are about 1,600 children per cohort in Singapore who may have severe dyslexia.

It was reported last year that the Dyslexia Association of Singapore (DAS) has been assessing around 900 students each year, of which two-thirds are diagnosed with dyslexia. This means that there could be hundreds of children per cohort who have the condition but are not diagnosed.

Currently, dyslexia assessment is done voluntarily based on pre-assessments by pre-school and primary school teachers who would then make recommendations to parents.

I believe it is timely for MOE to introduce mandatory and subsidised dyslexia screening at the pre-school level. An assessment performed when the child is in the second half of the second year of kindergarten would give the parents more time to prepare the child for formal schooling. Studies have shown that early intervention helps the child to better catch up in reading and writing with their peers.


Hiring of Persons with Disabilities in Schools – Dennis Tan

Last month, Minister Tan Chuan Jin said in an answer to a PQ from my colleague, Dr Daniel Goh, that Persons with Disabilities and Special Needs (PWDs) comprise only 0.55% of the resident labour force.

Despite initiatives like the Open Door Programme, the employment rate of PWDs remains low. The take up rate to date is but a small fraction of the $30m set aside for the Programme. Only 1000 out of an expected number of 4,000 people have been placed under the programme by last month.

If we want to build an inclusive society, we are going to have to work on changing mindsets. I would like to propose that schools should actively look into hiring PWDs for roles that match their abilities. Ministries and statutory boards already hire persons with disabilities. Besides the benefit of having an inclusive employment policy which help to encourage and boost further employment for Persons with Disabilities and Special Needs, it will expose our schoolchildren to an environment where they may grow up seeing such persons working alongside other staff.

Together with suitable education programmes, MOE and schools can use such opportunities to help all students understand the needs of PWDs and to learn how to interact and get along respectfully and meaningfully. We have a long way to go in equalising employment opportunities, but if we allow our students to develop respect and empathy from a young age, they are more likely to carry these attitudes with them when they enter the workforce in future or become employers.


Later School Start Times – Daniel Goh

Madam, a number of studies on the sleep patterns of our teenage students indicate that they are not getting enough sleep. They are getting around 5-6 hours of the recommended 8 hours of sleep. One recent study by the Duke-NUS Graduate Medical School linked sleep deficiency with lowered cognitive performances, deterioration of sustained attention, working memory and alertness. Longer term issues include high blood pressure, obesity, behavioural problems and impaired growth.

One of the recommendations from the study was to start school later. Currently most of our schools start at 7.30am, which means that students would wake up before sunrise, resulting in a disruption to their circadian rhythms. If we can start schools an hour later at 8.30am, students will no longer need to wake up before sunrise and this could help improve their sleep cycles, thus leading to better health and learning outcomes. Additionally, most schools today function as full-day schools, making it feasible to implement a later start time.


Regional Language Proficiency – Chen Show Mao

Sir, the importance to our country and our economy of Regional cooperation and trade; and the importance to our people and our enterprises of Internationalisation and Regionalisation have been much rehearsed in these COS proceedings for other ministries. Could we complement these efforts and facilitate these outcomes with an increased focus on regional language proficiency in our school curricula?

There are other good reasons, in many ways more important reasons, for doing so.

First, Education. Research has found several benefits of multilingualism in children, including cognitive and intellectual skills. UNESCO has consistently championed multilingual education in schools.

Second, To protect and preserve our own multiculturalism. We should promote the learning of our own national language and other official languages. It promotes national integration, and it is our good fortune that our national language and other official languages happen to be among the most widely spoken languages in Asia and the world.

We currently have third language programmes at Secondary school level like MSP for learning Malay and CSP for Chinese; and we have conversational third language programmes for Malay and Chinese at the primary school level as enrichment (but not part of the regular curriculum). As learning languages is best done when young, could the Ministry look into making the conversational third language programme part of the syllabus to deepen the conversational language skills of our primary school students, starting with our National language and official languages? Perhaps included as part of the regular curriculum for every student (i.e., compulsory and during school hours) but without the pressure of exams?


(Delivered in Parliament on 7 March 2017)


SkillsFuture Stocktake – Pritam Singh

Madam Chair, when I spoke about Skillsfuture during the Budget debate in 2015, I noted that as SkillsFuture got off the ground, it would be useful for the Government to track the outcomes of SkillsFuture initiatives, especially for our SMEs, so as to assess how the scheme has been effective in achieving the desired productivity increases and economic outcomes, and to better track the real value of SkillsFuture initiatives for various industries. It will be inevitable that the practical outcomes would be expected of SkillsFuture and sought after, in view of dire warnings of machines replacing people and the requirement for a high level of skills to succeed in the workplace of tomorrow.  The concern I had then as I do now is that Singaporeans do not see a qualifications strategy as being synonmous with genuine skills upgrading strategy. To that end, a review mechanism to understand and assess the outcomes of SkillsFuture is a necessity.

As the Government has shared, Skillsfuture is more than just a movement targeted at specific age-groups, but across age-groups and society, and therefore it is also about a larger cultural shift towards constant lifelong learning. To this end and in October last year, I asked a parliamentary question about the utilisation of SkillsFuture credits, and it was reported that up to August 2016, over 80,000 Singaporeans had used their SkillsFuture credit. This number was later revised on the back of a similar parliamentary question this year, which raised this number to 126,000 over the course of the entire year. Can the Ministry provide more details about this number in terms of the type of courses taken up by Singaporeans and the age group breakdown of Singaporeans who have used their Skillsfuture Credits? While I accept that it would be more important for Singaporeans to utilise their credits carefully, can the Minister comment on his assessment of the utilisation rates?

In his reply to my parliamentary question, the Minister also replied that it dedicates far more funds to subsidising course fees at the supply end to make them affordable not just SkillsFuture credits, so that there are avenues for workers to re-skill or upgrade. To this end, it was recently reported that the Government funded 920,000 training places in 2015. Can the Minister provide a breakdown of these numbers and which industries received the most and conversely least attention as well and what are its plans in this regard moving forward?

In addition, does the Ministry dovetail newly subsidised courses with the various Industry Transformation Roadmaps under the broad strategic direction offered by the Committee of the Future Economy? If so, is the Ministry considering to step up public communication to advise Singaporeans of the options available to take up courses for those who change careers mid-way through their working life?

Finally, can we expect employers to make a renewed commitment to hire Singaporean workers, even more so in a Skillsfuture environment where much energy and resources are spent on upgrading the skills of Singaporeans?


SkillsFuture Mommy Awards – Daniel Goh

Madam, Singapore’s Total Fertility Rate has hovered around 1.2 to 1.3 for some time. We are struggling to reach the 1.4 to 1.5 mark that DPM Teo Chee Hean set as the target back in 2013 when launching the Marriage and Parenthood package.

An oft-cited reason given by young women for putting off having children is that they are concerned that parenthood may permanently derail their careers. This is not an unjustified concern. Women tend to find it more difficult to re-enter the workforce after having children. Now, with the constant stress to upgrade one’s skills so as to remain competitive and stay relevant, more pressure is placed upon women who question if they can afford to take time off and still be able to keep up with their peers when they return.

I would like to propose a Skillsfuture Mommy Award to be made available to women while they are on maternity leave. The Award would be valid for one year, which should coincide with the no-pay leave period during the baby’s first year – an idea mooted by the Government last year and is currently being explored. This Award will encourage mothers to take up training that may help them remain relevant to their industries, keep their skills sharp, and make re-entry into the workforce a little less challenging.


Retraining and Professional Education – Low Thia Khiang

Madam, retraining and education are essential in this new economy where the idea of having a job for life is quickly disappearing, and workers must be prepared to switch industries and to pick up new skills if necessary.

While many local courses are subsidised for Singaporeans, and the government has provided some assistance by way of the SkillsFuture credit, there are courses that still require hefty fees. I would therefore like to propose the government to set up a SkillsFuture Education Loan to facilitate further and continuing education that will help workers to advance their careers or to switch career paths.

While the government may point to the existence of the CPF Education Scheme as a similar initiative, there are several limitations of the scheme such that it does not adequately address the needs of working adults who may wish to further their education or to take up training courses.

One such limitation is the types of courses that it applies to. The CPF Education Scheme is meant for full-time subsidised courses offered at Approved Educational Institutions, and only applies for first degrees and diplomas.

On top of this, the use of CPF to fund education and training will also have an impact on the retirement adequacy of the individual and their family members, if they are still eligible to borrow from the CPF savings of their parents or spouse.

In the implementation of the SkillsFuture Education Loan, some aspects can be borrowed from the CPF Education Scheme, such as: pegging of interest rates to CPF ordinary account interest rates which are less onerous than rates offered by banks; and stipulating that repayment will commence a year after graduation.

The loan scheme will give individuals greater peace of mind over repayment which may in turn encourage more people to pursue retraining or higher education.


Social Sciences Research Council – Pritam Singh

Madam Chair, late last year, the Ministry announced a significant grant for research in the social sciences and humanities to the tune of $350m under the auspices of the Social Sciences Research Council. I understand the first round of grant calls have closed with about 70 proposals, and an announcement is due soon on the award recipients.

I note that the grant focuses on big themes with a public purpose, such as social integration and resilience, building identities, developing new models of training and education and spurring growth, productivity and innovation.

I would like to enquire, in awarding grants, how does the Ministry consciously spread the award between the humanities and social sciences?

While these initiatives are significant, I would also like to know whether some these grants would be available for initiatives that encourage and promote an interest in the humanities per se and not necessarily the social sciences as such, and therefore lacking a direct or immediate societal outcome. These might include historical research on the South China Sea, urban and rural communities in South East Asia, Asian literature and languages which encompass broadening the knowledge base of Singaporeans researchers and institutions, thereby producing independent outcomes. Such work may not have direct relevance now but would be of consequence in view of our geopolitical realities. What such funding would also do is to generate significant interest among young Singaporeans who seek to pursue post-graduate qualifications to teach and carry out research in our local universities. A community of Singaporean social sciences and humanity scholars with specific expertise would, in time, also raise the quality and standard of research staff and faculty in Singapore and promote a drive towards excellence. There should be no reason why the world’s pre-eminent historians and sociologists and other humanities specialists of the region should be teaching in a university or institution which is not based in Singapore, and we should aim to count as many Singaporeans as we can among such a group of scholars.