Education Minister Heng Swee Kiat has a tough job: correcting the government’s mistakes in education. Three generations of children have grown up looking at education as a series of exams, starting with the Primary Four gifted programme.
Now, he tells us: “Focusing on top scorers (which the Ministry of Education had done for decades) reinforces the mistaken notion among some parents that education equals grades.” How did parents get that “notion” in the first place? Because of the Ministry of Education. How did the entire MOE manage to perpetuate the notion? Because that’s how MOE measured key performance indicators (KPIs) of schools, principals and teachers for decades.
Actually, parents really have only themselves to blame. Wrong policy initiatives may have originated with MOE, but did they have to follow like sheep? Back in 1997, when my daughter was in Primary One, and I was a parent volunteer at her school, I was shocked by other parents who were looking for exam scripts for their girls (yes, one-year series for Primary One kids!). Fortunately for her, Jacintha Abishnegaden was just starting voice classes in a sudio opposite her primary school. So once a week, for two years, she looked forward to that.
Six years later, she had a strong wish to make it to Raffles Girls School (wishful thinking, I thought, as she wasn’t willing to put in the hard work). However, although it was her PSLE year, she was part of a children’s ensemble for Ekachai Uekongtham’s Action Theatre production of Chang and Eng, which had been invited to perform for two weeks in Bangkok. All the children in the ensemble, including five in P6, wanted to go, so the parents secured leave for them from their schools, and the children agreed to three hours of tutorials every morning (I was the tutor). They had the time of their life, and all made it to secondary school.
I played my part as parent to get her into an all girls’ secondary school despite her not meeting the school’s “cut off” T-score (she had talent which the principal noted). She decided, in her O-level year, that she wanted to study drama at ACJC and so the theatre productions that I had taken her to watch as a child must have influenced her. She worked hard and got into the drama elective. She had a great two years at ACJC under Geeta Creffield.
How did I not succumb to the kiasuism of Singapore parenting? For start, I disagreed with the focus on mother tongue. We went on school-organised trips to Beijing for three years, where I wanted to expose her to the cultural experience of the language. She learnt more from those fortnight-long trips than the dreary Chinese classes in school for six years!
When the opportunity came for her to choose Chinese Language B syllabus in Secondary 3, we opted for that. The focus was on Oral Mandarin, and I knew she could manage that. No point wasting any more time on that – she was never going to be a Chinese scholar!
There is an article on the Singapore Democratic Party’s website that asks how Singaporeans can drive their children to depression and suicide over exams. The blame must be shared between the education establishment (ministers, principals and teachers) and parents.
Singapore will not collapse if we stop focusing on PISA scores and presidents scholars, but place the emphasis on teaching our children to be excellent communicators who refuse to be bullied by a system which doesn’t care how they feel, perpetuated by parents whose KPIs comprise points rather than the person that is their child.
As Heng said: “Other things matter, and matter greatly too. Conversation with children must go beyond grades and exams.” OK, Minister: just knock MOE’s head a few more times. For the damage they’ve wreaked on so many children!