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Education policy changes in 2013

A time for change

Education policy changes in 2013

Education policy changes in 2013

It seems that the tiny nation Singapore is not satisfied with her status as a country with one of the best education systems in the world. Such dissatisfaction should be applauded. In fact, in the eyes of students and parents in Singapore, the international ranking is not that important. What matters to them are how many students can get into good schools, how many hours students have to study to get a good grade and how much stress, financial and psychology, their families have to face. The government has been taking many initiatives to address those issues only an ‘insider’ can experience. And recently, the attention of the government has been given to lower levels of institutions: not just to primary schools, but all the way down to kindergartens.

Kindergartens run by government?

There is a new buzzword going around: ministry kindergartens. The government takes the lead to set up a few kindergartens run under the guidance of the Ministry of Education. In the world where privatization is considered a social good because it ushers in market forces that make the system more efficient, the move of the Singapore government seems to be going against the general trend. Not quite however. The initiative to set up ministry kindergartens has two major benefits. First, the government-run institutions are not profit oriented and have greater access to government subsidies. Such kindergartens are highly accessible to children from less well-to-do families in Singapore who can’t afford expensive private kindergartens. As income gap in the country becomes bigger, ministry kindergartens can meet the demands of increasing number of families who find it challenging to pay for expensive centers. Second, the ministry kindergartens set standard for kindergartens in Singapore. There has been a lack of direction as to what a quality day care center should be. The ministry kindergartens, with resource flowing directly from the government, have the demonstration effect to other kindergartens in Singapore. Moreover, with the intervention from the government, the ministry kindergartens can effectively serve as an experiment grounds for testing new education method or practice that can be popularized later. They give the government greater authority and confidence in setting the standard for the whole sector.

A business for the government?

However, it should be noted that the intervention from the government should not be excessive. As said before, market is still considered a force for good, the good here meaning diversity, innovation and competition. The major share of the pre-schooling institutions should still be private in nature. Parents can send their children to a kindergarten that best satisfies their specific needs, such as language requirement, religious preference or even teaching pedagogue adopted by the center. Excessive standard-setting discourages innovation. What the government should do is to ensure that the basic quality of education is reached and essential knowledge and skill are taught. Beyond that, the government should put the decisions back to the hands of kindergartens management and parents.

A different PSLE?

Besides the kindergarten issue, the government is also looking to change the PSLE system. The T-score will be abolished, replaced by the grade-based system used by exams such as the O-levels. The change aims to reduce the stress faced by primary school students. Indeed, if students do not know their specific scores, it is less likely for them to compete on the margin and try to get that one extra mark which may differentiate them from the rest. The grade-based system can indeed reduce stress. The stress level of students in grade-based education system, such as the O-level candidates in Singapore or the UK is lower than the stress level of students in score-based education systems, such as the high school students in China or South Korea. Since students do not know their scores, the highest scorer in a class is probably as happy as the tenth highest scorer since most likely they will get the same grade.

Tackling the root problem

However, the above analysis is premised upon one big assumption: there will be a better way to differentiate students. The mere change of how results are reported does not solve the underlying factor that causes stress among students: the imbalance between supply of good schools or good programs and the demand for those things. If supply always falls short of demand, people will find ways to solve the problem other than resorting to comparing scores. Probably the admission grade for good secondary schools will be as high as A, or the mark for the A grade will be raised higher, or an even higher A+ grade will be invented. If such things happen, stress won’t be reduced. To really reduce stress, we need to look at either supply or demand. To increase supply, the government can enhance the quality of more secondary schools by channeling more funding or better teachers. To reduce demand, the government can change the perception of people from being obsessed with a few target schools to welcoming a broader range of selection of schools that are being improved because of the government effort to reduce educational inequality.

For higher levels of institutions, students are much more mature and the stress they face is considered reasonable and even necessary as preparation for more challenging life when they start working. So much concern about the stress in education is really induced by the idea that the stress level is not proportional to the young age of students in lower levels of institutions. Making sure that students start off their schooling on an equal footing and that their schooling journey is a happy one is doing the whole country a great service.




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