Yesterday, Education Minister Heng Swee Keat gave a speech at the MOE Work Plan Seminar. In it, he gave some broad strokes of his plans for education. This is the first major announcement on education he's made since he took over the position, so I'm sure it was eagerly awaited by many in the industry.
You can read the full speech here and it's also covered in the Straits Times today. Basically, he calls for a more holistic, student-centric education system and outlines some initiatives he will be rolling out.
One of the key points of Mr Heng's speech is the focus on values. He wants values and character development to be at the core of our education system, which is something I totally agree with. But even he acknowledges that it's difficult to implement as it's not something that can (or should) be examinable or assessed. I'm sure he knows it's a mindset issue, not something you can simply institute. But for a start, he's telling principals and teachers that they should not cannibalise civics & moral education periods for remedial lessons. While this is may be a small gesture, I appreciate he's trying to signal the importance of values.
He's also stressing the importance of CCAs for character building. I'm a little skeptical. While I totally agree that CCAs can build character, these are often waylaid in the chase for medals. As I mentioned before, many schools are so obsessed with the medal tally for sports and performing arts, to the point that these override values such as sportsmanship, diligence, discipline, etc. Unless schools completely transform their world view towards CCAs, character building will continue to be an accidental outcome rather than an objective.
This whole issue of prioritising values is a thorny one because it requires a shared mindset among parents and educators. For eg, I was told an incident where a parent hired a professional consultant to help with her child and his friends' school project. Eventually, the project won an international competition. This is clearly an ethical issue and my question was, did the teachers know the kids didn't do the project themselves? And even if they did have their suspicions, would they have probed or just turned a blind eye? The parents clearly had no qualms about what I consider downright cheating. Such is the message we're sending to our kids - win or do well at all costs. I think if we say values are important, the system needs to stop consistently rewarding achievement over values.
The third initiative in the area of values is the introduction of a new Character and Citizenship Education curriculum. I don't know enough details about this to make a comment. Let's wait and see. My personal wish is that our schools will open up many more creative opportunities for the students to help others on a regular basis, the way international schools do it, so that social consciousness becomes part of their psyche. Going to the old folks' home once a year just doesn't cut it.
Yesterday, a Straits Times reporter called me to ask if I had any comments on the new homework policy Mr Heng was calling for. Basically, he says that all schools should study the needs of its students and define how much homework students should be assigned at the different levels. I told the reporter I had no issues with homework. At both my kids' schools, homework is generally manageable and not excessive. I'm quoted in today's ST page A8, by the way. It's not much of a quote, I'm surprised they included it.
My issue with stress at school is not with homework but with the single-minded focus on results and the accompanying kiasu-ism, as previously laid out in my letter to the Minister. When I met up with Sim Ann, Senior Parliamentary Secretary of MOE, following the letter for a chat, she mentioned that she felt the underlying cause of this competitiveness is the scarcity of university places. Mr Heng obviously shares her view as he has tasked his Minister of State for Education to look into this.
I'm not 100% convinced this is the root of the problem. I still think using KPIs to assess schools and teachers is a huge contributing factor and I'm a little disappointed Mr Heng didn't address this at all. I suspect having to overhaul HR is opening another super-sized can of worms and MOE has enough on its plate at the moment.
Incidentally, I found Sim Ann to be a lovely person - warm, genuine and with a great sense of humour (so important!) Not at all stuffy and pompous like some civil servants I've encountered in the past. She invited me to be part of a dialogue earlier this week which I was unfortunately unable to attend.
I think it's safe to say that Mr Heng and his team are taking parent and teacher engagement much more seriously than their predecessors. Perhaps they don't have much of a choice, considering the currently politically charged climate. Nevertheless, I'm encouraged that they have at least acknowledged and taken into account viewpoints from both parents and teachers, and not just at face value.
Is this education reform in the making? Or just a review? I want to be optimistic. As I told the ST reporter (can't believe I'm quoting myself), every little step counts.
Performing for Ghosts - Hungry Ghost month came & went. I don't miss the ashes flying about or watching out where I walk in case I trip over some offering. But I do look forward...
8 months ago