I’ve been pretty disappointed by the changes made to the Singapore Education System over the past decade.
Many people have stepped forward to voice out their concerns and flaws of the system over the years but not much has been done other than superficial measures. For instance, proclaiming “Every school is a good school” and expecting people to buy it.
As I’ve highlighted previously, I think the biggest problem we have is our failing meritocracy. Of course, there are many success stories in the past about how people made it from rags to riches through our system such as the inspiring stories of Chan Chun Sing and Lui Tuck Yew.
However, that was a long time ago. The Singapore we live in today has a serious problem of income inequality whereby the the top 1 per cent of Singapore’s wealthiest hold more than a quarter of the country’s wealth.
Of course, there are some success stories from time to time such as that of David Hoe but based on my personal experience in both a neighborhood school and elite school, I think those are an exception rather than norm.
As highlighted in this article on Mothership.SG, rich students can often pay their way into good secondary schools and to second tier universities in Australia, US or the UK.
The second major issue which I would explore today is the irrelevance of our education system is how unnecessarily difficult it is.
Singaporean students take an alternate version of the O level and A levels that is comparatively much more difficult than the international standard. There is a lot more content to memorize and much higher level of difficulty in mathematics and sciences compared to other education systems in the world.
For majority of us who had gone through this, you might recall coming across doing sample papers from the British A levels and thinking to yourself “Why is this so much easier than what Singaporeans have to go through?” Or feeling shocked that what you’ve learnt in secondary three (15 years old) is being taught to freshmen in US colleges.
Not only is making our education system unncessarily tough damaging to student’s mental wellbeing (one in five children thinking of suicide), it is also unnecessary.
Here is why I think that the Singapore education system should be made easier. Specifically, a focus on reducing the depth and breadth of content.
1) Studying So Much Content Doesn’t Benefit One’s Future
An advantage of having such a challenging curriculum is that Singapore gets to top the national rankings. Difficulty – Sure it helps us look good in national rankings. Just recently, it was announced that we topped the OECD rankings for Mathematics and Science.
Other than that it doesn’t achieve other purposes
Firstly, students lose their love for learning and become more focused on exam results than anything else.
More importantly, making examinations and the curriculum so tough doesn’t necessarily increase the level of skill in a workplace.
Sure, creating a skilled workforce demands an education system which imparts considerable knowledge. However, beyond a certain point, increasing difficulty doesn’t make much of a difference anymore.
For instance, I’ve known of people who went to international school in Singapore or to UK and did the much easier version of high school there. When they come out of school, they are able to get the same jobs at the same pay as regular people who through a much tougher system.
Furthermore, MNCs in Singapore seem to prefer hiring foreigners from countries who have gone through a much easier education system. Even the government labels these people as “foreign talents”. They believe recruiting local talent is tough because apparently we lack “Strategic Thinking” and “Creative Problem Solving” skills.
This raises the question of whether our education system is helping to meet the needs of the market place. Does making an education system so hard necessarily mean the people would be more capable? If people who have gone through an easier system preferred or being seen as a ‘talent’, why are we stressing our citizens out with such a curriculum?
Is it really necessarily to make everyone learn mathematics and science at this depth? Or memorizing so much content for one subject?
Perhaps the policy makers in our Ministry of Education might want to think about the following comment made by Ryan Ong:
The system is so hard that the only way to do well is to game the system – work out how best to gain marks, spot questions, and answer questions in a given way. The end result is someone who is very good at passing the exams here, not someone who is well rounded and competent.”
2) Increases Inequality
Making the local education system so tough also contribute to inequality. For many rich parents, they send their students abroad to study in Australia or the UK. They also have the option of enrolling their kids in international schools where the annual fee is between 20-40k.
These students find it much easier to get into top universities or even graduate earlier after high school because the system is so much easier, there is much lesser competition and they can achieve higher grades due to the absence of a bell-curve system.
In contrast, poorer and middle income individuals have no choice but to stay in Singapore, go through the system here and fight with one another over limited number of As and places in top schools.
3) Lesser time for personal growth beyond school
Finally, an extremely demanding curriculum along with the bell curve system gives students little time for other pursuits.
As Deputy Prime Minister Tharman Shanmugaratnam (one of my favourite politicians) pointed out
“There is a need to make room for experiences outside the curriculum, such as the time to reflect, explore and build fellowship with others.”
Students hardly have enough time for both CCA and the school curriculum and end up neglecting other areas in their lives such as family; developing skills not taught in school; self-awareness and channelling their youthful energy to making a change in society through civic participation.
*Of course, this is not a flaw if the purpose of making the system so tough is to make it easier to control students. Youth concentrating on getting straight As would be much less likely to speak up about issues.
This lack of focus on the life outside school continues even up to university where many students have no life outside school beyond academics and CCA. I’ve observed that as a result of spending such a disproportionate amount of time and focus in school, many students are not sure how to behave or carry themselves when they join networking sessions with corporates interested to hire them.
Ending off, my stance is that we should not make our education system so unnecessarily hard. This ultimately only benefits the wealthy who can find a way out of this and of course, our tuition industry which is valued at $1.1 billion.
Personally I think this is very much the fault of ministers and policymakers in the civil service. Most people who enter the government sector spend their whole life that because it is really hard to go back to the private sector once you begin your journey there for most roles. These individuals end up being out of touch with real world realities as a result.
For this reason, I am not generally very fond of member of parliaments who spent decades in the military of civil service. What would they know about the real world outside and what the rest of the population goes through?
Whoever our next generation of leaders may be after the General Elections 2015, I hope that they would look into all the issues raised by the electorate about our education system and adjust it to better suit the needs of the market and wellbeing of our students.
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