EveryChild.sg has been started by a group of Singaporeans, mostly parents, concerned about the ability of our education system to prepare Singapore’s children for the future economy. Especially at the primary school level, we believe the system is chasing an outdated performance indicator (i.e. PSLE) and is under-resourced compared to other developed countries.
The net result is that we are failing to develop the very qualities and skills our children will need to meet their and Singapore’s future, i.e. creativity, critical thinking, mental resilience and social-emotional skills. (For detailed evidence and discussion, please read our whitepaper.) Instead:
Over-emphasis on academics from a young age is damaging our children’s mental health and holistic development. It is placing undue stress on teachers, parent-child relationships and parents’ careers and finances.
Under-resourcing in primary schools is worsening inequality. Large class sizes do not allow teachers to dedicate attention to every child, and the limited support professionals (SEN Officers) in school are too overworked to proactively identify and support all children with learning needs. This leads to undiagnosed needs, and forces parents to turn to private tuition and therapy, which many struggle to afford.
The primary school curriculum (i.e. PSLE) focuses on skillsets that are already out of date. To be competitive in the future economy, our children have to be nurtured to be collaborative, creative, and have high EQ. This is the exact opposite of what our competitive, hierarchical and conformist education system is currently.
All this is seeding problems that will hurt our ability to become a resilient, cohesive, inclusive, innovative and competitive economy and society.
How Do We Get Back on Track?
On the bright side, Singapore is a rich and developed country, leading the world in many areas. When Singapore sets its mind to becoming truly world class, we get there!
In public, our recommendations focus on 3 key system changes to get us back on track (see graphic):
But for policymakers, our recommendation is to start with a more fundamental fix - putting in place a high-powered policy-making unit in MOE, empowered at the highest levels to reform the primary education system.
(And no, MOE’s existing policy-planning office does not suffice.)
There is precedence for this - about 10-15 years ago, the government was seriously worried about our ability to cope with a rapidly ageing population, and set up the Ageing Planning Office (APO) in MOH (Ministry of Health). APO was filled with good policy-makers (Admin Service, PSLP, etc.) from across government, and empowered to work across Ministries and agencies to rethink, reform and ramp-up systems, services and infrastructure to help Singapore deal with an ageing population.
From the outside, it seems APO did a great job - we have emerged with numerous well-thought out reforms that have helped us get a better handle on the needs of our ageing population over the past decade, including a focus on upstream prevention (Population Health Approach), building/ strengthening Community Hospitals, and a revamp of financial support and insurance schemes (MediShield, ElderShield, CareShield, etc.) While much more remains to be done, of course, we at least have a good handle on the ageing issue.
So is it time for a similarly empowered ‘Future-Ready Education Planning Office’ to be set up in MOE?
MOE’s Current Approach
In theory, MOE claims to support much the same things that EveryChild.sg argues for - reducing the emphasis on grades, life-long learning and learning beyond the classroom, holistic development, etc. This can be seen in successive Education Ministers’ speeches, and in public engagement sessions like the ones conducted for the Forward SG Equip pillar.
But in reality, MOE seems hesitant to accept the need for fundamental system-level policy changes in recent decades, like moving away from PSLE as the main KPI of primary school education, or improving the limited resourcing in primary schools.
MOE has thus not been able to move the dominant mindset/ culture in our schools and parenting. Instead, it focuses on encouraging parents, teachers and schools to change their behaviour, using tools like guides (e.g. for parent support groups to support student mental health), trainings, anecdotal success stories (e.g. https://www.moe.gov.sg/our-schools-our-stories). It deflects pressure through consultation and engagement sessions, which usually conclude (again) by calling for changes in the citizen’s mindset and behaviour.
MOE’s approach of encouraging messages like ‘grades don’t matter’ or ‘it’s up to parents to put less pressure on their kids’ will not work, if education remains a competitive game. Neither will tinkering with the rules of the game (e.g. removing mid-year exams, or grading PSLE in bands), while keeping the game essentially intact. This is basic Game Theory and Behavioural Economics - there is plenty of research to show that most human behaviour is dependent on the systems and incentives they are immersed in.
So none of MOE’s band-aid efforts fundamentally fixes the incentive system and resourcing realities driving the issues within our education system. Our Government is able to use reasonably well-designed incentives to guide citizens and stakeholders towards desired behaviours in most other aspects of policy-making in Singapore. However, when it comes to our primary education system, we somehow expect and nag citizens to control/ overcome their natural reactions (i.e. to go easy on the children) when the system is incentivising them differently (i.e. to compete hard to ‘succeed’ in a national stack-ranking exercise, i.e. PSLE, that will determine a child’s educational opportunities for the following 4-6 years).
This leads to a disconnect between parents’ ideals and actions - many will admit they should not be putting so much pressure on their children at such a young age, or signing them up for so much tuition, but they feel if they do not do so, they risk their child’s future. A similar tug-of-war unfolds in many teachers’ psyches - to give a child the support and space they need to develop a true love of learning, or focus on teaching to the test to meet their own ‘KPI’ of maximising exam/ PSLE grades for their class of 35-40 children?
So why hasn’t MOE solved this problem yet?
MOE is unable to effectively address this problem because it currently lacks sufficient senior and empowered career policy-makers.
To those of us who have worked with MOE in our professional capacity, what is striking is the large number of practising professionals (senior teachers, Principals, Educational Psychologists, etc.) being rotated in and out of, or left for long periods in, senior policy positions at MOE.
These practising professionals seem to be excellent teachers and Principals, who are good at, and enjoy, teaching a class full of students, and eventually running school departments and entire schools.
But it is unfair to expect them to craft national-level policy without sufficient years of training, experience and guidance on how to do so.
We do not have mostly senior doctors running health policy in MOH (at least not in the past decade), or mostly senior pilots running aviation policy at the Ministry of Transport. In general, policy-making and systems-level reform is not what practitioners are trained for or adept at (in the same way a policy-maker would not do too well being suddenly parachuted in front of a class of 40 students).
MOE thus resorts to blaming the behaviour of parents for creating/ perpetuating stress and competition. Elsewhere in our Government, rarely do we blame large-scale policy failure on the behaviour of citizens. Rather we strive to design policy that works with (not against) human psychology to succeed.
All this means that in its current form, MOE is unlikely to be able to fix the shortcomings in our education system by itself. It will require political will from the Government to reform MOE first, before MOE can reform the education system.
EveryChild.sg seeks to educate parents on the changes needed in our education system, and encourages them to ask for this change. But we will admit ourselves, educating parents is going to take a long time. And implementing major policy change takes a long time too. But the world, and especially the frontiers of technology, are moving so fast, we cannot afford to waste another 5 years before make fundamental reforms.
Thus we request those of you who truly care about Singapore’s future, and are in a position of power - let’s short-circuit that process and set up a Future-Ready Education Planning Office, so it can, in turn, reform the education system, before it gets too late for our children’s economic future and mental health.
What’s Needed? A Systems-Level Approach
EveryChild.sg recommends ending this competitive game that is our education system, and replacing it with a well-resourced and truly universal education system, that gives every child the holistic, child-centric, mental-health-friendly and future-oriented education they should be getting, in a country as rich as ours.
To do that, our education system needs to be redesigned boldly from first principles, using system-level fixes, and good policy-making practices, like:
instituting appropriate goals/ KPIs for the system,
ensuring sufficient resourcing to achieve these goals,
aligning incentives to human psychology, and
harnessing the power of data analytics.
At the most basic level, a system is shaped by (a) its overarching aim/ goal, as reflected in the KPIs measured; and (b) resources made available to achieve (a). Our primary education system is currently shortchanged on both:
(a) Our Primary Education System is Chasing the Wrong KPI
PSLE is the de facto goal of primary school education, instead of holistic child development.
However, EveryChild.sg has shown that:
No other country with a top-ranked education system has its first high-stakes exam at such a young age;
There are much better ways to assess learning than PSLE, as used in other education systems; and
There are better ways to allocate children to primary and secondary schools if we made PSLE optional.
Once PSLE is made optional, the KPI for teachers and schools can be adjusted from raw grades to children’s learning/ development trajectories:
Testing and assessing children can be done on a regular basis, in low-stakes bite-sized pieces (e.g. MAP testing), in multiple formats, including presentations, creative work and and group work, that mimic the real world our children will have to work in.
All student trajectories can be tracked, individual strengths highlighted and built on, weaknesses adequately supported and/or accommodated.
And teachers’ and schools’ incentives, behaviour and actions can become more aligned with encouraging our children’s steady and holistic development throughout the entire first 10 years of education, rather than applying undue pressure towards a one-time high-stakes exam.
(b) Our Primary Education System is Under-Resourced
The resources required to provide a universal, world-class, future-ready, holistic education are currently not provided at the primary school level. We can well afford to find the resources, we currently underspend both richer and poorer countries on public education by a huge percentage.
We are the only developed country with public primary school classrooms full of 35-40 children (of whom 8 on average would have some form of additional needs). We need to have smaller class sizes, no more than 25 children in a primary school classroom, to enable more interactive and differentiated teaching and personalised learning that benefits every child. The massive reliance on external tuition and private therapy by those who can afford it should become an exception rather than the norm.
We need to give our children and teachers the support system they need and deserve, and that we can well afford. This includes adequate and well-trained support professionals operating within schools (therapists, psychologists, additional & senior learning support teachers, teachers for the gifted/ talented, etc.) Just two Allied Educators/ SEN Officers per school, who are not required to have a teaching background and join with just 9 months of training, is grossly inadequate to provide this support.
A universal, equitable and future-oriented primary education system should be key goals for MOE. This means fixing (a) and (b) first.
None of this implies that we do away with ‘meritocracy’. Eventually students will have to compete to show their abilities in the post-secondary/ tertiary education fields of their choice, as they do in all countries, but it goes against all the science of child development, learning and assessment to hold this competition at 11/12 years of age.
In fact, putting in the resources to give every child a better shot at the start would reinforce meritocracy and the ‘Singapore dream’, which is currently being eroded by a system that clearly advantages the children of the well-to-do.
The Right Time is NOW
Reforming our primary education system for the 21st century is something we all need to care deeply about. Our education system shapes our future generation of workers, adults and parents, who will in turn have to support an ageing population in a complex world. In the coming years and decades, how we treat our children will have a massive impact on all of us in Singapore:
The competitiveness and adaptability of our current and future economy;
Our ability to forge an inclusive and unified vision for our country, and stem the rise of populist and divisive politics;
Our children’s futures and livelihoods, family relationships, and just about everyone’s mental health and happiness.
It is time for the Cabinet to set up the Future-Ready Education Planning Office and empower it to reform our primary education system. We hope you are convinced - please help Singapore make it happen.
(And if you are not convinced, please help us understand why - email@example.com .)
1. Further info on APO’s role can be found in this report by the Asian Development Bank on Singapore’s policy and systems response to ageing.
2. MOE has also started efforts like TRANSIT (Transition Support for Integration programme) and UPLIFT and its Enhanced School Resourcing programme. While on the right track, these efforts are still much too little.