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Education in the simplest sense of term meant gaining of knowledge, cultivation of moral values and acquiring necessary technical skills. Education does not yield instant results and it requires large investments and time. However, the power of education is limitless as it helps people to uncover their talent and realize their dreams. Although education required large initial investments, it plays an integral role in the development of a society. Progress in a society especially economically is closely tied with education as new knowledge and skills are constantly needed to power the growth in the economy. Politics also play a part to the growth of education in the form of government directed policy frameworks. Policy frameworks set by a government are not set in stone and revisions are done periodically to align with the ever changing world and economical needs. However in our constant pursuit of success, did the education system neglect it's most fundamental duties? This paper will be examining how government directed policy have shaped Singapore's education system and whether such advancements are worth the physical and psychological burden piled onto teachers and students.
2. Development of Singapore's Education System
Purpose of education as shown in Figure 1 is closely linked with the society, economy and politics of any particular country, this connection shows why purpose of education varies from country to country despite the general consensus of education such as gaining of knowledge, cultivation of moral values and acquiring necessary technical skills. By examining education system and polices of a country, inference can be made on how purpose of education can be altered to suit a country economical, social and political needs and how such an education will impact on both the students and teachers.
Figure : Differentiating Factors affecting Purposeof Education
Singapore education policies are not set in stone and reviews are done periodically. However the main purpose of Singapore's education system are relatively constant over the years which in brief were to nurture the students to acquire necessary technical skills to earn a living and at the same time cultivate their moral values and achieving their potential and as they grow up to be a concerned citizen who is loyal to Singapore, has a strong civic consciousness and takes an active role in empowering and improving the lives of others.
Even though the purposes are relatively constant, education policies have been tweaked to accommodate Singapore's changing economical landscape. From a country that is highly independent on export and manufacturing to an economy that is knowledge-based, this is only possible through government constant review of economical and educational policies which supply Singapore with the skilled labour necessary to propel the transformation.
2. Singapore's Education Development: Policies and Reform
2.1 Education Driven by Survival
Since the gaining of independence in1965, the government recognises the need for racial harmony and social cohesion for Singapore. In order to develop economically, stability must first be achieved in Singapore and schools become the perfect platform to integrate multiracial Singapore. The government set out policies such as the centralizing of curriculum and introduction of a second language throughout school in Singapore and provision of free primary school education. In order to implement common curriculum, the government recognise the importance of English Language as its business building tool to connect and communicate with the world, bilingualism is introduced in the primary and secondary school system. The introduction of English Language as an instructional language in schools also allowed for social cohesion in multiracial Singapore. (Gopinathan.S, W. K. Ho, 1999)
Due to government led policy frameworks and the efficiency in implementing the policies in Singapore's education system, it managed to meet the high demand of manpower required for industrialization in the 1970s. However high dropout rates are being observed across the board in schools as Singapore's education system at that point of time is too rigid and every student regardless of their learning abilities are forced to conform to a uniform bilingual education. The situation is made worse due to the high attrition rates of teachers and principals as they feel that the Education ministry ignores their needs and is unwilling to listen to them. This lead to a serious review led by Dr Goh Keng Swee, then minister of education, of the system and resulted in the implementation of the streaming policy in schools. Although there are constant debates on the merits of the streaming policy, it does serve its purpose of lowering the dropout rates as it grouped the students according to their academic abilities and allow them learn at a rate they are most suited for.
2.2 Education Driven by Sustainability
Since independence, economical and educational policies in Singapore are intimately related. If the Singapore's government wants to develop any industries, it will set policies in school to nurture and supply the manpower needed for that particular industry. However the government also realized in the 1980s that the development and setting of an education system should not be exclusively determined by the country economical goals. Therefore it implemented a series of policies to introduce a more holistic education to the students by having a greater emphasis on non academic subjects such as music, arts, sports and character development through co-curricular activities.
In short, three main themes are being introduced to guide the development of Singapore's education system. Firstly, educational outcomes should complement the needs of the economy and society. Secondly, life-long learning is being encouraged through the studies of language, sciences, mathematics and humanities. Thirdly and the most important theme is that principal and teachers should be actively involved in the development of the school and not just be spoon-fed by the education ministry. This lead to the creation of Independent and Autonomous schools which are allocated more funds hire their own staff and have greater flexibility in planning creative programmes in teaching students. (Gopinathan.S, W. K. Ho, 1999)
2.3 Staying Relevant in the 21st Century
In the age of globalisation whereby global economy is transiting into a Knowledge-based economy, the outputs demand creativity, innovation and adaptability. To accommodate such a shift and demand, the government of Singapore introduces the vision of "Thinking School, Learning Nation." As Singapore lack natural resources, its only asset is its people. In the 21st century, Singapore can only sustain its economical growth by encouraging it people to learn and upgrade their skills and knowledge constantly.
In order to promote innovation and creativity in school, students cannot just study just for the sake of studying, they should be able to think creatively and critically and at the same time gain mastery of the contents they studied and integrate them for their future work and life. Under the guiding vision of "Thinking School, Learning Nation.", the education paradigm of Ability Driven Education whereby every student can develop their potential to its fullest regardless whether it is academic or non-academic abilities. As a response to the Ability Driven Education, specialist schools such as Singapore Sports School, School of the Arts and School of Science and Technology are being set to cater to students who have talents in such an area. Assessment has also shifted from exams based grading to more project work that requires more creativity and innovation to solve a problem. Teachers are also being encourage to "Teach Less, Learn More", whereby students need to go beyond their textbook knowledge and to do their own research, this is tied in with the imparting of necessary Information Technology skills to aid in their learning process. (Tan, C, 2008)
3. Discussion on Impact of Policies
3.1 Impact of Streaming Policy
Streaming as discuss earlier in the paper served its purpose in lowering attrition rates and catering best to the needs of each student according to his or her academic ability, preventing the best students finding the curriculum mundane and not challenging while weaker students struggled constantly to even pass. Hence streaming system exists to allow the academically stronger students to be challenged by a more rigorous course, whereas weaker students are given more time and guidance in their learning.
However such stratification brought about negative social impact on students who are streamed into the so called "less-able" stream such as the Normal Technical stream. Students in these streams are often stigmatised by the society and are always being labeled stupid and will never succeed in life. This also lead to tension between students in different stream as depicted in the movie I NOT STUPID whereby students in less academically inclined stream are constantly being labeled a failure and look down upon by students from the so called "better: streams. These negative associations led students from these streams to suffer from low self-esteem and are unmotivated to learn.
3.2 Impact of Policy on Teachers: Teach Less Work More
Ranking of schools in Singapore started in the year 1992 mainly based on performance of students in national exams. Such ranking led to intense completion among schools and results in stress for teachers to perform to meet the target. In recognition of such a deficiency and controversy in ranking, MOE implemented the School Excellence Model in 2000 which led to "corporatization" of school. As Singapore education is shifting towards the guiding vision of Thinking School and Learning innovation to promote innovation and creativity, it filtered down to the school in the for form of School Excellence Model or SEM in short whereby the school are given more autonomy to the school to carry out unique education programme that will inculcate innovation and creativity to the students. In SEM, ranking of school is done by bands and exact ranking of the school is not revealed. The purpose of this policy is to minimize competition among schools. (Ng, 2007)
However such reforms brought forward increased workload to the teachers and piled more pressure onto the teachers. As the policy dictate inculcating innovation and creativity, teacher need to try to integrate everything for the students and at the same time coping with more and upcoming policies. Beside teaching duties, teachers have to cope with extra admin duties, meetings and courses bring about by the new policies. Many have to work overtime even during the weekends to cope with their workload. Teachers also face more pressure from the parents nowadays as they are more informed and concerned about their children education and they demand more from the teachers.
3.3 Losing the Human Touch
Due to the ranking of teachers through Enhanced Performance Management System (EPMS) and monetary rewards linked to performance, it also undermines the relationship among teachers. Teachers have become more self-centered as they are constantly competing against each other for monetary awards and promotion instead of focusing on working together for the students. This is most typical in a commercial institution whereby the main purpose is to maximise profit, however school are not meant for profit, its sole purpose should only be educating the students. The focus of the teachers should only be on the students and not constantly being worried about how they will be ranked each year or whether they will receive more performance bonus.
Although not all the teachers value promotion and monetary awards but it seems that they are forced to conform as it ministry directed policy. A good example will be a teacher who is good in the classroom but does not involve actively in activities that help to raise the profile of the school is given a poor ranking. This form of ranking undermines the self-esteem of a teacher and is uncannily similar to the streaming of students.
3.4 Lack of Focus on Values
Singapore education system is good in the quantifying aspects of education such as excellent exam results and various awards and certifications of the school. However education is not all about quantifying students, one of the purposes of education as stated earlier is the cultivation of moral values which is something that cannot be quantified and therefore not the focus of many schools .
As education institutions are gradually being "corporatized" under the school excellence model, rewards and certification that will help popularize these education institutions are gaining momentum and schools seems to neglect its fundamental role such as in the area of cultivating values in students. Simple values such as respect of teachers or even just punctuality are not being emphasized in school. An excellent example will be in the daily assembly whereby certain school leaders time and again emphasized that the students represent the school and by engaging in unlawful activities, it will tarnish the reputation of the school. The leaders of the school seem to value the image and reputation of the school more than cultivating values of the students.
Singapore education system is no doubt effective and produce the necessary manpower suited for its economic goals but at what great cost? Present students maybe smarter and more able as compared to the past but their attitudes and behavior seem to have regressed as observed by teachers and even the general public. Our education system is flawed in the sense of discourse between the policy makers and teachers who is actually on the ground. Although the intention of the policy makers maybe noble however the difficulties face by key stakeholders such as teachers who are on the frontline are largely ignored.
Education policies should be made with active inputs from the teachers. The profession of teachers should not be ranked and emphasis should not be placed on monetary rewards as it undermines the values and pride of being a teacher. Teachers should be given more autonomy in educating the students. By removing the ranking, it will raise the self-esteem and relieve some pressure on the teacher and they can focus wholeheartedly on educating students.By giving more autonomy to the teachers, they will not be hard-pressed to just follow the academic syllabus; instead they can inculcate values within their lessons for the students. The administrative workload of the teachers should also be lessen by employing more specialized non-teaching personnel .Ranking, rewarding, certification and auditing of school which is an educational institution and not a corporate entity should be tweaked as it presently creates an unnatural ultra-competitive environment among schools.
Figure : Singapore Current Education Landscape