Making the best use of teachers' time

Singapore teachers are a precious resource, especially those who love to teach and are demonstrably good at it. Collectively, they are among the most hard-working in the world, as noted by the Teaching and Learning International Survey, carried out by the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development. The trouble is the time they spend teaching is lower than the global average. This is cause for concern.

Non-teaching tasks might be necessary but what matters ultimately are the time teachers spend uplifting young minds and shaping character, and the quality of their work as reflected in the educational progress of their students.

The role of teachers in overseeing the transformation of Singapore's education system can hardly be overestimated. A degree of deferential rote-learning accompanied the education system's efforts to churn out the capable workers needed urgently during the early phase of industrialisation. That era is long past. The challenge now is to produce citizens who possess not only the functional skills required by a globalised job market but also the inquisitive mindset and tenacious spirit needed to cope with the unfamiliar and unstructured.

These students are being produced by teachers who are aware of the demands of a world in economic and intellectual flux. The fact that many of the teachers are themselves young helps them to grasp and empathise with their students' predicament. But seasoned hands are also essential, of course, to ensure that educational benchmarks are met.

The results inspire confidence. The good performance of Singapore teenagers in the Programme for International Student Assessment (Pisa) test is one of the indicators of the robustness of the system. What makes that performance important from a national point of view is that it is broad-based and not limited to children from better schools or top streams.

The professionalism of teachers, aided by rigorous selection and training; a supportive learning environment; and a high level of parental and social encouragement have all contributed to Singapore's record in education. But these factors should not persuade educators to leave well alone. There is scope for improvements - for example, providing teachers greater administrative support so that they can focus more on teaching. And school principals ought to double efforts to collaborate with each other as they are lagging behind the global average in such activity.

With much change afoot, schools should be abuzz with fresh ideas exchanged among all, while not losing sight of the basics. For striving to keep on top of old and new challenges, teachers deserve every respect. In this, Singapore can afford to be old-fashioned.