The education changes announced in Parliament last week bear the imprint of an inclusive logic that commendably is coming to mark the workings of the education system. More are now more visibly walking the talk about student-centred education. It has been some 13 years since then Education Minister Tharman Shanmugaratnam reiterated that "a key tenet of education in Singapore is our belief that every child matters". Whatever students' strengths, aptitudes and talents, the aim is to help them become the best that they can be. In that spirit, the Direct School Admission (DSA) scheme was introduced to recognise non-academic talents as well. But, alas, many parents viewed it as an entry ticket to premier secondary schools and tried to game the system. And schools used it to cherry-pick students with certain attributes.
Thankfully, the system is being amended to reflect its original purpose of promoting greater flexibility and diversity in schools. From this year, schools will stop using general academic ability tests to assess DSA applicants and consider, instead, talent in specific domains. This is only fair as children with good grades at their Primary School Leaving Examination already possess an academic route to preferred schools. Further, aptitude-based admissions will be expanded for the Institute of Technical Education, polytechnics and universities.
From next year, a pilot scheme, which allows lower-secondary students from Normal streams to study subjects at a higher academic level, will be extended to all schools. This and other changes point to a future where diversity of talent, intensity of passion, and uniqueness of skills will be fully supported as students pursue their dreams and a competitive edge in the new economy.
There was a time when efficiency and strategic outcomes formed the basis of a technocratic approach to education, exemplified by the overhaul of the education system in 1978. Then, reducing "education wastage", for example, was a concern. Now, a holistic approach is being taken to help students develop "21st century competencies" and to allow them to freely explore their niche interests. This will not just fulfil their aspirations but could lead to mastery and innovation later in life.
The choice is between wanting children to "grow up as battery hens or free-range chickens", as put by Mr John Abbott, director of The 21st Century Learning Initiative. There is growing recognition that excellence should not be compartmentalised neatly into science, the humanities and commerce. Students need to draw widely across disciplines and cultures to meet the challenges of globalisation and technological advancements. Only a society - that must include employers and parents - which has comprehended the extent of the changes that are unfolding rapidly will be in a position to meet them in the years ahead.