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From the gallery

Clear shift in Government's stance on education, manpower policies

Two key ministries - Education and Manpower - took centre stage in Parliament yesterday and the questions from MPs flew fast and furious.

It is not surprising to see why.

Both deal with issues that directly impact people's lives: from the schools our children attend, to the jobs that sustain our lifestyles.

Both ministries also play a crucial role in the national push to transform Singapore's economy for the future - a major theme of this year's Budget.

By the end of the debate on the plans and policies of these ministries, it was evident that a clear shift has taken place in the Government's stance on education and manpower policies.

Acting Education Minister (Schools) Ng Chee Meng used the word "shift" 11 times and the phrase "paradigm shift" five times during his speech, further underlining the significance of the changes to the education system that he and his colleague, Acting Minister for Education (Higher Education and Skills) Ong Ye Kung, were outlining.

To be sure, they are.

The biggest news was in de-emphasising the aggregate scores at the major Primary School Leaving Examination (PSLE). From 2021 onwards, the numerical T-score will be replaced with wider scoring bands similar to those for the O and A levels.

At the same time, students need no longer be inclined to compare individual scores with their peers'. As long as someone shows that he has met a certain standard, he will get the grade.

Both these will take away an aspect of the PSLE system that created much stress for children, and at a young age.

"The way that the T-score is calculated may have also created unhealthy competition among our young children," Mr Ng said.

It is not uncommon to hear of parents putting children through an inordinate number of tuition classes just to boost scores by a handful of marks in a bid to secure a place in what they perceive to be a top school.

A Straits Times and Nexus Link survey last year found eight in 10 parents send their primary school children for private tuition lessons.

Apart from the money that's spent - it is estimated to be a $1 billion industry - the more damaging effect is on the child's mental health and stress levels.

By doing away with the T-score - an obsession for many a kiasu parent - the Education Ministry is signalling that exam scores are really not the determining factors, and is making clear that education is more than just about getting good grades.

But as Mr Seah Kian Peng (Marine Parade GRC) and Ms Denise Phua (Jalan Besar GRC) said during the debate, the question is whether such moves will really lead to an education system that is less focused on exams and grades.

The answer from Mr Ng was, yes, if everyone from parents and teachers to employers decide that this is the right direction for the education system to head towards.

I agree. For someone who has two school-going children, the temptation is always there to fall back on old ways and demand that they put in and show me a solid academic performance.

Therein lies the reality.

For any of this to work, it is really the parents who must decide whether a life outside the classroom is more important for their children than spending hours on assessment books and drilling them on maths and spelling.

If they decide to continue to push children to get perfect scores and ignore the long-term damage this could cause, then no amount of policy change - short of scrapping exams altogether - is going to make a difference.

There was also another shift during the debate on the budget for the Manpower Ministry.

And this time, it is likely to make a big difference.

Recognising that the labour market is likely to be under some stress, Manpower Minister Lim Swee Say said that a wage subsidy scheme to help retrenched workers get back into jobs will be expanded beyond just older workers to include all professionals, managers and executives if they have been unemployed for six months or more.

The programme will support up to 20 per cent of these workers' gross salaries, capped at $1,400 for the first six months. This will step down to 10 per cent of gross salary, capped at $700. Workers need to be paid a minimum of $4,000.

This move will help reduce the level of structural unemployment in the economy - always a tricky problem for any policymaker.

But more importantly, the move marks a fundamental shift in the Government's attitude towards the labour market. Previously, such wage subsidies were aimed mostly at helping older workers, who have difficulties getting jobs because of their age and skills. Younger workers have had less trouble picking up a job if they were laid off.

But by spreading the subsidies to a wider group, the Government is sending a strong message that it is prepared to help everyone, young or old, provided they help themselves first.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on April 09, 2016, with the headline 'Clear shift in Govt's stance on education, manpower policies'. Print Edition | Subscribe