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Why well-being of the young matters

Functional targets, like acquiring mathematics, science and reading skills, command much attention as nations generally expect schools to set store by the classical curriculum to help tackle skill deficiencies in the labour market and to foster inclusive growth. In this effort, every country has room for improvement, as reiterated by the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD). Its periodic worldwide study, the Programme for International Student Assessment (Pisa), gives an indication of how education policies and practices across the globe measure up. Tellingly, many countries, including the top-performing ones, stand indicted in some areas - for example, "a decade of scientific breakthroughs has failed to translate into breakthroughs in science performance in schools", according to OECD's secretary-general.

Amid such concerns, a focus on the well-being of students - an issue now in the news - might be viewed as schools going soft on them, when they should be preparing the young for the harsh realities of life in the age of disruptions. But schools are not meant to be boot camps and a narrow focus on certain skills alone might well be self- defeating, as a workforce is expected to be versatile and innovative in the face of rapid change.

Singapore students outperformed the rest of the world in OECD's latest Pisa survey, which tested around 540,000 students aged 15 in 72 countries on science, reading, maths and collaborative problem-solving. However, in another survey on students' well-being, it was found that 86 per cent of Singapore students were worried about poor grades. Their peers across the globe fretted less - the average for OECD countries was 66 per cent. Old-school observers would argue that it is precisely such intensity that has contributed to their higher scores; laid-back students are more likely to fall short of benchmarks.

The nuanced perspective of the Education Ministry is that "stress at appropriate levels can be a motivating force to energise us for the challenges we face", but the achievements of students "must not come at the expense of their well-being". If one does not lose sight of the psychological, cognitive, physical and social well-being of the young, there is a better chance of them growing into the confident person, self-directed learner, active contributor and concerned citizen envisioned in the outcomes of education upheld by the nation. Skills and knowledge will be acquired by them continuously throughout their lives, but an appreciation of beauty and a zest for life, which parents would also wish for their children, have to be imparted early - both in school and at home.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on August 31, 2017, with the headline 'Why well-being of the young matters'. Subscribe