Singapore GE2020: Efforts to ensure social mobility for Singaporeans need to start from their early years, says Tharman

Mr Tharman said Singapore has one of the best school systems in the world. ST PHOTO: KUA CHEE SIONG

SINGAPORE - Most of life's inequalities can be traced back to people's childhood and that is why the Government's efforts on social mobility start when Singaporeans are young, said Senior Minister Tharman Shanmugaratnam on Tuesday (July 7).

Deep interventions are critical in the early years to spur children from all walks of life to do well in school, he added.

"We are determined to make every effort to help kids who start off with low-income families to have hope in life, to have confidence, and to enter primary school brimming with enthusiasm.

"It can be done," Mr Tharman, who is also the Coordinating Minister for Economic and Social Policies, said in the People's Action Party's (PAP) talk show series on Facebook called Straight Talk With PAP.

One way the Government has been doing this is by raising the quality of pre-school education, he added, pointing out that it is doubling its expenditure in the next few years.

He also said that in five years, 80 per cent of pre-school education will be supported by the Government, up from 30 per cent eight years ago.

Last year, the Early Childhood Development Agency had announced that annual spending by the Government on the early childhood sector is set to double to more than $2 billion within the next few years. This is up from the $1 billion spent in 2018.

Another move to lift the standards in the pre-school sector is teacher training, Mr Tharman said, noting that the National Institute of Early Childhood Development took in its first batch of teacher trainees last year.

Beyond these efforts, targeted help for children is available too, added Mr Tharman.

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He held up the KidStart programme that provides advice and support to families on various aspects of bringing up children, such as nutrition and parent-child interaction. It was introduced in 2016.

About 5,000 children are set to go through it in the next few years, he said.

Still, more will be done for students who are further behind in their studies although Singapore now has the smallest class sizes and the highest expenditure for them.

"We're hiring more teachers, more teacher counsellors, more professionals of every type to be in our schools to strengthen the whole school team, to help every student in need.

"If a student is in need, we will make sure that he or she is supported," he stressed.

Mr Tharman said Singapore has one of the best school systems in the world. The country ends up at the top of the tables for subjects such as reading and mathematics. But it is not just its averages that are high, he added.

"Our children from lower-income backgrounds substantially outperform children from lower income backgrounds in the advanced countries," he said.

Those from lower-income Singapore families substantially outperform children from similar backgrounds in advanced countries.

In fact, they do better than even the average child in countries such as Switzerland, France, Germany, Sweden, he said.

Work has also gone into preventing a digital divide in Singapore, said the senior minister, noting that no matter how poor a family is, every child will have broadband Internet at home to use, which will cost as low as $6 per month.

Each child will also have a computer at home, and if they are on the Education Ministry's financial aid scheme, they will not have to pay for one.

Last month, Education Minister Ong Ye Kung announced that all secondary school students will get a personal laptop or tablet for learning by next year - seven years ahead of the original target.

On Tuesday, Mr Tharman also pointed out that the differentiation between children while they are young is being reduced by the Government, citing the abolishment of primary school streaming more than 10 years ago.

In the same vein, secondary schools are moving away from streaming and towards full subject-based banding.

The move does not just serve the educational aim of helping students discover their strengths in specific subjects, as opposed to being categorised as strong or weak overall, but also serves a social aim.

"It enables students to mix more with each other and to interact more with each other as they grow up, and never think that I'm stronger than someone else or I'm weaker than someone else," he said.

Singapore, he added, has a lot more to do to reduce life's inequalities in young children.

And this requires working with families and professionals in areas like social work, to give everyone a chance to catch up and not be left behind, regardless of their background.

"It just means we need deeper interventions, deeper partnerships on the ground with social service professionals," he said.

"Deeper partnerships with families to help unshackle them from their challenges, and a greater sense of responsibility on the part of all of us to want every kid, regardless of where they start, to have a good start and the best chance in life."

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