Ministry of Education

MPs seek changes to system to gear up for future economy

Ms Denise Phua (Jalan Besar GRC) wants to transform the education system for the future economy.
Ms Denise Phua (Jalan Besar GRC) wants to transform the education system for the future economy.PHOTO: ST FILE

Little tweaks to the education system are not good enough for Ms Denise Phua (Jalan Besar GRC), who wants it transformed for the future economy.

Pointing to "sacred cows" in the current system, she said they need to be scrutinised as well.

She highlighted "high-stakes" exams like the Primary School Leaving Examination (PSLE) and the O levels; the Direct School Admission (DSA) system that gives talented pupils places in schools before they sit the PSLE; and the "over-reliance on tuition".

Tuition, Ms Phua said, can end up producing students whose learning styles and habits run counter to what is required in the future economy - self-driven learners who are willing and able to learn new skills quickly.

She suggested two ways, among others, to overcome this dependency. One, give students and parents quality learning materials so that tuition is not needed. Two, regulating the tuition industry to ensure quality and affordability.

She also urged the Education Ministry to lower the stakes in the academic rat race by introducing other forms of assessments to replace exams.

Ms Phua was among 20 MPs who spoke on a slew of education issues during the debate on the ministry's budget.

There were calls to abolish streaming of pupils into normal and express classes, give schools equal access to funding, preserve mother tongue, and let more pupils from other schools be admitted to mission schools and schools with links to clan associations.

Mr Lim Biow Chuan (Mountbatten) and Dr Intan Azura Mokhtar (Ang Mo Kio GRC) want less stress in the school system.

Mr Lim asked if some schools were setting the bar too high for non-national examinations.

Dr Intan, calling for an end to streaming, said it pigeonholes students and does not adequately reflect their intelligence or abilities. She asked for it to be replaced with subject-based banding.

Mr Png Eng Huat (Hougang) raised, for the second year in a row, the issue of equitable funding for schools. He pointed out that per capita funding for schools favours popular schools with high enrolment, leading to inequalities in the programmes offered by these schools compared with those in less popular schools.

Dr Lim Wee Kiak (Sembawang GRC) and Dr Intan also raised the issue of affiliated schools. They asked for these schools to open their doors wider for students with no affiliation.

Dr Intan said some parents plan more than 10 years in advance, while their children are still in pre-school, to ensure they can enrol in a primary school affiliated to a popular secondary school.

"This is very stressful parenting indeed," she said.

She urged the ministry to assure parents of children not in affiliated schools that they will not be deprived of the opportunity to enrol in popular schools.

The DSA system was also criticised. Mr Ang Wei Neng (Jurong GRC) noted that at least half of the students admitted to some popular schools were academically talented.

He wants the ministry to review the policy so that schools will no longer "pre-select" students based on their academic ability, but to take them in based on their achievements and talents in specific areas, such as sports or the arts.

Agreeing, Mr Edwin Tong (Marine Parade GRC) said the focus on academic achievements "does absolutely nothing to enhance... diversity". He said offering such students a place on a DSA wait list can also be open to abuse, as they may be accepted only after the PSLE results are released.

Today, Education Minister (Schools) Ng Chee Meng and Education Minister (Higher Education and Skills) Ong Ye Kung will respond to the MPs' comments.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on March 07, 2017, with the headline 'MPs seek changes to system to gear up for future economy'. Print Edition | Subscribe