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From paying teachers right to mental health issues, MOE's remit is a complex one

The extensive work on salary reviews will give some comfort to educators. PHOTO: ST FILE

The Primary School Leaving Examinations ended this week. Frazzled parents of Primary 6 pupils, like myself, heaved a huge sigh of relief.

But of course, education is more than just exams. On Wednesday, members of the House posed a wide range of questions on educators' salaries, alignment of semestral schedules, mental health, and special needs students.

On pay, Ms Denise Phua (Jalan Besar GRC) commented that the methodology for compensation reviews may not be known to the public or educators. She urged the Education Ministry not to make announcements on compensation unilaterally, and to take into account parity issues with other service providers.

She also observed that the public and people's sectors recruit talent - such as psychologists and therapists - from the same pool.

Minister for Education Chan Chun Sing gave the assurance that salary reviews will be done progressively, systematically and continually. The reason everything isn't announced at one go is because work is being done in stages.

Every time the authorities announce a change in one particular profession, they will take into account the other professions to make sure that the relativities and benchmarks are correct, both within and beyond the sector.

Methodologies for computing salaries are also done openly, and will continue to be shared with the rest of the social service agencies.

As for Non-constituency MP Leong Mun Wai, the gist of his rambling question was whether pre-schools and special education (Sped) schools can attract the best talent, and whether there will be improvement in their pay packages.

Mr Chan replied that the Public Service Division tries to spread talent across the different agencies and professional areas, to ensure that each sector has a fair share of talent.

There are also talent development schemes undertaken together with social service agencies, such as the Sun Ray leadership development and rotation scheme for the social service sector, he said. "Our aim is to make sure that they get a broader exposure, so that the good ideas can spread around faster and the whole sector can benefit."

Cautioning against paying people based solely on their credentials, he added that it's not just about whether educators have advanced degrees or diplomas. Rather, one should look holistically at their skills, experiences and contributions in order to put together a pay package that is both fair and competitive.

On semester schedules, Dr Wan Rizal (Jalan Besar GRC) asked whether MOE has plans to review polytechnic semester breaks, so that they are aligned with the primary and secondary school holidays.

His second question was whether the ministry has plans to align the semestral schedules of the Pre-Employment Training (PET) programme and Continuing Education and Training (CET) programme in institutes of higher learning (IHLs).

Mr Chan said there are currently no plans to align the polytechnic academic calendars with primary and secondary schools. There are, however, overlaps between the term breaks of schools and polytechnics.

He noted that while the academic schedules in the IHLs for CET programmes leading to full qualifications, such as part-time diploma and degree programmes, are broadly aligned with PET programmes, short modular courses and Workforce Skills Qualifications, however, are designed with a more flexible schedule that better meets the needs of adult learners who have to juggle both work and learning.

To Dr Wan Rizal's additional question on whether the December holidays can be blocked off for staff and students to recuperate and spend time with their families, Mr Chan replied that different parts of society - from children to adult learners - have different needs, and it may not be the best idea for all of them to align their breaks.

Take the term breaks in IHLs, for example. They are not just about what students learn in school, but also internship opportunities, said Mr Chan.

IHLs ought to move away from what one rigidly thinks of as term time and break time, because that may not be the best way to fit internship opportunities into the working environment and business needs of the participating companies.

Where I felt the answer lacked detail was on mental health. Mr Darryl David (Ang Mo Kio GRC) asked how primary school pupils requiring counselling for mental health issues are managed, as they transition into secondary school and beyond.

He further asked how male students, for example, would be managed even beyond the MOE school system, such as when they enlist in the army.

While Minister of State for Education Gan Siow Huang indicated that care will be provided in a manner which respects both the need for medical confidentiality and individuals' wishes, it wasn't entirely clear what the conditions and mechanism for continuation of care would be, in the example Mr David cited.

Ms Yeo Wan Ling (Pasir Ris-Punggol GRC) asked whether the resources for special needs children are sufficient, given that the MOE kindergarten (MK) system tends to prepare school children for formal education.

To this, Ms Gan said MKs are part of the wider ecosystem of pre-schools. MK educators are provided with baseline training to support diverse learners in the classroom, and MKs are further supported by educational psychologists.

Ms Denise Phua raised an interesting question on special needs children who not only attend the anchor operator kindergartens every day, but also the Early Intervention Programme for Infants and Children (Eipic) once or twice a week. Eipic supports children who require medium to high levels of early intervention support.

She asked if it's true, as some residents had told her, that those already receiving support under Eipic would not receive support over at their MOE-funded pre-schools.

Ms Gan's response was that whether special needs children are in MK or Eipic centres, the relevant parties will work together to make sure that support given is complementary.

Again, this general answer left the question hanging as to whether the ground feedback that Ms Phua mentioned was indeed accurate.

Regardless, the general thrust of Wednesday's responses were positive, particularly on the extensive work - both announced and in progress - on salary reviews, which will give some comfort to educators including those in the Sped and early childhood sectors.

Looking across the many areas covered, from CET and PET, to pre-schools, mental health and special education, it is clear that MOE's remit is a broad church - and an increasingly complex, diverse and challenging one.

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