From The Gallery

What students and schools are up to these days

Did you know students in Teck Whye Secondary created a special golden orchid hybrid to mark the school's 50th anniversary last year? It took them five years, several failures and teamwork across graduating cohorts. When they finally succeeded, they were thrilled and very proud to present their labour of love to the school. Along the way, they learnt quite a bit about plant genetics.

Did you also know that Evergreen Secondary offers a special Communications Programme to nurture students' love for the English language? Kirshann Venu Das joined the school via the Direct School Admission scheme and while in Secondary 2, won a silver medal at the National Schools Literature Festival Poetry Slam. Now in JC2, he is pursuing his passion by studying literature at A level and taking part in poetry recitals.

And did you know that a group of ITE College West students won the top prize in this year's national Green Wave Environmental Care competition, thanks to their determination to repopulate Singapore's coasts with horseshoe crabs? To improve hatch rates of these endangered creatures, the students built an incubator with an enhanced oxygen hatching tray.

Now, they are learning to harvest the horseshoe crabs' blue blood, which has medicinal value and is valued at over US$15,000 (S$21,180) per litre.

These three inspiring tales were told by Education Minister (Schools) Ng Chee Meng during his ministry's budget debate, to show how schools at their best, nurture in their charges a sense of joy in learning, a willingness to push boundaries and develop deep skills and expertise.

That is the direction Mr Ng wants schools to move in - and for their efforts to be founded on sound values and character even as the ministry works to ensure equal access to opportunities for all students, regardless of background.

But there is a gulf between the vision he paints and the soul- sapping grind that many parents complain about, and which several MPs reflected in their speeches.

Ms Denise Phua (Jalan Besar GRC) spoke about the private tuition industry, which she called the "elephant in the room" that the Ministry of Education(MOE) prefers to ignore. Not only does the tuition industry "diminish the good work that MOE has put in, (but) the habit of tuition, regardless of one's real needs, will produce students whose learning habits and styles may run counter to what is required in the future economy... which highly favours self-driven learners".

Mr Lim Biow Chuan (Mountbatten) said that in a bid to spur students to study even harder, some schools reportedly make exams so difficult that many students fail. But that imposes stress and kills their joy in learning, he added.

Mr Ng acknowledged the need to shift away from an unhealthy overemphasis on academic results and said that changes to the PSLE scoring system from 2021 would be a step in this direction. Overall, though, the education system is a source of strength as it is inclusive and produces good outcomes.

His counterpart, Education Minister (Higher Education and Skills) Ong Ye Kung, was sharper in his words, warning that Singapore's well-regarded education system could be a "temptation to let things be or just tweak things at the margins, instead of making more fundamental but necessary changes". Higher education must make five important shifts and he set a timeline of five years to do so.

The shifts are: to go from being mainly a pathway to good jobs to one that also fulfils people's hopes and dreams; to make education and learning lifelong; to impart not just knowledge - which can be googled - but also skills; to move towards learning by doing; and finally, to help Singaporeans adapt to a data-rich, digital working environment.

The framework for this transformation is being put in place, with two universities - the Singapore Institute of Technology and SIM University - that focus on applied degrees, generous government subsidies for some 9,000 courses of up to 85 per cent for part-time diplomas and 90 per cent for short courses. As for supporting individuals in pursuit of their dreams, key changes have been made to admissions criteria. Starting this year, the universities will implement aptitude-based admission for 15 per cent of each cohort, looking beyond grades to an applicant's interests and abilities in relation to the course of study applied for.

Polytechnics have been doing the same since last year through the Early Admissions Exercise, which will also be introduced to the ITE. There will also be a new ITE technical diploma to cater to students who are better at working with their hands.

The MPs, who applauded after both ministers spoke, obviously welcomed the direction of education policy shifts. But some flagged the issue of old mindsets, whether among employers, parents or even educators, getting in the way. To that, Mr Ong said the Government cannot prescribe a mindset change. But it can help bring one about through policies, the way it allocates resources and its words and actions.

That, indeed, is what it must do.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on March 08, 2017, with the headline 'What students and schools are up to these days'. Print Edition | Subscribe