Thursday, 31 October 2019

Who is behind MOE?

Every time I give a talk on education and what it takes for children to be successful in this new era, parents will raise the issue of our stressful education system.

It seems to be an "us" against "the MOE" divide, and it's easy to put the blame on this faceless system called THE MOE.

I go on to ask parents...

Do you think there are these people going to work every morning, sitting behind their desks thinking, hmm, what new policies should we come up with to make the lives of parents and kids miserable?

It never fails to break the ice and they laugh at this rather absurd imagery.

Those were my sentiments too, a long time ago.

My eldest is already 21 and back then, I was afraid that our education system had not evolved with the times. I wondered if what was being taught in school would be able to prepare them adequately for their future when they left school approximately 15 years later.

Then we experienced the PSLE, and I thought... something is very wrong.

I wrote in to The Straits Times Forum page about why I had no choice but to give my daughter tuition for all subjects at her P6 year because she had failed everything.

This was published in 2010.

Why parents are forced to spend on tuition

My three older children are in Primary 6, Primary 4 and Primary 2 in a Special Assistance Plan (SAP) school. Having put them in such a well sought-after school, I thought they would be in good hands.

All three of them were getting average grades. However, to my utter shock and dismay, my eldest came home with red marks in all her subjects for her Primary 5 year-end exams, and she was the last in class. Her concerned form teacher called me to find out what happened. She told me that my daughter was attentive in class and was, in fact, chosen as the role model student for that year.

After speaking to me, the teacher was surprised that she had no tuition and that I did not coach her myself. She was even more surprised that I had not bought any 10-year series or guidebooks for her. (As she was my eldest, I didn't know that just sending her to school and buying all the requisite textbooks were not enough to get by). I, in turn, asked her what was happening. She was the one teaching my daughter 3 out of the 4 subjects in school, so I should be querying her about her poor grades, not the other way around! She then explained to me that due to time constraints, teachers could only cover the basics, so the child needed to do a lot more extra work at home or to get tuition.

That seems to be the reality, as I have found out from parents of children in other schools as well. She was put into a different class in her P6 year. Subsequently, I enrolled her for tuition for all four subjects and for her mid-year exam, she achieved the first position in her class. In the end, thanks to tuition, she managed to get 4As for her PSLE. (I shudder to think what her grades would be like if I had not sent her for tuition in her P6 year). I can now understand why the majority of parents are willing to spend so much money on tuition. The system is just not delivering.

The sad truth is that parents are focusing all their energies on academic achievement, thereby neglecting more important matters like character building and family bonding, which are so crucial in today's fast-paced and changing world. It may be a good idea to set up a forum with parents, students, teachers, tutors and the Ministry of Education to analyse the situation. Singapore has a world-class education system. Perhaps, that is in part due to a world-class tuition system.

This was the situation we found ourselves in 10 years ago when my first child sat for her PSLE.

Yes, I was THAT naive.

I was barely surviving having to deal with 5 little kids & had no time to go around kay-pohing or comparing what's going on with other children.

We saw neighbours' kids diligently going for tuition on weekends but assumed it was them being too kiasu. My kids were averaging above 75 for their exams and I didn't see a need to panic. I kept the faith that their teachers would be able to teach them well enough.

Until the shock at the end of P5. (Years later, I heard that some schools deliberately set very tough P5 exam papers to "scare" the students.)

Oh, I'd better clarify that it was my husband's very dedicated cousin who tutored #1 in Math, Science and Chinese and she helped her pull up her failing grades to straight As (if not I'll be inundated with emails asking me which tuition centre was that!).

I started investigating, speaking to every parent I came across and it seemed like the system (aka MOE) was the problem. Of course, now I know better and understand why the PSLE papers have risen to such a high standard. It's a vicious cycle and parents have a big part in it.

I've been on a mission to piece the puzzle together and hopefully be able to do something about it. I must have spoken to hundreds of teachers, parents, students, researchers and a handful of principals in a bid to get a clear picture. Complaining, blaming or thinking that I have no choice is futile. I'd rather find a solution or at least know that I have done my part, no matter how small.

What I didn't expect was the magnitude of the problem and the deep-seated mindsets of parents. 5 of my children have completed their PSLE and it is only now in Kate's time that the speed of change is picking up.

I managed to speak with Mr Heng Swee Keat before he relinquished his post as Education Minister about sentiments on the ground and I was extremely surprised that he did get someone to follow up. I was sad to see him move on as his tenure signaled the start towards a more balanced education with the emphasis on maximising the potential of every child.

In 2013, I was humbled to be invited to MOE HQ for a dialogue session chaired by Ms Sim Ann, then Minister of State for Ministry of Education and Ministry of Communications and Information.

Since then, I have met with several key personnel from the Communications and Engagement group and I can assure you, there are REAL PEOPLE behind MOE.

It was through these sessions that I started to understand the bigger picture and what a mammoth task it is to steer this gigantic ship in a new direction.

One of the earliest lunches I was invited to was with Diana Ser, hosted by Ms Genevieve Chye, ex-principal of Montfort Junior School, currently Divisional Director of Engagement and Research Division.

What struck me was that they were not there to interrogate us nor to get us to propagate anything (I accepted the invite without thinking too much like "why would someone from MOE be asking me for lunch?!") She was sincere in having a chat with us to find out our concerns and to hear our personal stories about our kids' educational journey.

They shared with us links to the MOE microsites about the changes. It is important for parents to get access to accurate information instead of fueling unwarranted concerns with hearsay.

I had the pleasure of meeting Ms Tan Wai Lan, ex-principal of St Nicholas Girls' school. I was struck by how approachable she was. Over lunch, she even shared an anecdote that when she was first appointed, one of the things she had to learn was to hug the girls! She is currently Coordinating Divisional Director of Communications and Engagement group.

Despite holding such high posts, they are willing to hear from ordinary parents. Last year, I was trying to navigate the options for university courses for my daughter and when I met her at a parent engagement session, she was kind enough to share her wisdom and advice as she has 3 daughters who are slightly older than mine.

The gentleman on the right is Saravenan Tanapal, Director of Engagement branch and he has been a familiar face through the years of dialogue sessions. He has twin boys who are currently in primary school.

Besides these small group "no holds barred" chats, their team has also been organising larger seminars to engage parents and ignite ground-up initiatives.

I can assure you, they are not cooking up anything sinister behind their walls to spring onto parents. At every encounter, I have found them to be transparent and forthcoming with answers to our questions.

It was indeed a treat when we were invited to tea with ex-Education Minister Ng Chee Meng. We had an animated conversation over bingsu and toast, with Tjin Lee (Life Beyond Grades), Jane Ng (Straits Times) and June Yong (Channel News Asia).

My concern then was whether with a change in Minister, would it derail plans? I remember one teacher who has taught for 30 years lamenting, "Every time a new minister takes over the education portfolio, it's back to the drawing board."

Ms Genevieve Chye reassured us that they would continue with the blueprint and go in-depth with execution.

We had a fruitful discussion and I love Minister's style. He went straight to the point and encouraged us to voice our concerns which we did!

He walked us through the issues from a macro point of view and I came to understand that it was a lot about trying to strike a balance.

Take for example the bugbear of Mother Tongue exams which I raised. The majority of children come from English-speaking families and it is unfair to expect them to score well, given the limited number of hours to learn chinese in school. As such, chinese tuition has become an expected household expenditure, not to mention the disdain of most of our children in learning this "very difficult" language.

Mr Ng gave us numbers: around 70% of children come from English-speaking backgrounds. However, MOE's worry is that once Chinese is removed as a compulsory subject, the standard will slide. We concurred that it was important that our children had a good grasp of the language, but wished there were ways to make the learning more fun and the reliance on tuition less.

These open discussions helped us see things not just from our own point of view but to understand the bigger picture as well as the constraints. I began to appreciate the bits and pieces in the cogwheel and how everything had an impact on another and it wasn't just a simple matter of abolishing something.

After Education Minister Ong Ye Kung took over the full portfolio, a session was organised by Life Beyond Grades, with Steven Chia (Talking Point) as host. It was a very respectful dialogue session, and Minister was all ears as the vocal crowd was forthcoming with their concerns and opinions.

It is not easy to please parents as there will always be differing camps no matter what policies are being rolled out. And sometimes, unhappiness about the system could be a case of "broken telephone" via our children and by the time it reaches parents' ears, everything gets lumped together and it's the MOE's fault!

Early this year, I had the privilege to meet Ms Liew Wei Li, Deputy Director-General of Education (Schools) and Director of Schools, with fellow mums Esther Foong and Elizabeth Wu. Ms Liew is the ex-principal of Xinmin Secondary and mother of 2 children.

While I am excited about the move from a results-focused, product-centric model to a more holistic, process-based model, I was curious about implementation. There would have to be re-training and shifting of mindsets across the board. I hear from teachers at my children's PTM that some teachers themselves are resisting the changes, (change is hard, isn't it!), directives are not clear, while some feel they are inadequately trained to guide and assess in this more broad-based manner.

Ms Liew explained that with a teaching force of more than 30,000 educators, it would take time to move the whole system to align with the new direction.

All this is to be expected and parents need to be patient as we are moving from our cushy old ways of traditional education to something more dynamic and relevant.

Let's not contribute to rumours going around, but equip ourselves with accurate information. And if you have valuable feedback and legitimate concerns, I am certain they are more than willing to hear from you.

Most recently, we were invited to lunch hosted by Ms Melissa Khoo, Deputy Secretary (Policy wing). She herself has a child in primary school. Joining us this round was Sher-Li Torrey (Mums@Work). I look forward to these sessions as I hear from different sides on the ground; parents, teachers, counsellors, employers and it is a great platform to clarify our doubts and queries.

Almost everyone I've met from the MOE are parents themselves, with children currently in our education system. 

WHY WOULDN'T they be invested?

We need everyone to be on the SAME PAGE.

While the Education Minister rotates, there is a whole team working tirelessly behind the scenes.

To each and everyone of them, I wish to say...

Thank you for pushing on despite the negative comments and never-ending complaints from parents, the courage to implement change, even the unpopular ones for the long term benefit of our children, and for making the effort to keep the conversation going with all stakeholders.

I have waited almost 2 decades to see change and am delighted that the tide is starting to turn. We cannot rely on our old model of education while the world transforms around us.

The truth is, we can't afford to do nothing about it.

The stress levels of our children are getting unhealthy and by doing nothing, we are shortchanging our children as a generation.

Our ship has been sailing strong in the high seas to bring us to where we are today. A world-class education system.

But now the horizon has shifted and the seas are choppy with change. MOE has cast its sights on a new horizon, fully aware that the definition of success and education has been redefined.

I was on the "us" side of the fence once upon a time. But now I realise THERE ARE NO SIDES. We are in this big ship together.

Let us forge ahead with one mind to craft a more meaningful and applicable education for our children and grandchildren.

Education is a key cornerstone of Singapore's future.

Let them get on with it, and I'm sure an occasional word of encouragement would be nice, wouldn't it?

About MummyWee

Michelle is an Occupational Therapist by day and mum of 6 by night. Besides the already very demanding job of managing 5 teenagers and one 6-turning-16 tween, she is also Founder of The Little Executive, a nurturing centre to develop children in their 4Qs to survive today's volatile world. She also makes time to volunteer with children and the elderly in her community.

School Stories:

#1 - When your son gets into fights in school
#2 - My son the loan shark
#3 - So kids can't play once they start school?
#11 - How #2 topped her level in English
#12 - DSA. Yet another initiative parents have warped
#13 - Tuition - First line of attack?
#14 - Why do exams have to be so stressful?
#15 - First day mix up!
#16 - The day I forgot to pick my son from school
#17 - No more T-score. Now what?
#18 - Tackling the new school year
#19 - She did it, without tuition.
#20 - So who's smarter?
#21 - Why I do not coach my kids anymore.


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