Education in Singapore – a zero-sum game?

What does education in Singapore and the Cold War have in common? Both are zero-sum games. When someone wins, another loses. In the Cold War, the gain from one side necessarily means the other has lost ground. If one side gets more weapons, the other side feels compelled to get more. Or risk losing the “game”.

Such is our education system. The national exams, especially the PSLE, are graded according to a normalised distribution curve. There is no way for everyone to get top marks. If someone gets a few more marks, then necessarily those who do not get those additional marks will appear to have done significantly worse. What’s worse, your success at education is still largely determined by whether you get into certain schools. Given that there will definitely be a fixed number of places in those schools, any thing that gives any one an edge in getting into those schools will result in someone else losing.

And, just as trillions of dollars were spent on arms during the Cold War, a lot of time and money is spent on giving students an edge in getting into these “top” schools. According to some survey done by Straits Times, 80 percent of primary school children and 62-percent of secondary school children attend tuition. In Singapore, about $1.1 billion a year is spent on tuition. This doesn’t include all the money that is spent on enrichment.

Apparently, there is a new “weapon” that parents and students can add to their arsenal. Ad hoc tuition. Rather than attend classes on a regular basis, students attend tuition on an ad hoc basis. Rather than go for regular weekly classes, students drop in only for topics that they need help with. This apparently helps to save time and money.

It begs the question. Why can’t the students ask their teachers in school? If students have to resort to private tuition to clarify doubts about specific topics, then what about the students who cannot afford to pay for such private tuition? Does it mean that they will continue to have doubts in those topics?

Of course, Singapore’s MOE will claim that tuition isn’t necessary. In 2013, in response to a parliamentary question by then-NMP Janice Koh, MOE said that “Our education system is run on the basis that tuition is not necessary.” Rationally speaking, that may be true. Tuition may not result in better test scores. At least that is what the PISA study conducted in 2009 by OECD found. It would certainly be useful for more studies to be conducted to conclusively demonstrate the effect (positive, neutral or otherwise) of private tuition.

But even if there were such studies, I am not sure whether parents will be swayed by the findings of these studies. I don’t think parents are entirely driven by rationality when they decide to send their children for tuition. Why then do they do it? I think it could be for a whole plethora of reasons. Fear is one. The fear that their children may lose the opportunity to get into a “top school” (and hence have their futures ruined) if they didn’t attend tuition. Guilt is another. Because parents are guilty for not being able to spend quality time with their children, guiding and educating the children themselves.

Then again, what’s wrong with parents spending money to send kids for tuition? It’s their money. The problem is this. Doing well in exams alone won’t guarantee a good future for the children. In fact, I would go as far as saying that the unhealthy obsession that we have on dong well in exams, as evidenced by the amount of time and money spent on tuition, is counterproductive in securing good futures for our children. By extension, it means that this obsession threatens the continued viability of Singapore.

Why do I say this? Research shows that in a world where technology has changed the nature of work, making many jobs obsolete, it isn’t the ability to do well in exams that will make a person stand out in the work place. Technical skills and academic training is important. But increasingly important is character and social skills. By extension, Singapore’s labour face can only continue to be relevant and valuable to the global marketplace if our workers high levels of technical skills and academic ability as well as an equally high, if not higher, level of social skills and character.

If that is the case, then why aren’t we spending as much, if not more, time on teaching, training and developing social skills and character? Of course, MOE will say that schools put an equal emphasis on social skills and character. But if that is the case, why is the ability to perform in national standardised exams for academic subjects the most important measure of success in education?

To be fair to MOE, it has done much to offer alternative pathways. Setting up the various specialised schools (e.g. NUS High School of Mathematics and Science, School of the Arts, Northlight School, Assumption Pathway School, Crest Secondary School and Spectra Secondary School) certainly help. Allowing students the chance to gain entry to the schools of their choice (up to university level) on the basis of ability shown outside of exams is another good move. I think SkillsFuture is also a great step. Because it lets people know that there isn’t just a single funnel to pass through en route to success.

I hope more can be done. I hope that more policies and changes can be put in place so that parents and teachers are driven to truly spend more time, energy and resource on developing social skills and character of our children. I hope that our education system will evolve more paths to success and move further away from being a zero-sum game. I think the future of our nation depends on how well this can be done.

[Featured image: Photo from Quintessential Education Centre]

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