Monday, September 3, 2012

Primary Colours – Dispelling Myths About Primary Education

While the system of pre-school education featured heavily at the National Day Rally, the message which resonated most was a simple one: PM's urging that pre-school should be more about developing social skills and that kids should be allowed to enjoy their childhood. Every parent I know wants that.

But the tail that wags the dog is primary school. We regard pre-school as a preparatory step to primary school. Mandating that pre-schools focus on soft skills may make more parents turn to private centres to coach their kids on the hard skills they think are necessary for primary school. That would make the problem worse.

I think there is a more fundamental question of what we want our primary school system to be, and whether we should allow more choices in the system. Minister Heng spoke of two different parents: one did not want to his child to have homework during the holidays, while the other questioned why his child was not given any. Perhaps the solution is for the two children to swap schools – in other words, allow parents to choose the kind of education which best suits their child. When government runs schools, it tends to result in a one-size-fits-all approach. This is not a criticism – it is a natural consequence of efficiency and fair distribution.

But so long as we maintain the current system, MOE can and should deal with parents’ concerns about Primary One education. They should start by addressing directly and clearly a number of questions which keep surfacing.
Myth or Fact 1: It is not clear what literacy and numeracy skills children are expected to have when entering Primary One.

Parents I have spoken to are not clear about what level of skills their child should have when they start Primary One. The consequence is clear: if parents do not know, they will over-prepare their child. The MOE should simply make this clear, and remove the anxiety.

Myth or Fact 2: Teachers do not teach the curriculum if the majority of the class already knows their stuff.

There is much anecdotal evidence that this happens. If it is true, MOE should put a stop to it. It only rewards over-preparation and forces others to over-prepare as well. That just means more homework and tuition. If teachers want to teach beyond the curriculum, fine, but it should not be at the expense of their responsibility to ensure that all their students are taught the curriculum. If parents want their child to get ahead, that’s their prerogative, but they must accept that their child may get bored having to do the same thing twice.

Myth or Fact 3: Teachers encourage parents to send kids who are behind for tuition.

Again, one hears of this happening. It would be particularly egregious if the child is considered “behind” simply because his classmates are ahead of the curriculum and the teacher is therefore not prepared to teach it.

More fundamentally, it should be the obligation of the school to help those who are behind or have difficulty coping. The problem should not be out-sourced to a tuition centre. With primary schools going full day, there is more scope to offer weaker students extra lessons.

Myth or Fact 4: Pupils are “streamed” according to abilities in Primary One and the better teachers are assigned to the “better” classes

If this is true, MOE should put a stop to it. This only encourages parents to over-prepare their child to get into the "better" classes. Putting all the “better” students in the same class also lends to the impression that children will not be taught equally. Teachers should be assigned randomly. Also, if teachers ensure that all their students are taught the curriculum, there will be no need for such “streaming”. Besides, if you want pre-school to be more about social skills and play, it makes no sense to group kids according to their literacy and numeracy skills the minute they enter Primary schools. The only assessment the school should be concerned with is to identify the kids who have not achieved the minimum skills (Myth 1) and to give them extra attention (Myth 3). Given that more than 99% of our children go to pre-school, this will likely be a small group in each school.

Even with these changes, will some parents still send their kids for tuition? Of course they will. Parents will do what they believe will give their kids an advantage. That has been, and will always be, the case. And we should not stop that - it is their prerogative how they wish to raise their children. But what we can and should do is to address features in our system which compel such conduct.

Some have said that any changes at pre-school or lower primary level will have little or no effect unless we also deal with GEP and PSLE. I do not think that is necessarily true, although we do need to address some issues with them as well. I will share my thoughts in a later post.


  1. In regards to Myth or Fact 4, I think as long as performance or KPI of school principals is pegged to the performance of the school in general, it will be unavoidable for principals to assign better teachers to better classes in order to achieve what they believe is their perfomance gauges. Thus this is the issue of how personal achievements affect the achievements of all the students which in turn cause a huge chain effect where students are forced to excel well for better classes, thus tuition and overcompensation of knowledge versus the existing curriculum exists.

    So if we eliminate the principal's priority of KPIs to achievement of school, would it be better for students?

    I am writing in assumption that principal's KPI is pegged to school's achievement. If this is incorrect please do correct me. Thanks!

  2. I cannot agree more on Point 4 - we should indeed put a stop to streaming children according to abilities. It fails to acknowledge and leaves no room for late bloomers.

    Having a mix of academically good and weak students in a class will also enable teachers to pace the teaching to allow all students to catch up on lesson plans.

    It also breeds a less selfish and more compassionate society in that kids from a young age learn to recognise and work with others who are slower or less able than themselves.

    John Mighton in his book The Myth of Ability describes how in his approach to teaching Maths, he had also got the better students to assist the weaker ones. Everyone learns and grows.

    With regards to the previous comment on KPIs, which I believe do exist, MOE should re-consider KPIs for principals otherwise any policy change is still going to be undermined by the ultimate implementers of policies - the principals.

  3. To what extent do the facts/myths apply at the secondary and JC levels?

  4. Children should be streamed, they should be streamed without regard to age, and without artificial restraint, i.e. if a child's prowess in a particular area advances quickly, then he or she should immediately move to a more sophisticated class. Actual student teacher contact time should be reduced and teacher administrative overheads should also be reduced, so that they may concentrate more exclusively on enhancing potentialities. When a higher proportion of the students in a class are genuinely interested in the topic under consideration, everyone benefits.

  5. With ref. to Myth or Fact 3, it is incorrect to state that primary schools are going full-day. I am a primary school teacher and we are going single-session and not full-day. There is a difference between the two.

  6. Thank you Hri Kumar for writing this!!


  8. Excellent commentary. I myself was totally surprised when I asked an educator why the school maths text books were so deficient from what was expected from the the children as evidenced from the maths papers.

    His answer surprised and shocked me. We were told that the MOE will only provide the "fundamentals" and this is for the students whose parents demand only the basics. When asked how the schools expect these students to clear the exams, he smiled. No prizes for guessing that this educator was a tuition teacher.

    I have repeatedly queried why the maths syllabus has to be so difficult and despite changes and the motto "teach less and learn more", this still persists.

  9. This is an excellent post summarizing the woes of the current Singapore primary school system, I simply cannot understand why this is happening under moe's nose. It is a complete wrong implementation of teach less learn more and the 'streaming' of Kids at primary one is just unfair to kids from less privileged homes and serves to perpertuate elitism and stratification of our society. This need to be stopped immediately, the kids are not learning to help one another.

  10. Long post but I think it's constructive. I got this from a teacher and so I am posting on her behalf.

    Generally the better teachers are assigned to the better classes as it is believed that these teachers are able to 'push' the students further to achieve more As and A*s. I actually thought that the more advanced teachers would be assigned to the weaker classes as you need a lot more skill to motivate and help them (I teach both an advanced and a weak class so I know the difference). Not quite the case.

    This is then reflected in the school's PSLE pass and distinction percentages. All this is then reflected in the school leaders' performance reviews.

    As well as the number and types of enrichment programmes conducted.
    As well as the number of awards won in inter-school/national/international competitions.
    As well as the number of programmes/initiatives which have contributed to the school zone/cluster.
    As well as the number of programmes/initiatives enacted within the school itself.
    As well as the number of school level awards for achieving certain standards in the arts, national education, technology integration in class learning etc.
    As well as the number of CIP hours for both students AND staff.
    As well as the extent of parent-school collaboration and public performances done in partnership with external organisations.

    How can we not have tuition?

    Incidentally, if you want real, genuine feedback from the men and women who are on the ground and in the classrooms every single day you might want to guarantee that no 'bad' feedback that we give will blow back on us. If we get marked down on our performance review we lose both our performance bonus and our salary increment for the next year. That's roughly a $6000 loss of potential income (including CPF) if you're a brand new graduate teacher, more if you're an experienced one. Very painful.

    There are 33,000 teachers. Ask us. We know what's going on. There are things you can't fit on a spreadsheet.

    While I'm at it I might as well mention that if it were up to me I'd get rid of the performance review entirely. We're not bankers trying to squeeze out extra profits and outperform our rivals. We're trying to help children. Pitting us against each other (if not our colleagues within the school then our colleagues in the OTHER schools) in a madcap dash for KPIs and stats does nothing for the kids. We end up only helping them as a means to an end when they should be the end itself. With regards to money, just give us a standard increment that halves the performance bonus and the increment a teacher would have received if he/she was just above expectations (a 'C' grade for those familiar with the system). True, I'd earn less but I'd get to really teach without having to bother with 10,001 non-teaching things for the sake of my performance review.

    I didn't sign up to implement MOE's systems. I signed up to teach. There is a difference.

    1. Quite obviously, teaching has taken a wrong turn in Singapore.

  11. this is indeed true and the pre-school educators are simply tied down with parents wanting to push their children to the extent where he has to memorize most of the things. Parents end up pushing the bar to a great degree.

  12. Dispelling myths about primary education is crucial for understanding its true value. Singapore mathematics education for primary school students exemplifies this by providing a strong foundation in problem-solving and critical thinking. It’s more than just exam prep; it’s about fostering lifelong skills.
    Read more: singapore mathematics education for primary school students