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.