02 Oct 2018

Minister for Education Ong Ye Kung dropped what seemed to be a bombshell last week: a suite of changes aimed at reducing the emphasis on examinations and grades in Primary and Secondary schools.

Noteworthy changes include Primary 1 and 2 students no longer having any examinations from next year, and the phased removal of mid-year examinations for students in Primary 3 and 5 and Secondary 1 and 3.

And on top of that, report books are no longer to show a student’s average and total marks and ranking to reduce competitiveness and stress.

But was Mr Ong’s announcement really a bombshell, though?

Put in context, it is actually the logical next step in a series of policy shifts since 1997’s “Thinking Schools, Learning Nation” vision through to his predecessor Ng Chee Meng’s “3Is - active Imagination, collective Inquisitiveness, and rich Interconnections.”

And when you juxtapose Mr Ong’s “bombshell” against his recent decrying of the narrowly-based ranking of universities and his whole-hearted support of lifelong learning, it reflects a consistent and concerted attempt to transform the education system.

Indeed, the signs have been there for quite a while now.

Despite that, cutting back on examinations and doing away with rankings - two defining characteristics of the Singapore education system - may turn out to be a controversial decision, albeit one to be applauded.

I use the word “controversial” pointedly - according to the Sir Humphrey character from the television series “Yes, Minister”, “controversial” means you might lose votes - because among some parents, tongues are already wagging.

Various arguments are already being put forth, calling into question the wisdom of these changes.

One main opposing thrust takes the form of the “slippery slope” argument. The argument goes that in the absence of assessments and examinations, standards will fall, academic rigour will be compromised, and indifference will set in.

Moreover, in dispensing with rankings, we risk cultivating a generation of weak-willed and under-motivated students, unable to cope with the pressures of competition and thus unprepared for the world.

Another set of counter-arguments are technocratic-administrative in nature. They take the form of questions such as, “How shall we now evaluate our students?”

For that matter, these changes raise further questions: “How shall we assess our schools, our teachers, and our school leaders. Indeed, how will we know how we are doing as parents?”

These questions are unsurprising. After all, as pragmatic Singaporeans, we do love our key performance indicators and rankings.

However, these changes need not inevitably lead to an erosion of standards.

If we truly (still) have that culture of excellence in our societal DNA, this shift ought not to matter one whit.

In fact, this policy change, far from being a compromise, instead reveals an underlying foresight that perhaps the future is one in which the established methods simply will not work, and that now is the time to try new approaches.

This is particularly so when the end-game is to cultivate creativity and foster innovation, both of which wilt easily in the heat of excessive competition.

And my response to the technocratic-administrative arguments against these changes?

Perhaps the raising and development of a child should not supervene upon the device of the “examination”.

The complex enterprise of raising a child, a dynamic collaboration between home and family, cannot be gauged by the simple measure of the examination and the grade, convenient and easy though it may be to rely on them.

The fact is, many Singaporean parents have gotten very good at preparing their children to take examinations.

Indeed, examinations - and the entire academic enterprise including extra tuition classes - have come to loom so large in the lived everyday experience of the Singaporean family that they have almost displaced the humanistic aspects of parenting and teaching.

The centrality of the examination, especially the high-stakes PSLE, in family life means that, crudely speaking, parents at certain times of the school year see their children as mere examination-taking machines.

And the emphasis on academic results reduces flesh-and-bone, heart-and-mind to a grade and a ranking in the eyes of the education system.

These changes challenge us to level up as parents and teachers. They require us to raise, guide, mentor and develop our children without cleaving to distortive, single-dimension measures.

It now becomes necessary to take the time and effort to explore with a child the beauty and meaning of a leaf and its significance in the grand scheme of things and to go beyond the memorisation of the details of photosynthesis.

These changes are disconcerting because they require that parenting and education go beyond mere instrumentalism.

Perhaps the resistance - from parents and teachers alike - stem from a fear of change and deviating from the tried and tested.

It has always been easier to produce future economic agents than to develop future creative and critical-thinking socio-political actors.

To be sure, these policy changes can only ever be a start, and they are not without risks.

For example, the assumption is that reduction in the number of examinations will translate into a lower emphasis on examinations.

The former may not lead to the latter. Indeed, the remaining examinations may turn out to be even more consequential for how a student fares in school, thus perverting the policy intent.

Ultimately, education is a complex issue that implicates families, schools, government, the tuition industry, and other national-level concerns such as the economy.

Trying to effect a fundamental shift away from the obsession over academic grades cannot be accomplished by the Ministry of Education alone.

These policy shifts speak directly to the recurrent complaints that the education system is too stressful and overly-focused on academics.

For these changes to work, we - as parents, teachers, employers and so forth - need to respond by embracing these changes and rethinking our own approaches to parenting, educating and hiring.