Man at His Best

A New School Of Thought

The Singapore government is taking a new holistic approach to its education system. Kirsten Han investigates why the country is unlearning from its success and how this fits the children of the systemówith some playtime in between.

BY Kirsten Han | May 24, 2016 | Culture

Tom White

One of my early memories of primary school involves sitting out-side the school auditorium, watching quizzically as parents streamed in and out, balloting to get their child into our highly-ranked, elite institution. I was most fascinated by the mothers who left in tears, sobbing at their failure to win their son or daughter a place.

Needless to say, at the age of seven, I didn’t understand that securing the best opportunities for one’s child has long been a cut-throat, extreme business in Singapore. 

When it comes to education, Singapore has plenty to boast about. Its students consistently perform well in international rankings, beating 75 countries to the top spot in mathematics and science in a report by the Organisation of Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD). Other countries like the United Kingdom and the United States have looked into learning from Singapore’s methods and curriculum.

But behind the impressive rankings lies a complex story, a system of merciless competition, standardised testing and “value-adding” that has prompted both policymakers and parents to wonder if we’re asking too much of Singapore’s younglings.

The fight begins even before primary school. The most prestigious schools give priority to parents who volunteer with them. Online guides for kiasu parents urge eager fathers and mothers to sign up as volunteers two years before their kid reaches primary school age. Some buy or rent property within one kilometre of a popular school so their kids get priority in the balloting process. Others go even further: a father was fined SGD5,000 in 2015 for lying about his address to register his daughter at a sought-after school.

Once in Primary 1, a child might find himself or herself bewildered by the expectations of the Singaporean public education system. Parents tell Esquire that their six- and seven-year-olds are expected to handle about 10 spelling words a week—a big change from their experience in preschool.

“There is a mismatch in expectations between what Kindergarten 2 students are expected to do and what a child who just entered Primary 1 has to achieve in class. The learning curve is usually steep, depending on the primary school a child enters,” says Grace Tan, the founder of Learning Journeys Education Centre, a tuition centre tucked in the basement of a public housing block in northern Singapore. 

In response to panicked parents and struggling children, Learning Journeys is one of a number of tuition centres that conducts prep classes to get kindergarteners up to speed. 

On a Saturday morning, Tan squeezes herself into a low chair in a brightly-coloured classroom. She’s surrounded by five children wearing various animal hats in keeping with the theme of the week. They were all in her preparatory class while in kindergarten, and have just begun their primary school lives. They’re still coming for classes, clinging onto tiny animal figurines and practising their spelling with colourful plastic letters before diligently constructing sentences in jotter books. Such lessons reinforce what’s taught in school, and help them keep up with their peers.

“I enrolled my daughter in the class because her whole Kindergarten 2 class could read, but she couldn’t,” says Sharon Moh, mother of seven-year-old Annabelle Tan. Apart from prep classes in English, Annabelle also takes Mandarin prep classes, as her family doesn’t speak the language at home.

She shrugs when asked if Singapore’s education system is too demanding. “During our time, there was also spelling and tests, so I think it’s okay,” she says. “We have to keep improving.” 

It’s the push to keep up with tests and exams that helps Singaporean students appear in good form along-side their peers around the world. The Ministry of Education (MOE) is hoping to move away from cramming and rote learning, towards a “holistic education” model that, as former Minister  for Education Heng Swee Keat said, is “less about content knowledge” and more about “how to process information”. 

But change won’t come quickly. Like giant ocean liners, institutions like government ministries need time to alter their course.

“We are moving out of [rote-learning and ranking students] but at a very, very glacial pace,” says Darren Oh, an English language teacher at tuition centre Aspire Hub. “Not only that, some teachers have been in this industry, in their careers, for years, for decades, and it can be very tough for them to just switch.”

“The parents have also been stuck in that mindset for so long that it’s like, ‘Okay, you want them to think differently, but what do you want them to think, and how do you get them there?’” Freda Sutanto, an educational and developmental psychologist at a private therapy centre, points out.

Despite the government’s insistence that “every school is a good school”, parents continue to compare schools among themselves, crowd-sourcing information to come up with their own ranking system.

Aspire Hub promises that it doesn’t just teach students, it coaches them, working with each individual to develop both academic and life skills. But it can’t move beyond where the government is ready to go, and classes, particularly in mathematics and science, still focus on exam preparation. “Grades are always at the forefront. We can’t hide from it, because it is a fundamental requirement in Singaporean education,” says Oh.

In a weekday evening class, three primary school students toil over maths practice papers. A teacher goes from student to student, explaining problem sums. “You need to know this,” she exclaims at one Primary 3 girl. “It’s very likely to come out in a test!” 

This one-to-one interaction in a small class is sold to parents as a more personalised, focused approach to learning. It also serves as backup to the mainstream school system, where large class sizes and a packed curriculum leave teachers scrambling for time throughout the school term.

“We understand that schools have to teach at a certain speed,” says Oh. “Just as there are kids who might be slower, there will also be kids who will be faster. So we not only try to help students who take a bit more time to understand a certain topic, but also assist students in moving faster than they want to. So both under- and over-achievers benefit.”

When it comes to over-achieving, there is no other tuition centre quite like The Learning Lab (TLL), which isn’t modest about its students’ achievements. “Three hundred and twenty-six TLL students attained top scores in the 280s, 270s and 260s [for the Primary School Leaving Examinations]—these scores effectively guarantee entry into the finest and most prestigious schools in the nation,” the website crows.

But the TLL team is quick to reassure Esquire that getting into the top schools is only one aspect of what they hope for their protégés.

“In recent times, we have observed that the MOE is making a very big shift towards the love for learning, rather than just focusing on academic drills and getting As,” says Betula Tse, Associate Director of Marketing and Communications. “This is precisely what we have always been doing at The Learning Lab. It’s beyond scoring good grades because we really believe that having that lifelong love for learn-ing will actually lay the foundation for success, not only in school, but in life as well.”

TLL graduates aren’t just meant to be competent learners and doers, but leaders. To that end, everything at the centre is geared towards familiarising children—from as young as the age of three—with life in the corporate world.

The entire centre is a structure of shiny white tiles and glass. Classrooms are laid out boardroom-style, with the teacher at the head of the table and lessons projected onto a whiteboard. The marketing team beams with approval when I observe that it’s like walking through the Central Business District. 

“Ultimately, we hope for them to become leaders in their own right, whatever field that they choose to go into, and no matter where their entry point is. So I think it has to do with the kind of conversation topics that we have in a class—that ability to talk about current affairs, that ability to also understand that leadership must come with a heart,” says senior teacher Justin Leow. 

About a 15-minute drive away from The Learning Lab’s flagship centre, another school is also engaged in preparing its students for adult life, but with a very different philosophy.

From the outside, AWWA School looks like any other public school. It’s only when one steps inside and sees the parked wheelchairs that it becomes apparent that AWWA is special. A voluntary welfare organisation supported by the state, corporate sponsors and individual donations, it works with special needs children.

“Education, a lot of the time, is seen as learning, earning money, having a career,” AWWA’s Chief Executive Officer, Tim Oei, tells Esquire. “But now, I see education as more about the activities of life, how you learn to live, communicate... It’s not necessarily about monetary rewards.”

Test scores couldn’t be further from AWWA’s concerns. Some children’s goals can be as simple as learning to stand and walk, or to communicate with others using technological aids.

“A lot of people say that’s therapy, not education. But with that comes self-confidence, being able to move around and communicate,” says Oei. “When we teach numeracy, literacy, it’s more for communication, understanding how to be part of society and not be excluded.”

Faridah Thamby can be found helping out in the AWWA library most weekday afternoons, while her son Fahmi is in class. She’s a bright, chatty woman; laughter bursts out of her in spurts of giggles. 

“Last week, my son could float by himself for the first time,” she says of Fahmi’s weekly swimming lessons. She claps her hands in glee. “Float by himself! Oh, it was the happiest moment. Very proud, you know.” 

"I see education as more about the activities of life, how you learn to live, communicate... It's not necessarily about monetary rewards."

Fahmi Adam has Robinow syndrome, a rare disorder that affects the development of the body, particularly the bones. The 15-year-old also has epilepsy and global developmental delay. For many years, Faridah had to feed him via a tube.

Things changed after he joined AWWA at the age of seven. He was introduced to a speech therapist, and eventually, learned to swallow puréed food. An occupational therapist has also helped him with his motor skills, recommending horse-riding sessions to build up muscle strength in his legs and lower back. 

Once wheelchair-bound, Fahmi is now getting better at walking. Every afternoon, Faridah takes him on a short, half-hour walk within the school building, helping him with a walking frame, a pole or a walking stick. It’s an activity that he clearly loves; when I joined them, Fahmi turned to look at us, a huge grin showing off his tiny, crooked teeth. 

Faridah spent a number of years participating in Fahmi’s classes, tending to his needs. Now she leaves him with his teachers and classmates. “He’s more independent, he’s more interactive, he’s more aware of class,” she says. To communicate, the teacher offers Fahmi a simple board with different options—Food, Water, Walk, iPad—stuck on with Velcro. It can take a little time, but he is able to reach out and make his choice, letting people know what he wants. It might not be scoring top marks in an exam, but it’s progress that makes Faridah puff up with pride. 

Fahmi might never be part of a mainstream school, but there are many children who can and should be. They just need a little help.

Gary Ang first became concerned for his son Ethan when he was about two years old: “He only used singular words: ‘yes’, ‘no’, ‘want’, ‘don’t want’, that’s all. And the rest of it was ‘uh, uh, uh’…”

A paediatrician initially dismissed Ang’s concerns, saying it was normal for boys to develop at a slower pace than girls. But the worried father pushed on, insisting his son be tested. Ethan was eventually diagnosed with global developmental delay, meaning that he hits developmental milestones later than his peers.

This makes it difficult for Ethan to sit and focus for long periods, while surrounded by other children—precisely what primary school involves. Anxious that his son catches up as much as he can, Ang secured a place for Ethan in AWWA’s early intervention programme. 

He’s seen improvement in the previously withdrawn little boy. “He’s started to interact until he is so friendly, everywhere he goes, he says, ‘Hello’, until, sometimes, I have to tell him to tone down,” he says. 

Ethan has also begun to comprehend the routines of daily life. “He knows what he needs to do when he goes to school. He has started to put toys back, knows he cannot snatch, and that it is wrong to touch things he shouldn’t. So when you tell him to apologise, he understands,” his dad says with relief.

At Kaleidoscope, a private therapy centre, Freda Sutanto works with children who, like Ethan, might not be developmentally ready to deal with the rigours of the mainstream system. “There are lots of things that you’re talking about to be ready for Primary 1,” she says. “You’ve got to have your listening skills, your language skills, your social skills, your play skills, your gross and fine motor skills to be appropriately involved in different aspects of the school day. For example, you have to be able to carry out multi-step instructions immediately, like, ‘Take your bag, pack it away and put a book on your desk’.”

It doesn’t sound hard to adults, but anyone who’s ever spent time with children knows that expecting them to focus, listen and follow through for an entire day is a big ask. Sutanto practises these skills with her little clients. 

“[Singaporean parents] are quite good at getting their kids’ academic learning up to scratch. It’s more that skill of independent social problem-solving and social awareness that is at least as important as getting them ready for academics,” she says. “Because, in any environment, you need that social awareness, you need to self-regulate: physical self-regulation, emotional self-regulation, thought self-regulation, and then social problem-solving.”

With the support of people like Sutanto, children like Ethan stand a fighting chance by the time they get to primary school. But Ang still feels that the Singaporean mainstream education system is too rigid.“They don’t have early intervention, and then the mainstream,” he says, referring to schools in the US. “Everything is in one school where they incorporate the special needs programme.”

Oei, too, doesn’t believe that main-stream and special needs schools should exist as mutually exclusive entities. “We’re segregating society,” he says. “We’re still labelling people, we’re still looking at a person as what you can or cannot do, and sometimes, it translates into perception by society.”

To that end, AWWA has opened Kindle Garden, an ambitious three-year pilot project supported by the philanthropic Lien Foundation. It is Singapore’s first inclusive preschool, with 30 to 40 percent of its intake reserved for children with special needs. The centre counts among its staff an early intervention teacher, a speech therapist and an occupational therapist, allowing developmental needs to be addressed in class.

With the support of people like Sutanto, children like Ethan stand a fighting chance by the time they get to primary school.

It’s only the beginning of Oei’s aspirations. “If I can work at a preschool level, other preschools can also do the same,” he says. “And if I can do it for preschool, what’s to stop me from doing it in Primary 1? And if you can do it in Primary 1, you can do it in Primary 2, you can do it in Primary 3... and slowly, we will move to a more inclusive environment.” 

With Kindle Garden oversubscribed within three months of operations, it looks like Singapore is inching its way towards inclusivity. But it’s not happening quickly enough for Ang; he plans to relocate his family to the US, where he already has a recommended school lined up for Ethan.

For future generations of Singaporean youngsters, though, there is hope. “You’re talking about a whole societal and cultural shift, and that’s not going to happen overnight,” Sutanto says. “But I do meet a lot of Singaporean parents who are very much into ‘whole child’ development, very hands on, fantastic with what they’re expecting of their kids. I’m getting a lot of parents saying to me, ‘I want her to be able to thrive in the way that she can thrive’, which might be a combination of doing well in school, social development and interests.”

From: Esquire Singapore’s May 2016 issue.