Singapore Primary School Education – Is it too stressful?

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The past 10 years has seen some significant changes in the education landscape in Singapore. Coming through the educational ranks 10 years ago, and having worked in a Student Care Centre based in a school, I’ve seen differences in the approaches being adopted by the Ministry of Education (MOE). As the nation is moving towards a more holistic approach in our educational approach, different frameworks have been introduced to encourage students to engage in more self-directed learning while building character and aptitude. Stifling Creativity Singapore’s education system is renowned for being successful and highly competitive and some industry giants believe this could be what stifles creativity. Steve Wozniak, Apple Co-founder, said, “When you’re very structured almost like a religion… Uniforms, uniforms, uniforms… everybody is the same. Look at structured societies like Singapore where bad behaviour isn’t tolerated. You are extremely punished. Where are the creative people?” In recent years, the government has identified this as an issue and are taking proactive steps to remedy this issue. New Frameworks The Singapore government is moving away from a competitive “rat-race” style of education through the introduction of certain frameworks. One such framework is the “Teach Less, Learn More” (TLLM) rolled out in 2005. Textbooks have become thinner, sentences have become shorter and more images are appearing in the textbooks, in place of words. With a significant reduction of explanations, students are encouraged to question concepts and to find out the answers on their own. Some schools have e-learning day in the curriculum. This allows students to learn from home. Students are given a login ID and password, and they are required to go online to complete the lessons and work on e-learning day. MOE is also moving away from solely results-based learning and are trying to instill character-building into the syllabus. Acting Minister for Education (Schools), Ng Chee Meng said, “Let’s help them make good choices about their educational and career pathways based on their aptitudes and aspirations.” Mr. Ng also said that the T-score will be removed starting 2021, with the first batch of Primary 1 students on this new scheme, starting this year in 2016. The minister adds that schools will include outdoor learning, life skills lessons, like team-work and resilience, into their curriculum to better prepare the students for the working world in the future. Co-curricular Activities (CCA) Having worked in the Student Care industry for almost 6 years, it feels as if students are becoming increasingly stressed. On top of their academic workload, students, aged 8-12, are expected to juggle Co-curricular Activities. These activities happen outside of school hours, usually in the afternoon. On top of changing the framework in the classroom, the government is also taking steps to help reduce the stress in CCAs. Singapore Youth Festival (SYF) is one such event which has seen the government stepping in. The SYF is an event held every 2 years, where schools send their students in the Performing Arts to compete. 10 years ago, the grading systems were extremely stringent. I saw my peers in the Performing Arts CCA, spending every afternoon after school, practicing and perfecting their craft and their routine, when competition season comes around the corner. I’ve witnessed my friends suffer emotional breakdowns because they did not secure the “Gold with Distinctions” award. Many parents have voiced their displeasure and SYF has since relaxed the grading system and made some changes to the grading rubric in 2013. Despite making it easier to win the top award, certain schools still push their students to attain the “Distinction” award. Tuition1_b

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As Singaporeans become more affluent, more Singaporean parents are spending top dollar to send their children for tuition classes and enrichment lessons. The “kiasu” (fear of losing out) mentality causes parents to sign their children up for such activities that spans the entire week. Some students have tuition commitments after school every day of the week, with weekends reserved for enrichment lessons like piano classes or swimming. Parents spend close to $1,000 per child, per month on such activities, in hopes that they do not lose out to their peers in school and to excel in their CCAs and academically. The fear of their child losing out to their classmates, coupled with the desire to see their child excel academically, has allowed the tuition industry to blossom. In 2014, it was reported that about $1 billion was spent on tuition in a year and more recently, some tutors are reportedly earning $1 million a year. Closing Thoughts Although the government is taking steps, albeit baby steps, to remedy the situation, one might wonder if it is too late to introduce such measures. Is the culture of having a “rat-race” like education system too ingrained into the Singapore fabric? Despite introducing TLLM, students seem to become even more stressed out. With the introduction of a new grading rubric for examination, would it help Singapore move away from such a stressful education framework to one that is more like the West? In order for a complete change in mindsets, MOE must engage more with the parents and find a framework that is able to provide a conducive and less stressful classroom environment whilst ensuring their students are able to meet the demands and requirements of society.

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