This year, in 2013, PM Lee's speech was quite a bit more balanced. First, he said...
But What Exactly Was PM Lee's Point?
"I believe we can make every school a good school, and we have done a lot of that to ensure that every school provides a good education for the students. We give them the resources. We give them the good teachers. We emphasize values. And we've made a lot of progress towards this goal."
It was good to hear this. Instead of boasting that the MOE had already reached the goal of Every School A Good School, he communicated an intention to work towards this goal. Later though... he slipped this into his speech...
"Every school is a good school…"
I rolled my eyes at that point. Really? After the OSC, he's still telling us that every school is a good school? He then continued to say...
"We want every school to be good... I push MOE very hard to give the schools the resources, the good Principals, the flexibility and the authority to teach students according to their students' needs to make the system work. So… we want every school to be good. …"
Ok... so now he's gone back to framing it as a desired goal. I had some trouble ascertaining WHAT he was trying to say. He seemed to be contradicting himself. So, is every school already a good school or not?
Then, he went on to say the following...
"You may have good grades because your children happen to be bright but you may not be doing anything for them. They may be just educating themselves. You may have children who are not so naturally talented but a good education will improve their performance and make a big difference to them."
Gee... he had just described Little Boy's primary school years. My son educated himself because his teachers taught him so very little indeed. They tested him hard though... and failed children liberally. The difficult exams lit a bonfire under the backsides of both children and parents. Only 2 children in my son's class had no tuition - Little Boy and someone else. The other child's mother was a tutor herself.
In the absence of good quality teaching in his primary school, I learnt to be grateful for the tough exams. At least those showed me what the REAL demands of the PSLE were, and so, I could help my son to reach towards those standards.
So hmmmm... he does understand what my son went through after all. He does acknowledge that some poor children have in the recent past been shortchanged by their schools, and have had to "educate themselves."
Whilst waiting for things to improve, this is at least comforting. No longer is he (nor MOE) trying to pretend that a problem does not exist by pointing to how successful our students are in the PISA rankings.
Then PM Lee said...
"But at the same time we are continuing to upgrade the quality of every primary school. MOE has asked me to say this again... and I say this with conviction. We are doing this. You can take it in faith from me that I am going to invest in all of the schools, and whichever school your child gets into, we are going to try and do our very best for him."
So ok... I get it now.
He was DEFINITELY saying that quality in schools had room for improvement and he was DEFINITELY promising to make an effort to ensure that schools will be good. No longer was he telling us that all schools ARE good, as if one mortal man's assertion can re-make reality. There is a willingness to see a real problem (some schools have horrible quality issues, ranging from prostitute-loving Principals, to a dearth of teaching materials, to teachers who mark compositions with a single tick only). Certainly, he has framed the problem sensitively so as not to hurt (nor shame) those who have worked hard at MOE all these years. At least, there is a promise to do something about the problem.
If one assumes that his idea of investment is not just hardware (i.e., more swanky buildings) but also software (i.e., robust and dynamic online teacher sharing platforms, stronger oversight of teaching and marking quality, better textbooks, better access to high quality learning resources, innovative teaching practices to bring hands-on skills practice and individualized feedback to each student despite the large numbers of students in each class, perhaps smaller classes, loving and affectionate teaching culture) then yes, this promise is a reassuring one.
It is still only a promise at present. This is a very challenging promise to keep. It is only a little less challenging than Lee Kuan Yew and Goh Keng Swee's feat of building a metropolis out of a swampy island (and making Singaporeans out of a mosquito people). Do you wonder if the MOE can succeed at keeping this promise?
I wonder too.
Most people welcome this change. I do too.
With this change, as long as the PSLE T-Score is kept confidential FROM the schools also, the top students will naturally disperse across the top 10 schools. With this rough grained indicator of academic excellence, it would be harder for parents to see which school takes in the best students academically. Parents of top students will learn to choose from the top 10 schools for their ethos, not just cut off points.
Over time, there will no longer be an over concentration of talent in NYGH, HCI, RI and RGS. The top 10 schools have a diversity of ethos and culture. Schools will choose from students with rough-grained similar results, for ethos fit, not just academic results.
Each top school will thus have a wider range of academic ability. This builds relationships between students of differing ability... allows for greater diversity in each school.
In the long term, having a mix of students in each school will decelerate the process of social stratification along the lines of money, power and education. In the short term, it tempers the heavy competitive pressures of the PSLE. Parents won't need to feel embarrassed over a 2 point difference in PSLE T-Score between their children, and insist on pushing their children ever onwards and upwards academically against their children's interests.
Schools can also breathe a sigh of relief. They'll have the space to focus on areas of education aside from academics.
However, it wouldn't do to keep the PSLE T-Score away from parents only to release it to schools for SCHOOLS to pick students by PSLE T-Score. I hope that isn't PM Lee's intent. Doing so will make the competition even keener because parents and students will be competing blind.
Between the promise of Every School a Good School... and a change to PSLE Grading, I think the promise of Every Primary School a Good School is way more powerful in ensuring equal opportunity than doing away with the PSLE T-Score reporting. I won't make light of the significance of changing PSLE grading, but I think it is a far less important and far less difficult change to implement than making every primary school a good school.
I rejoice for the change in PSLE grading. I am hopeful but somewhat skeptical that MOE can succeed at making Every Primary School A Good School. I don't think it's impossible. I rarely think anything is impossible. It'll take a lot more than resources to do this.