What is the purpose of an education? The Singapore government has always been resolute about the fact that education should be aligned with the needs of the economy, and the education system has as a result been very focused on producing students who fulfil the workforce’s needs.
But the nature of Singapore’s economy has changed over time, and it is now one that will have to rely on innovation and disruption for future growth. The education system produced perfectly serviceable peons in the past, but is now failing to groom the innovators of tomorrow.
Here are three ways the education system is underperforming.
Risk-taking and innovation aren’t encouraged
The efficiency of the education system at producing top scorers schooled to the teeth in math and science hasn’t gone unnoticed by the world, thanks to our top PISA scores. Students have been trained to withstand rigorous testing, beginning with the high-stakes PSLE. But this emphasis on exams also discourages risk-taking and innovation.
Since there is such a narrow definition of success under the system, students tend to opt for the subjects they think they can score well in (this usually means math and science get picked over the humanities) rather than those they’re interested in. Students drill themselves using ten-year-series and master the fine art of answering exam questions correctly, instead of exploring their interests in their favourite subjects.
This plays out in the working world, where the most academically-inclined students get coralled into the safest, most lucrative, and most boring jobs. The government wants talented students to become entrepreneurs and engineers, but as those are neither safe nor immediately lucrative career choices, students who perform well at school prefer to play it safe and become bankers, lawyers and accountants.
Late bloomers are placed at a tremendous disadvantage
At the age of 12, children who come from disruptive family environments or whose parents are unable to provide them with adequate support often underperform in the PSLE.
It’s easy enough to argue that the O levels are still four years away, and four years is plenty for the kids to find their hidden potential. But because secondary schools are so stratified due to PSLE score-based admissions, a child who doesn’t do well in the PSLE due to environmental factors is likely to find himself placed in a school with others from similar backgrounds and with similar problems.
Meanwhile, upper middle class students with university-educated parents who make it into elite secondary schools get to benefit from the high standards, more conducive environment and better social connections that come with mixing with others like themselves.
Career guidance is lacking
While this is a situation that is being very slowly rectified, the average local school still does not provide adequate career guidance. At secondary level, the assumption still tends to be that students will apply for the “best” poly/ITE courses that they qualify for, followed by a few fall-back choices, and a combination of grades and fate will decide where they end up.
At JC level, there is still the sense (less overwhelming than before, but still pervasive) that students will apply for the most prestigious, lucrative courses their grades qualify them for.
This results in graduating students not being very self-aware when it comes to their interests. Fast-forward a few years when they’ve entered the workforce, and this translates to lack of employee engagement and low job satisfaction.
Secondary schools generally do not have career counsellors or a career guidance programme, which is worrying since such a large proportion of secondary school-leavers will go on directly to poly or ITE, which are vocational or professional in nature.
What changes would you like to see in the Singapore education system? Share your suggestions in the comments!