02
April
2019
|
11:44
Europe/Amsterdam

Relooking education as a social leveller

From left: Prof Tan, Mr Ong, Mr Viswa, Mr Schleicher and Qi Xiang at the event

Is education a pathway to equal opportunities? Or does it lead to increased stratification? U@live, back after a year’s hiatus, discussed these questions and more at the forum themed “Education — Still a Social Leveller?” held on 27 March. Organised by NUS Alumni Relations, U@live aims to generate innovative and revolutionary ideas to tackle issues of global significance. Topics like meritocracy, stratification, the definition of success and how education policies can be adapted for better social cohesion and mixing, were hotly debated at the session with Mr Ong Ye Kung, Minister for Education, Professor Tan Tai Yong, Yale-NUS President, Mr Andreas Schleicher, Director for Education & Skills at the Organisation for Economic Co-Operation and Development and Ng Qi Xiang, Yale-NUS College (Yale-NUS) Year 4 student, on the panel. U@live Chairman Mr Viswa Sadasivan moderated the discussion.

Mr Ong opined that education is still a social leveller. “A simple test, tomorrow let's close down all schools, fire all teachers, close down NUS. Does inequality get better? Definitely no, this system can continue to work well but there may be features in the system that I think need to evolve,” he said, citing examples of the latest policies of reducing streaming and focusing on subject banding instead.

One area that needs to be focused on is early childhood education, said Mr Schleicher. “When you think about levelling the playing field, you think first of all to the early years — early childhood education and care. If there is one thing that we could do to give people equal chances it's about equipping them with that kind of foundation, but often the advantaged get more and better early childhood education. Often it is also so fragmented, so dispersed and so poorly regulated that again the wealthier families find what the better provision is and take the benefits. So even early childhood education tends to reinforce and not moderate social inequality and that's obviously where we need to start now,” he said.

Across the education system, we are trying to deemphasize the over emphasis on grades. I think the signal has been sent to society at large; some employers are beginning to change the way they hire, many parents are getting the message and I hope that within a generation, this culture will shift to something that I think is a lot more nurturing, a lot more compassionate for young.

During the question and answer session, the audience shared their experiences, challenges and learning points from the Singapore education system, including the need for purposeful education, redefining the idea of success and education, the impact of class size, the hyper focus on hitting benchmarks, how easy it is to cross pathways and the importance of skills in going forward.

One aspect raised was the idea of a compassionate meritocracy that is less focused on grades as an indicator of success. “I think it comes back to how you recognise success and if we too narrowly define success as attaining academic achievements, then people who don't get to that point are not seen to be successful… If we can broaden the definition and understanding to be more inclusive and actually train or educate people to be a little bit more socially sensitive, then we are preparing a broader generation to cope with all these changes that we are facing,” said Prof Tan.

Citing the increase in flipped classrooms, project work, overseas immersions, community projects and internships, Mr Ong said that such changes in curriculum help students gain skills and discover their passion. Grades should become less important but the change must start from employers and parents. Other changes include removing some examinations at primary and secondary school, the Direct School Admission scheme and doing away with O-Level results for polytechnic students applying for university.

 “Across the education system, we are trying to deemphasize the over emphasis on grades. I think the signal has been sent to society at large; some employers are beginning to change the way they hire, many parents are getting the message and I hope that within a generation, this culture will shift to something that I think is a lot more nurturing, a lot more compassionate for young,” Mr Ong said.

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Mr Ong (far right) with the essay competition first place winners (from left:) Qi Xiang, Yi Ming and Heather

The forum was attended by more than 300 guests which included members from the NUS community and the public as well as representatives from ministries, education institutes and non-profit organisations. There was even an essay competition to boot. Staged as a prelude with the same theme, it received 68 submissions, with Yale-NUS team comprising Qi Xiang, Year 2 student Ng Yi Ming and Year 1 student Heather Cheng, emerging the winner. They proposed a credit scheme to equalise out-of-school growth opportunities and resources for children in the bottom quartile of national income.