Dissecting Budget 2013: Part 3

On “Building a More Inclusive Society”

At his Budget 2013 speech, Deputy Prime Minister and Finance Minister Tharman Shanmugaratnam had shared that, “many in our present day older generation of Singaporeans had very little education – barely half were able to go beyond primary school. Their pay was very low in the first few decades of our development. Younger Singaporeans have benefitted from vastly-improved opportunities in education with the bulk of them going on to tertiary study. As a result, a disproportionate number of middle- and high-paying jobs are taken up by younger Singaporeans while older Singaporeans (those aged 55 years and above) make up more than 40% of workers in the bottom fifth of the income ladder.”

He also said that for retirees, “As they depend on their savings to finance their daily expenses, they are most affected by rising costs. Many worry about being a burden to their children.”

These are two very real issues faced by our older Singaporeans, who are trapped in chronic poverty, because the pace of our economic development has left them behind.

Let’s take a look at the budget initiatives for the people in Singapore, and how it will benefit Singaporeans, or not.

Promoting Social Mobility 

Promoting Social Mobility

Initiatives: Pre-schools ($3 billion)

  • Expanding capacity so that pre-schools will be available closer to homes in all our neighbourhoods, as well as closer to workplaces.
  • Bring more operators onto the Anchor Operator (AOP) scheme, to ensure quality and affordable pre-schools, by providing for 16,000 additional places in AOPs by 2017.
  • Increase salary grants to the AOPs so that all their pre-school teachers will be graduates or diploma holders, up from 80% today. Teachers will also be able to obtain scholarships and training grants to upgrade and can look forward to more structured training and career development.
  • Provide pre-school providers across the sector with greater support in curriculum and teaching guides.
  • MOE will on its own also set up a few kindergartens to develop best practices to be part of this effort to catalyse quality improvements.
  • Establish a new autonomous agency, the Early Childhood Development Agency, to drive improvements across the entire pre-school sector. The new agency will combine the pre-school teams within MOE and MSF, and will be overseen by both Ministries.

More Support at School for Disadvantaged Students

  • Extend the learning support programme beyond the early primary school years (currently for Primary 1 and 2), to conduct classes in small groups of less than 10 students. The programmes will require about 600 additional teachers who will be specially trained.
  • Expand the number of school-based student care centres
  • MOE will develop richer instructional materials to enhance teaching and learning in every school. One important initiative is to develop online resources that include the best lessons, especially on difficult concepts, taught by experienced teachers and specialists.
  • All in, these three school-level initiatives will cost an additional $120 million a year.
  • Put another $72 million into the Opportunity Fund. Schools with a larger number of students from less advantaged backgrounds will receive up to $275,000 for a secondary school and $150,000 for primary. This is 40% up from today. Extending the Opportunity Fund to the polytechnics for the first time. In total, this is expected to benefit about 100,000 students across schools, ITE and the polytechnics.

Edusave Endowment Fund

  • $300 million top-up to the Edusave Endowment Fund
What will actually happen:

  • The Lien Foundation had conducted a study last year, titled the, ‘Vital Voices for Vital Years’, which “examined the key challenges facing the preschool sector and provides a ground‐up perspective of solutions for improvements.” The study made the following suggestions to improve preschool education:
    • Leveling the gaps in quality, affordability and accessibility for better equity
    • Elevating the early education workforce to revitalize the profession
    • Drawing greater community and parental involvement for a holistic preschool education
    • Advocating the formation of a new distinct lead ministry for greater efficiencies and coherence of policies and implementation

It is commendable that the budget has actually catered to all the suggestions.

  • According to MOE, the Learning Support Programme (LSP) was enhanced in 2008 and it found that, “65 percent of students were found to be able to read at their age level and pass their school English Language examinations by the end of Primary 2, (which) is significantly higher than the previous LSP discharge rate of 40 percent.” It is very good news that the government is looking into investing in another 600 teachers for this programme.
What needs to be done to make sure initiative(s) work:

  • According to NMP Yee Jenn Jong, he had penned a very good article which analyses the Anchor Operating Scheme. He surmised to say that, “I believe the Anchor Operator scheme is ill-conceived. Granting another 2-3 operators and asking existing commercial operators to set up non-profit arms to qualify can only make matters worse. It will kill of all remaining low-mid cost operators, given they already face enornmous pressure from rising rental and manpower costs. Those receiving such generous support will easily kill off their competitors. It will reduce diversity. It will freeze our industry at the point when this selection for the next 2-3 operators will take place. After that, this group of 4-5 Anchors will corner the market by their sheer size and advantages, and with new childcare sites deprived for new players.” He also made some suggestions which, he says, will “be focused on affordability and quality, while providing ongoing diversity.” He also says that, “Contestability will keep all operators on their toes, ensuring that no group of operators are annointed with special privileges that can allow them to sit back and relax, knowing that the competition can never beat them because of their special position.” You can read more of his analysis and suggestions here. Thus the $3 billion investment to improve and strengthen our preschool education is welcomed, but the government should also explore creating parity by preventing the Anchor Operating Scheme from increasing costs, which will add to the burden of young families.
Are these good initiatives? What are better initiatives?

  • Some of the concerns that parents had raised were still not addressed in the budget. Granted that the budget is meant to resolve these issues, without addressing these issues, the budget we be able to lessen the problem, but not alleviate it. For example, parents had highlighted how the examination system and competition within schools has increased the stress levels among the children. Learning is supposed to be joyful process, which engages children and encourage them to find the innate joy to learn, and therefore be naturally inquisitive to want to learn more. But an education system that is competitive and stressful can take the joy out of learning, and which can result in students therefore streamlining the focus of their learning towards being examination-ready, rather than being well-equipped with skills and thinking abilities for the world.
  • For parents who are interested, the Ministry of Education has come out with A Curriculum Framework for Kindergartens in Singapore. It is a well-intended move. However, I hope that the schools will not overly-focus on academic achievement, and sideline the individual growths that the children should each be encouraged to take.
  • As I have also discussed before, our education system has churned out workers who are good at performing operational and functional tasks but who are relatively less equipped for tasks which require critical thinking skills and innovative ideas. Our current education system is focused more on rote learning and does not encourage inquisitiveness as much. An education reform needs to take place, to allow for students to engage more in critical thinking and expansive thinking, which engages their thinking in the workings of the government and economy, so that our youths take a keen interest in the development of Singapore, and where their learning will equip them to also help create solutions for Singapore when they grow up. We need to reform our education system to allow more flexibility and room for our youths to question and propose different, and even contrasting perspectives to issues. Such an education will prepare our young Singaporeans better for the knowledge economy. Currently, it’s a common lament among employers about how Singaporeans are sometimes not able to “think outside the box”. This puts Singaporeans at a disadvantage, as compared to foreign workers, and which is one reason for employers’ preferences for foreign workers. We need to reform the education system to broaden the thinking abilities of Singaporeans, so that we can develop a strong Singaporean core, with strong critical thinking abilities, which employers can tap on, in the knowledge economy.
  • It is a good initiative that MOE will “develop online resources that include the best lessons” which can be shared among educators. I hope that MOE will go one step further and develop cross-placement schemes or an exchange programme, which allow educators to be able to go on exchange studies at different schools, to learn directly from those educators on how teaching is done differently. Online resources are useful, but if they are supplemented with exchange programmes, they will help to intensify the learning for educators better. At the same time, it is a common feedback among educators that the administrative work and targets that have been set have resulted in educators also having to focus on managing the administrative work, as well as gear their teaching towards these set targets. I believe that MOE needs to look into streamlining how they measure academic achievements in schools, so that there are fewer targets that teachers need to work towards, which will free them up to develop innovative approaches to spur learning and creative thinking among our students.
Why did the government plan these initiatives in this way?

  • The initiatives to improve and strengthen the education system falls into two broad categories:
    • To create more consistency among and enhance the quality of preschool education because, according to MOE’s curriculum framework, “quality pre-school education lays a strong foundation for life-long learning and has short and long term benefits for children.”
    • To strength the education for ‘disadvantaged’ students, to increase their social mobility.
  • Together, the government’s aim is to ensure that our children are provided with quality education across the education spectrum. To the government, preschool education is the last frontier of our education system which hasn’t been adequately addressed and the budget hopes to address that. Separately, as the government aims to move Singapore’s economy up the value chain, the government needs to ensure that the social inequality that one faces in life, can be reduced earlier in life, so that in subsequent years, a person would not need to struggle to close up the gap. As such, the government has thus invested in education for ‘disadvantaged’ students to provide targeted and more intensive assistance to our youths, so that at different stages of development, they are adequately supported.
  • So, the budget to improve our education is actually quite good. It reinforces the government’s commitment to the education of Singaporeans. However, as mentioned, our education system can be reformed to ensure that our students can receive more diverse and expansive education, which can boost their ability for critical thinking and innovative thinking skills further. As much as our education system is technically strong, it continues to be beholden by the economic and political needs of Singapore. The government has streamlined the education to produce specific workers for our economy. Also, the government has been disinclined to allow for certain critical thinking abilities because of what it can do to their political security as the government has always been highly concerned that Singaporeans are critical towards their policies. As Mr Yee had also analysed, the Anchor Operating Scheme might have unnecessarily disadvantage other childcare operators and reduce the diversity of education that our children can receive. According to Mr Yee, the criteria that childcare operators need to meet have been set so stringent that only two operators, NTUC First Campus and PCF Sparkletots, both affiliated to NTUC and People’s Association, have been able to meet the criteria. This would remind Singaporeans of the Aim-AHTC saga. If the government wants to make bolder moves towards developing an education system that is truly world class, it would need to create more room for critical and innovative thinking, which would mean that they would need to let go of certain insecurities that impinge their otherwise sound decisions.

In the next part of this article, I will further discuss the other budget initiatives for the people.

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