Tag Archives: children

The downsides to Singapore’s education system: streaming, stress and suicides

First published in South China Morning Post on 21 September, 2017

The country’s school system is geared towards high achievement in exams, but the emphasis on rote learning and memorisation, combined with pressure to succeed, affects children’s social skills, health and overall happiness.

Singapore’s education system is reputed for producing children who top the world rankings in standardised tests. The city state took first place in the last Pisa (global education rankings.

Hong Kong ranked ninth in the last Pisa tests, below Taiwan (fourth) and Macau (sixth).

Howard Tan, a former Singapore primary-school teacher turned private tutor, says he has encountered parents who put undue pressure on their youngsters.

“It’s too simplistic to say that the pressure comes from the system. A lot of pressure comes from parents,” he says, adding that he’s seen parents express disappointment with their children for scoring less than 90 per cent in tests. “As a teacher, I hardly push my students that way. The system necessitates that from the parents,” he says.

Tan teaches eight- and nine-year-olds, and his private tuition classes wrap up at 9pm. “I have one eight-year-old student taking multiple tuition classes from multiple tutors per subject, amounting to 11 tuition sessions a week. Does she have time for anything else?”

Tan says that when he taught physical education classes in primary school, he noticed that a number of children lacked motor skills. “In preschool … they need to socialise and learn conflict resolution with other kids. Many of the children I taught didn’t know how to deal with disagreements; they would shout because they didn’t know any better,” he says.

High student-to-teacher ratios are a big problem in Singaporean schools, Tan says, but pressure also stems from the practice of streaming – with pupils of the same year being segregated into different classes based on results and assessments in several key gateways.

Streaming is where the Singapore system differs from Hong Kong’s. However, segregation of “bright and slow” students still happens in Hong Kong, in the form of school banding.

Singapore’s compulsory education system consists of six years of primary school, four years of secondary, and between one and three years of post-secondary school. Students undergo two major exams before even leaving primary school.

At the end of primary year four, pupils are tested to determine the courses they will take in English, mathematics, mother tongue, and science. At the end of primary school, they take the Primary School Leaving Examination, which determines the stream a pupil will follow in secondary education.

There are four streams: Special, Express, Normal Academic, and Normal Technical. Special comprises about 10 per cent of pupils, and is an accelerated pathway to university. Fifty per cent make the Express track, which may lead directly to university or initially to junior college. Twenty per cent pursue the Normal track, leading to polytechnic institute, while the remainder fall into Normal Technical, which leads to a qualification at the Institute of Technical Education.

Some Singapore parents regard streaming as beneficial for children with different learning capacities. Maida Genato, who has three children at school, says: “For the slow learners, if you teach at a faster pace, they might have a hard time adjusting, whereas for fast learners, if you slow the pace they might get bored.”

Tan, however, says that with class sizes of 30 to 40 pupils, streaming will fail a lot of children.

Jamie Sisson, an education lecturer at University of South Australia, says streaming and high-stakes testing increase stress on children and parents.

“There is hard evidence proving that below high school, homework does not have a positive impact on learning.”
– JAMIE SISSON

“[It serves] to limit opportunities for learners that later affects their opportunities in life. Humans are complex beings. It is difficult to determine at a young age what someone is capable of achieving later in life,” she says.

The Singaporean concept of kiasu – a Hokkien word meaning “afraid to lose” – may explain why parents enrol their children in extracurricular tuition in the hope they will excel in test scores.

Genato, a Filipino, says she’s noticed that her daughter’s ethnic Chinese classmates tend to be pushed harder. “It must be a cultural thing,” she adds.

Sisson says she has observed that young adults of Chinese descent, including Singaporeans, sometimes find it hard to adapt to the university’s style of teaching.

“I’m seeing students, especially from China, struggle because they’re used to memorising answers. When they come to study in Australia, they have to shift their way of thinking.”

Sisson advocates a democratic, student-centred pedagogy, a teaching ethos by which students play a significant role in defining course policies, materials covered, and other aspects of schooling.

“Research shows that placing high value on test scores has led to narrow views of teaching and learning,” she says. “Such practices focus on memorising facts that have been determined by others to be of worth.

“If we don’t understand how things work in the context of real life, then we don’t understand, we’re just memorising. This can limit children’s opportunities to develop skills important to being innovative problem solvers we need in the future.”

Sisson refers to a widely cited report by British-based business lecturer Sally Chan, titled The Chinese Learner – a question of style. Chan writes: “The popular view is that the stresses of learning and need to excel academically leave the Chinese student with little choice but to resort to rote learning of the essentials to pass the examinations … Such learning modes are believed to dominate classroom behaviour for Chinese students in Hong Kong, China and Southeast Asia.”

Although primary-school children in Singapore spend an uncommon amount of time dealing with homework and extracurricular tuition, the benefits are questionable.

“There is hard evidence proving that below high school, homework does not have a positive impact on learning,” Sisson says, citing the example of Finland, which takes a holistic approach to education. Finnish students have little or no homework, and there is no private tuition culture in the country.

Finland came sixth in the latest Pisa rankings, and its schools produce young adults who are critical thinkers and problem-solvers.

“In preschool … they need to socialise and learn conflict resolution with other kids. Many of the children I taught didn’t know how to deal with disagreements.”
– HOWARD TAN

Finnish children don’t start school until they are seven years old, and there is only one standardised test, administered in the final year of high school. School holidays are longer. Finland ranked fifth in the UN’s 2016 World Happiness Report; Singapore ranked 26th.

Last year, Singapore’s Ministry of Education announced that a new scoring system would come into effect in 2021, claiming it will reduce stress by encouraging pupils to focus on their own learning rather that competition with their classmates.

Currently, a student’s Primary School Leaving Examination aggregate is the sum of T-scores from all four subjects taken. T-scores indicate how well a pupil has performed relative to peers in the subjects. From 2021, pupils’ scores will no longer be benchmarked against their classmates’, the ministry says, admitting: “The way that the T-score is calculated may have also created unhealthy competition among our young children.”

Roy Ngerng is a Singaporean activist, who in 2014 was found guilty of defaming Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong on his sociopolitical blog, in comments about the city state’s pension fund. In an article titled ““New” PSLE Education Scoring System: Does it Change Anything?” Ngerng concludes that the change “still puts excessive focus on academic results”, and that students will actually find it harder to obtain higher scores.

Ngerng suggests that “healing” the system would require a combination of reducing class sizes and the administrative workload of teachers so they can focus on the development of each child, which would in turn reduce stress levels.

He also suggests a reduction in school hours. This would give teachers room for more creative activities to develop children’s critical thinking skills, he says.

The School on a Landfill

The province of DKI Jakarta (Daerah Khusus Ibukota, not including Bogor, Tangerang, Depok and Bekasi) has a population of over 9.6 million (2010), each individual of which produces waste. Shockingly for a city of its size, there is no solid waste management plan in place, and recycling is left in the hands of a few non-governmental organizations and the pemulung (rubbish pickers), who work hard to sort through millions of people’s mixed rubbish before it’s taken to a landfill. An estimated 6,000 tonnes of rubbish is produced a day in Jakarta, 2,000 of which is thought to end up in the rivers, causing flooding and diseases.

Rubbish collected in the province of DKI Jakarta all ends up at the largest landfill of Indonesia – Bantar Gebang. This massive 111-hectare rubbish tip is more than meets the eye, as it homes 5,000 inhabitants who live and work here as scavengers, including a pre-school and a primary school, where the children of the scavengers come to get an education.

The first thing you notice when getting close to Bantar Gebang is the smell. It is a stench like no other, and the closer you get to the mountain of rubbish, the stronger it stings your nostrils and the back of your throat. It is a smell I will never forget. Driving into the vicinity, you are met with a shanty town built right on top of and amongst the rubbish and flies number in the thousands.

Rubbish at Bantar Gebang

Arriving at the primary school on Bantar Gebang, Yayasan Dinamika Indonesia, we are greeted by children running around, playing and screaming on their morning break. It’s like arriving at any other school, except this school is surrounded by rubbish, and the odd pemulung rummages through trash left in the shrubs on the school grounds as the kids play. Here we meet Nasrudin, Head of YDI, who explains the story of his school to us, which has been in operation since 1996.

“There are 362 children at this primary school and 52 at the pre-school down the road,” Nasrudin tells us. “We have an open door policy with flexible rules to try and keep children in class. We will even let them sleep if they need to.” Nasrudin has been at YDI since it opened and knows more about the children of Bantar Gebang than anyone else.

Beautiful children at Yayasan Dinamika Indonesia, the school on Bantar Gebang
Beautiful children at Yayasan Dinamika Indonesia, the school on Bantar Gebang

After visiting the classrooms, it is interesting to see that these children are quite introvert, not like street children, who are oftentimes boisterous. The children of Bantar Gebang are well-behaved and many have dreams of becoming something other than a scavenger. Many of the children I spoke to wanted to be a teacher, a policeman or even a football player. The sad reality is that most end up working on the landfill or in factories nearby.

Aspirations of the children at YDI, Bantar Gebang, include policeman, football player and doctor
Aspirations of the children at YDI, Bantar Gebang, include policeman, football player and doctor

“Once the children know how to read and write, they often want to leave and start earning money for themselves doing what their parents do,” Nasrudin explains. “90% of the crane drivers on the landfill are YDI alumni and we also have many grandchildren of alumni attending.” This truth becomes evident when looking at how the number of students goes down as the grade number goes up: Grade 1 (69 students), Grade 2 (79 students), Grade 3 (54 students), Grade 4 (59 students), Grade 5 (41 students) and Grade 6 (27 students).

Pemulung who live and work on Bantar Gebang predominantly come from Indramayu in Cirebon, with a minority from Madura and Karawang. The pemulung mostly work directly for the pengepul, someone who acts as a middle man and buys the rubbish from them at a cheap price, selling onto their bosses, who then send the recyclable items on to recycling factories. There is a monopoly system at play here, whereby the pengepul give the pemulung loans in order to keep them under their thumbs, forever indebted to them. On this landfill, the pemulung work five days a week, wading through mountains of mixed waste in search of recyclable items, with two days left to sort through what they’ve collected, earning between Rp.150,000 to Rp.200,000 a week. The children usually help with the cutting up of plastic and sorting of collected rubbish after school hours.

“Many of the children have skin irritations, and they all have cacingan (worms),” Nasrudin tells me. Anemia is also another common illness these children face, although surprisingly, the number of dengue fever cases is very rare and there have been no reported cases of tuberculosis. Living on a landfill is extremely unsanitary and dangerous, and four pemulung lost their lives recently to a landslide of rubbish. When touring the landfill, I was saddened to see men, women and children working in such terrible conditions, completely oblivious to the foul smell or rotting garbage they have become accustomed to.

Nasrudin and some of the children of YDI

“The children find it hard to make it into state schools after they leave us,” Nasrudin says. “There is a certain stigma which is attached to children of Bantar Gebang.” It is wonderful to hear from Nasrudin that a few of his students have gone on to working at big companies such as Panasonic after completing a university degree, thanks to Yayasan Dinamika Indonesia. Oman, one of the alumni of YDI, even came back after studying Mathematics at STKIP Kusumanegara, to teach the children at a place which gave him hope for the future.

YDI now receives financial support from the government under Biaya Operasi Sekolah, which helps to pay for their operational costs, however they are currently looking for sponsors to help pay for teacher’s fees, as the funds they receive do not cover this.

If you are interested to sponsor this extraordinary school, or volunteer your time to teach English or Mathematics to the children of the pemulung, please contact Nasrudin at +62 (0)8129848401.

First published in Indonesia Expat, February 2014