SPEECH BY MR THARMAN SHANMUGARATNAM,MINISTER FOR EDUCATION, AT FY 2006 COMMITTEE OF SUPPLY DEBATE 3RD REPLY BY MINISTER ON ENHANCING VOCATIONAL EDUCATION HELPING STUDENTS STAY IN SCHOOL , 8 MARCH 2006, 3.00 PM

INTRODUCTION 

1.           Let me first thank Dr Amy Khor, Dr Tan Boon Wan, Mdm Ho Geok Choo, Dr Ong Seh Hong, Mr Ong Ah Heng and Mr Zainudin Nordin for raising the question of what more we can do to engage students at risk of dropping out, so that they stay in school and benefit from the quality education that our schools provide. Dr Lily Neo and Dr Loo Chong Yong had raised similar issues earlier, during the debate on the Budget Statement.


SCALE OF THE PROBLEM

School Drop-Outs

2.           Let me first address the scale of the problem.

3.           First, students who drop out during their primary or secondary school years. This number has been coming down. As a percentage of each student cohort, the number of students who drop out without completing a secondary education has in fact declined from 3.6% of the cohort in 2003 to 2.6% of the cohort in 2005. But this is still too many - 2.6% is about 1,200 students in each cohort - and we want to bring it down

Non-Progression into Post-Secondary Education

4.           Another concern for us are the students who do complete their secondary education, but do not progress to a post-secondary education. We do not have a precise handle on the numbers. Many students who do not enrol in our ITEs, polys and JCs in fact enrol in private educational institutions, including schools like NAFA, LaSalle and SHATEC, or go overseas to further their studies. They have not dropped out, but are continuing their studies.

5.           Our main focus at the post-secondary level is on encouraging as many of our Normal (Technical) students as possible to go on to the ITE. We are making progress. The percentage of N(T) students who go on to ITE has been steadily increasing over the years. Last year, 76% of our N(T) students went on to ITE, up from 63% in 1998.

6.           The increase reflects the efforts of both the ITE and our secondary school teachers, who bring their students to the ITE campuses to see what they offer and get a taste of the range of courses they can take at ITE. I will touch more on this later in my reply.

7.           But again, we want to do more. The number of N(T) students who chose not to go to ITE translates to about 3.3% of the overall age cohort, which is about 1,500 students. We will do more to engage this group of students, and encourage them to go on to a post-secondary education. This is the second group we are focusing on, besides the students who drop out during their primary or secondary education.

8.           We cannot completely prevent students from dropping out of school. The reasons why they drop out are varied, and the fundamental reasons usually lie outside the school. There are no quick fixes, even within the school.

9.           We are working on several initiatives, beginning from the pre-primary level and extending to the ITE, to help students learn better, see the relevance of what they learn, and feel engaged in the school community. It is a challenging and complex task, and we are trying some new approaches. We are also working with MCYS and the various social agencies, so that what we try to do in schools goes hand in hand with efforts to strengthen the family.

A NEW PATHWAY IN VOCATIONAL EDUCATION

10.          Let me first focus on a key initiative that Dr Amy Khor, Mr Zainudin Nordin, Dr Ong Seh Hong and others have referred to, which relates to vocational education. In each cohort, there is a small group of students who are unable to cope with the mainstream curriculum. In 2005, there were 1,100 students who failed the Primary School Leaving Examination (PSLE). About 130 of them, or 12%, failed the PSLE for the third time.

11.          Currently, many of these students enrol at the two Vocational Training Centres (VTCs) under the Institute of Technical Education (ITE) viz. Geylang Serai VTC (GS VTC) and Assumption Vocational Institute (AVI)1. But attrition is high, sometimes because of the lack of home support. 60% of the VTCs' students drop out. Of the 40% that completed the programme, less than half made it to ITE.

12.          We spoke to teachers, students and parents, to work out a new pathway that can help these students stay in education and get the best chance to succeed. First, we will open the doors to such students earlier, as Dr Amy Khor has suggested. Currently the VTCs admit the students only after they have reached 14 years of age, and provide them with a 2-year programme. Which means the student would first need to have failed his PSLE three times.

13.          Many of the VTC students and their parents told us that even with the best efforts of their primary schools, it was not helpful for them to keep repeating a PSLE curriculum that they were not able to benefit from. There are also limits to what we can do to provide a more customised approach for these students while they remain in primary school, as they are distributed among many schools with an average of only 5 to 10 per primary school. So we should let them move beyond the primary level before a third try at the PSLE, move them up to a school that can give them an education that is customised to their needs, and their different learning styles and abilities.

14.          Second, we will take a more holistic approach to engaging these students. They need a programme that not only focuses on building skills, but on nurturing emotional resilience and giving them a sense of belonging to the school. (The students we spoke to find their VTC teachers warm and approachable. But they hope for a fuller environment, with a range of CCAs, and a broader range of courses.)

ESTABLISHING NORTHLIGHT SCHOOL

15.         MOE will set up a new school to implement this new and enhanced pathway for students who can benefit from a more customised and practice-based curriculum. The new school, which will be called NorthLight School, will build on the current VTC programme and enhance it. Geylang Serai Vocation Training Centre will become a part of the new school.

16.          NorthLight School will admit students from January 2007. It will allow in students who have attempted the PSLE twice or more (i.e. 13 years old or more). It will thus be able to give them a longer programme  -  a three-year programme will be offered to students who have failed the PSLE twice and want to enter the school.  (Parents and students will retain the choice of taking the PSLE a third time in their primary schools.) The school will also be open to students who leave secondary school prematurely. (It will start with up to 600 students, including the current Geylang Serai students, and expand to up to 1,400 students eventually, similar to a typical secondary school.)

School Leadership & Teachers

17.          Getting the right school leaders and teachers is critical. Their conviction is critical.

18.          The MOE Committee that studied how we can enhance the VTC programme visited a number of similar schools abroad. One was the Life Learning Academy in San Francisco. It chooses students who have done very poorly in nearby schools and puts them together in a 'living and learning' community. The principal and teachers were passionate about what they were doing. The principal herself had a rough start in her youth, but turned her life around. She had a personal mission to help youth in trouble make good. One of the Chemistry teachers was an Aero-space Engineer who left a high-paying job because he wanted to do the same. And they were achieving results. Some of the school's students even made it to the top universities in California.

19.         We have put some effort into choosing the right people for NorthLight. We have chosen as NorthLight's first principal, an experienced MOE school leader with a zeal for helping students in difficulty. She is Mrs Chua Yen Ching, whose work in recent years as Principal at Shuqun Secondary School has gained the attention of the school community and the public. Yen Ching has developed fresh approaches to re-define success for her students, and help them gain the confidence to pursue their dreams.

20.          She will be accompanied by many dedicated staff from the present Geylang Serai VTC, and other MOE teachers with a passion for helping this group of students. One of them won the Outstanding Youth in Education Award last year, for the way she has used the arts to reach out to students who feel disengaged from their studies. In fact, she had written a thorough report on how we should make more use of the arts to reach out to students at risk, which she sent to me before she knew that we would start a new school of this nature. The school will have a collection of passionate teachers like her.

New Customised Curriculum

21.          NorthLight School will aim to prepare as many of its students as possible for further education at the ITE or apprenticeship with industry. It will also aim to give them skills and strengths that they can take through life. Its new 3-year curriculum of the school will have three key aspects:

  1. It will place emphasis on developing emotional resilience and instilling essential life-skills, as Dr Amy Khor had also suggested, such as taking responsibility and managing relationships. These will take up a greater share of curriculum time. The school will also have a full CCA programme including sports, games and the arts so as to develop bonds amongst the students and develop character. The school will have more full time, in-house counsellors to advise and guide students facing social and emotional challenges.
  2. Second, the school will adopt a hands-on and experiential approach to learning, suited to students who students who learn better in non-traditional classroom settings. As Mrs Chua Yen Ching put it to me, she wants NorthLight to be where "School Comes Alive" - where students find lessons interesting, and see their relevance to day-to-day life.
  3. Third, there will be a wider range of vocational options to stimulate students' interests and open up their career choices. Each of the options will have a 10-week long industrial attachment.

Broader Impact of NorthLight

22.          The school's new approach to learning, especially its attempt to create a living and learning community for students where they apply what they learn in their classes in day-to-day real-world applications, will be of interest to some of our mainstream schools as well. The exchange of experience between NorthLight and the mainstream sector can throw up more ideas on how we can engage all our students and help them stay in school.

A COMPREHENSIVE APPROACH

23.          Besides the new vocational pathway that Northlight School will provide, MOE is implementing several other targeted initiatives to identify and assist students who are at risk of dropping out. We have mapped out a comprehensive approach, at various stages of the education system.

Pre-School Intervention

24. First, at pre-school. We know the early years in kindergarten are important in nurturing children's confidence and interest in learning. Children who are confident and eager to learn are more likely to take school seriously, and want to stay on in school. We have been helping to level up the quality of teachers in our kindergartens, and MOS Chan will be talking more about our approach. We are also working on some more targeted interventions at the pre-school level.

25.          MOE is working with MCYS and other partners to help encourage every family to put their children in pre-school education. That’s the first priority.

26.          Next, we are starting a prototype project with some neighbourhood kindergartens, aimed especially at helping children who do not receive adequate support at home. We are working with 10 neighbourhood kindergartens on what we call Project SEAL (for Sustained Early Assistance for Learning). It is a multi-pronged effort, and a multi-agency approach that pulls together expertise from several bodies. An important part of this prototype project is to identify children with learning difficulties early in the kindergartens. For example, the Dyslexia Association of Singapore is developing a simple screening tool to help teachers identify children who need special help in language. MOE will then work with the kindergartens to customise a programme to support these children. The National Library Board will loan story books to supplement the kindergartens’ reading resources and assist them to set up reading enrichment programmes for the children.

Primary: Enhanced Learning Support Programme

27.          The next step is when the children enter primary school. We are enhancing the Learning Support Programme. As Mr Ong Ah Heng has pointed out, the LSP is a critical piece in our strategy to help students who are not school-ready when they enter primary school.

28.          The Learning Support Programme has helped many students. It is a specialised programme focusing on basic oral language and reading skills. Each year, 12 to 14% of our Primary 1 pupils with weak basic language and literacy skills are identified for support in the LSP. On average, after one year of intervention, about one-third of pupils supported by the LSP would graduate from the programme and rejoin the regular classes2

29.          We are now piloting an enhanced LSP for English in 34 primary schools this year. It will further differentiate the students, because some of them need much more basic support than others. There is a group of students each year with very weak language skills, who need more targeted attention. We will put them through a more intensive reading support programme in the first instance. Over the long term, if we can reach out to such students when they are in kindergartens, we can hopefully reduce the numbers in this group when they enter our primary schools.

30.          Another feature of the enhanced Learning Support Programme is the smaller group size. Pupils are supported in groups of no more than 5 pupils as compared to the 10 currently. MOE will monitor and evaluate the effectiveness of the pilot at the end of this year, before fine-tuning and implementing it in all schools from 2007.

31.          The enhancement to the LSP will also be supported by changes in English language classes for all students in the early primary years. This will help all students, but is particularly impactful for students from lower income families - whose main language deficit is in English, which is usually not spoken at home.

32.          We have started a pilot (SEED-EL) in 30 schools this year to provide students with an enhanced curriculum for learning grammar and phonics, to help them learn English with confidence. It involves a careful and gradual building up of students' language skills. The new curriculum will also aim at developing a love for reading at an early age, by providing more early exposure to books, and engage young children in conversation about what is read.

33.          Second, we are also rolling out Learning Support for Maths. We want children with a weak start in numbers to be able to catch up and follow the class. This is now being implemented in 50 schools at Primary 1, and will be in all our primary schools from 2007. All the schools will be provided with additional teachers to provide support to Primary 1 pupils with a late start in numeracy skills.

34.          We are also investing more to help students with special learning difficulties like dyslexia and ASD (autism spectrum disorder) in our schools. By 2010, we will have 140 trained Special Needs Officers (SNOs) in our primary schools. We already have 28 of them in our primary schools currently. We are also aiming to have 96 SNOs in our secondary school for students with various learning difficulties but can benefit from the mainstream curriculum. These are provisions that we are making in mainstream schools. They complement what we are doing to improve quality and facilities in our special schools, which cater to children with more significant learning difficulties.

Secondary: Enhanced Counselling

35.          Next, secondary schools. We are strengthening counselling resources in all our schools, but with priority being given to secondary schools. That’s when the challenge of growing up is greatest. MOE is on track to providing all secondary schools with one full-time school counsellor by this year. All primary schools and JCs/CI will receive a full-time counsellor by 2008.

36.          Many of the counsellors we are recruiting are teachers or former teachers, or ex-Principals. They understand students, and have a heart for them. The counsellors go through a rigorous 6-month diploma course at NIE.

Secondary: Proactive Measures

37.          But the schools are not just reacting to problems, or dealing with problems as and when they arise. They are taking a proactive approach, well before the counsellors become necessary. It is a holistic approach - getting students to participate in CCAs, camps and other school activities, so that they develop bonds among each other and develop confidence in themselves. They are helping students find the best in themselves, whether in their studies or in their CCAs or other activities. This proactive approach to develop bonds among students and a sense of attachment to the school is being enhanced in our schools.

Secondary: Revised N(T) Curriculum

38.          Another initiative is in the Normal (Technical) course. We are implementing a revised Normal (Technical) curriculum with a more practical orientation, to better engage students in their learning. The curriculum content is being made more meaningful to students by relating what they learn to daily life. There will be greater emphasis on group work and presentations, creativity, hands-on activities and use of IT. And new ways of assessing students, such as evaluating their coursework, either individually or in groups, will be used instead of the traditional pen-and-paper approaches. We will start rolling out the revised N(T) curriculum from 2007.

39.           As part of the revised approach to N(T), we also introduced elective modules last year to create opportunities to broaden the learning experience of N(T) students. The students enjoy the EMs because of their more practical and hands-on nature. But they also develop a deeper understanding of concepts that they are learning. One of our Principals gave me an example of students who attended an elective module on baking at the Baking Industry Training Centre. They were learning to make Swiss rolls. But a 4-hour session on Swiss rolls also made mathematics come alive, as the students have to calculate the correct proportions of water, flour, sugar and other ingredients in order to bake a delicious Swiss roll. The students were so engaged that they asked if the session could be longer. And the session also gave ideas to the school teacher who was there, on how to conduct her regular classes for the N(T) students back in school.

40.          The EMs are catching on in our schools; more than 40% of schools which offer the N(T) course are now offering at least one EM to their students, in whole range of areas from digital videography to basic mechatronics . They are making school more interesting, more relevant to life for the students.

Post-Secondary: Enhancement of ITE

41.          The next piece is what we are doing at ITE. We are making ITE a centre of excellence in technical education. All across Asia and indeed internationally, ITE’s reputation is now up there – it is well known.

42.          ITE’s key improvements are in two areas: new courses to keep pace with interests of students and the needs of industry, and closer collaboration with industry to ensure that ITE students find fruitful employment after graduation.

43.           The changes are making an impact. ITE has been attracting more school leavers, year after year, with enrolment of full-time students reaching a record high of 23,000 in 2005. And as I shared earlier, more and more of our N(T) students are choosing to go to ITE.

44.          ITE’s attrition rates have also been decreasing. In 2005, the proportion of students who left the ITE without a qualification was about 12% of ITE’s full-time enrolment, compared to 17% just five years ago.

45.          Mr Zainudin Nordin asked about the relevance of ITE’s training to industry. This is something that is foremost in ITE’s mind. The market is the best test and best testimony. According to the ITE graduate employment survey in June 2005, 89% of ITE graduates found jobs within five months of job search. After 10 years in the job market, ITE graduates doubled their starting salaries3.

46.          More ITE graduates are moving up the education ladder. Within 10 years from graduation, 12% had acquired degree qualifications and a further 24% had diploma qualifications.

Comprehensive Approach

47.          So you can see, we are taking a comprehensive approach in education to address students at risk of dropping out at various stages. We are adopting new approaches to help students at risk, from the early years up. We will learn from the experience of these experiments, and improve the programmes as we roll them out.

48.          I have to repeat that there are no short cuts to reducing drop-out rates. The problems are complex and often rooted in the home.

49.           But we want to try harder and do better, and we will. We will help ensure that students are better prepared for school, help them get a good start in the early primary years, remain engaged through secondary school, and after leaving school go on to get a first class education at ITE that prepares them for employment and further learning. And we will provide in NorthLight School a new, holistic approach to engaging students who need a more active, hands-on and practice-oriented approach to learning.

CONCLUSION

50.          Mr Chairman Sir, I would like to thank Members again for their interest and suggestions on this important topic.
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[1] The VTCs take in mostly students who have failed the PSLE three times as well as some students who have prematurely dropped out of secondary school. These institutions currently offer a two-year vocational training programme for about 350 students each. 
[2] At the end of 1 year of intervention, the rate of discharge is about one-third.  The figure increases to around 44% at the end of 2 years of intervention.
[3] In terms of related job placements, about 80% of ITE’s graduates are working in jobs related to their training 5 years after graduation. It shows the relevancy and currency of the skills that ITE imparts.