Not impressed by the local syllabus

26 Sept 2018, BBC Brasil published an article on the Singapore education system by Claudia Jardim. The article included the viewpoint of homeschool mum, Dawn Fung. 

Here is the full transcript between Claudia and Dawn. Some parts have been edited for clarity.

Claudia : Can you introduce yourself (age, career, etc) and your family? 

Dawn : My name is Dawn Fung. I’m 38. I have three children – two girls and a boy. Their ages are 10,8, and 6 months. I homeschool my two older girls. My husband is the breadwinner. I’m a stay-at-home mum. 

As a homeschool mum, I am active in contributing to the local homeschooling community. I founded the Homeschool Singapore community that runs the website, annual Homeschool Convention and a dynamic education program called Little U for families to learn together.

Claudia : How would you describe the mainstream education in Singapore? How does Singapore top the PISA ranking? When you think of school and learning, what is your main concern? Is it possible to have a high level of education without pressure?

Dawn : Singapore legislated Compulsory Education (CE) in 2000. Prior to the legislation, previous education ministers raised the issue of more work required with a CE unit – having to chase parents who didn’t send the kids to school, which was already not a big number in Singapore.

I grew up in the education system prior to the CE law. School was not as stressful. What I studied in Primary One then (7 years old, 32 years ago) is the equivalent of what I see 4-year-olds having to learn now, especially in reading and writing. The change is horrific. Because children’s developmental milestones do not change, and our education goals do, life is very difficult for a child whose parents are terrified of failing the system, or losing out on the competition to get good grades. We call this kind of attitude ‘kiasu’ in Singapore. Kiasu-ism permeates every area of life. People are always fighting for discounts, bargains, queues although they don’t need it, for the fear of losing out.

The formal education in Singapore has become an intense rat race for parents. Parents want their kids to emerge as the best in a tough competition for elite schools. But this comes at a high cost – children are trained for the high stakes Primary School Leaving Examinations (PSLE) at 12 years old. The race starts when children are as young as two years old. What is lurking behind the success stories is a huge tuition industry worth $1b a year. 

There are more cons than pros in this kind of setting. Children are left behind in their holistic development. Boys who require more outdoor, gross motor play are forced to do seatwork to catch up with girls, although studies have shown that girls mature faster in the primary years. 

Another big con is the fear of alternative pathways. CE in everyone’s minds is synonymous with compulsory schooling. But compulsory education is not compulsory schooling. Schools aren’t the best places for every child. Many children need the individual care and attention that alternative educational choices like homeschooling provides. The Ministry of Education (MOE)’s syllabus leads towards a prescribed, dense, informative examination for English, Math, Science and a Mother tongue (Chinese, Malay, Tamil etc). Not all children do well in these four academic subjects. What if your child is gifted in sports, craft, coding, and other subjects that aren’t the main four? How about children with learning disabilities? With the compulsory education law for Special Educational Needs (SEN) children that kicks in 2019, the need for alternative education is even more pressing. 

Are there pros in our Singapore education system? Our literacy rate, our regulation that all kids go to school is not a bad one. The drive for common knowledge for higher learning, social cohesion and to build national identity are important. But the ways to do vary, and not all children fit that one size. 

Claudia : What is Singapore´s secret to high standards in education and international tests as PISA? 

Dawn : As mentioned earlier, the tuition industry is the engine behind the scores of Singaporean education. If you take tuition away, many students would not do well in the exams at all. This is interesting because it shows that the exams are too difficult for our nation’s children. If it is too difficult, why not make it easier? Why shouldn’t our children be given appropriate testing for their ages? 

PISA is not a true indicator of a nation’s cognitive ability and mental health. A country such as ours with a high PISA ranking does not mean happier children, in fact, children as young as 10 call the suicide hotline. Stress is a killer in Singapore – not just for children, but adults as they grow out of the educational system into the working world, their bodies worn out by long hours of classroom work to office work. The beauty of family life for many Singaporeans is still a dream as working mums and dads prioritise precious waking hours to children’s studying. 

Exams, one can argue, is also an outmoded assessment. It works for certain jobs like the civil service where you need to be able to thrive in institutional situation. But exams aren’t good assessment tools for risk-takers, entrepreneurs, artists and the likes. Surely as a first world country, we should look towards different sorts of educational assessments for different kinds of students? Wouldn’t that be a world class system for everyone to be part of?

Claudia : You were a former teacher in a private school. Did it influence the way you look at the Singapore education?

Dawn : I used to teach English GCE ‘O’ Levels to private candidates at a local private school, City College. The ‘O’s is usually the next step after PSLE, and is taken around 16 years old or older. (Now schooling students can choose between the Os, or straight through to IB diploma, A levels or equivalent in some schools.)

The strange thing about the GCE ‘O’ Levels is that O levels is considered outdated. The UK’s students now take GCSEs. In a recent BBC article, the difficulty of the new papers are set so that UK students would be as good as ‘East Asian’ students. Singapore wants a world class education system. The system for the Os is prescribed but outdated. Yet the new system wants to be as intense as us. How should I make sense of this? I wish national exams would be about developing the whole child. Assessment is a useful tool, but as a compulsory tool, it loses its purpose as a learning marker. 

What I saw in our Singapore education system was an unhealthy emphasis on academics for higher learning. This directly caused a lack of holistic family life because parents channeled their resources – especially precious family time – for academic training outside of school. Children were stressed because the workload was inappropriate to their learning abilities. All the more, children were unable to learn well in classrooms because they associated academics with stressful learning. It still is a vicious cycle.

Human beings do not stop learning. If they don’t like learning something, they replace it something else. My students learnt very well, and they found joy in learning subjects outside of prescribed ones. They were keen coders, entrepreneurs, cooks, photographers, bloggers… skills that demanded higher thinking order. But the Os stood in their way. The education system for O levels has been so unkind to locals; one major issue is that the we limit the subjects offered to Singapore students, so that we can ‘stream’ kids into science or arts majors. In the UK, there are far more options, and students can choose whatever they wish to take. Why do we take away learning choices from teenagers? Working as a teacher, and being with students whom society deems as ‘falling through the cracks’, made me question the system and whether I wanted my kids to be part of it.  

Claudia : Why do you homeschool your kids? Please describe your homeschool routine in detail. How do you ensure your kids are learning? Do you use a curriculum? How does the CE affect homeschoolers in Singapore? How do homeschooled kids fare in the PSLE? Do you know how many kids are being homeschooling in Singapore? Have the homeschool groups in Singapore increased?

Dawn : I homeschooled my kids for a few reasons. 

Homeschoolers influenced me. First, I met a wonderful homeschooling family when I was a student studying in the UK. The Bain family had seven children aged 3 to 18. I loved how the children interacted with the adults – they were mature, very kind and very different from schooling kids. As a young person, I told myself, “I want children like that when I grow up.” When I returned to Singapore, I met American friends who had homeschooled their children until adulthood. I knew then, that homeschooling was going to be alright – I have seen homeschooling kids from very young to adults. It was a reality. 

School convicted me. When I was teaching at school, my oldest child was very young, around 3. She often complained that I was on the laptop doing work when I should be spending time with her. She also didn’t like to be left in the childcare for the entire day. She wanted to be with me. I was convinced that I should not be giving the best waking hours of my life to other people’s children, no matter how noble the pursuit. My children were my responsibility. At the private school that I taught, children who grew up to be wayward teens often didn’t have a good relationship with their parents – their natural authorities. When the authority structure is not healthy in the family, children look to other sources for role models. Instead of parents, they find peers, gangs and whoever would invest time in their lives. 

I am not impressed with the MOE syllabus. Having been brought up in the system, taught kids using the syllabus of the system, and with my kids in childcare about to enter primary school, I felt disillusioned about the entire set up. I did not see kids who were happy learners.

The outcome of education, according to a Finnish head of department in this video, is to see his students happy. Happy customers go back to the same company to buy goods. In our education system, our customers – the students – are not happy. Some of them commit suicide because of exam stress – exams themselves do not stress but the expectations that come with them do. Our big stakeholders – teachers, parents – are not happy. How is it possible to sustain a business or any venture that keeps unhappy customers? Don’t people vote with their feet? I think it is wrong to be part of a system that makes us unhappy. It is cruel to put children in an education system that doesn’t commit to a joyful learning outcome. 

I think I can do a better job. Homeschooling is a wonderful open door to teach your own. The modern homeschool movement started from the 70s under John Holt and Raymond Moore in the USA. The approach that spoke to me most is unschooling by Holt. Unschooling simply meant ‘not school’, and Holt encouraged parents to teach their own children – because learning is natural to children, parents should be the best facilitators of this growth. They will spare nothing but the best for their own. It is true. For my kids, I will bring them to field trips to zoos instead of looking at animals at a worksheet. Schools will never give my children the kind of undivided attention that I as a parent would give. 

When I started unschooling, I read a lot of John Holt and his associate Pat Farenga’s works. Their newsletter, Growing Without Schooling, is an influential source although it was last published in 2001. It has stories from homeschooling parents, kids, educators – people who love the idea and practice alternative education that is ‘not school’. Unschooling is common sense learning because it is based on enjoying the people around you, and finding out how they are like. These people are your own children. Surely, there is nothing better than that?

Our homeschool routine follows our family’s life. If our family wants to travel, our homeschool is observing the world around us when we are in a different country. If our family enjoys movie nights, then we learn from movies. There is no one homeschool routine. One family’s is different from another’s. This is what makes homeschooling so fun. There are no unrealistic expectations of my kids!

I’m not academically inclined and we are not Math savvy. I love the arts, and so does my husband. Our home has a lot of songs, shows, books. Of course my kids would naturally enjoy the arts more. Math is difficult for them, as it had been for me. I know it’s not our family’s strength, so I don’t make a big deal of it if my girls don’t do well for their math exams. If there is an arts based exam, perhaps they might do better.

In the working world, you will find your niche. People don’t expect you to be an all rounder. We understand specialisation, that’s why we delegate tasks. It is productive. I wonder why children are expected to be all rounders when adults don’t expect these things from one another when they grow up.

The only curriculum my family uses is the Singapore’s Ministry of Education (MOE) syllabus. The reason is because we have to do the PSLE. As a Singaporean, homeschoolers have to get a permit to homeschool their children from 7-12 years old. That permit comes via the law from the government to homeschooling parents. The parents have to agree that their children will take the PSLE before they are allowed to homeschool their primary aged children in Singapore. Two years before the PSLE, the homeschooled children will take a Primary 4 exam at the MOE test centre. This is to prepare them early for PSLE – and gives homeschoolers a chance to know how well they fare. Homeschooled children also have to score above the lowest 33rd percentile of the nation.

Mainstream Singaporeans and foreigners who love the idea of Singapore as a first world education would see the MOE doing great work. Homeschoolers tend to view it differently because we chose to opt out of the system. PSLE is actually an emplacement exam – it sorts students who wish to go secondary schools. What if you don’t want to go to a local secondary school? Does the PSLE still matter? 

And how do homeschooled kids fare in the PSLE? The media reports the figures every year. What they don’t say clearly is what the benchmark is. It gives people the impression that homeschooled kids are not academically capable. MOE clearly does not like homeschooling. It puts up with it. But it could do better in terms of being more upfront with its terms in the media. After all, we are all citizens of the country.

If the PSLE is not a consideration for the homeschooling family because they do not need to go secondary school, then obviously, the family would not place much time to study hard for it. The PSLE, like PISA, is actually a subjective assessment – too many factors influence the exams. The final score is really a poor indication of a child’s learning ability.

To date, I don’t know how many kids are homeschooled. The number of homeschooled kids taking PSLE each year is about 40-50. But homeschoolers also include expatriates who do not need the CE exemption. A modest estimate would be a few hundred.

The visibility of homeschooling in Singapore has risen, thanks to the internet. Social media has made possible connections on the ground for such a niche interest group. On our website, we try to update the number of homeschooling groups where possible.