Chairman of the NAFA Board, Ms Low Sin Leng
They were known by different names: system engineers, the “daring dozen” or the “Goh” team. Their mission in 1978 was to fix a broken education system, where students were dropping out of school with low levels of literacy and having trouble even staying in secondary school. After studying the problems in Singapore’s schools, the study team of 12 - mostly in their late 20s and 30s – led by then Deputy Prime Minister and Defence Minister Goh Keng Swee, concluded that streaming was the solution. Despite a heated debate over four days in Parliament in March 1979, the team’s recommendations were accepted and swiftly adopted in the same year. The new education system – detailed in the landmark 1979 report that is now part of the National Archives - that the group of 12 thinkers designed has been central to Singapore’s education over the years. The Goh Keng Swee report, as it was known, had recommended that students learn at their own pace, and a child’s academic ability be assessed at Primary 3. But 40 years later, the streaming system that the Goh team, many of whom were trained engineers, had put in place is coming to an end, with the Education Ministry’s announcement on March 5 that secondary schools will no longer have the Normal and Express tracks in 2024.
Professor Lim Siong Guan, 72, who was part of the Goh team, tells Insight that the New Education report “had the same motivation as education has always had in Singapore, which is to help each child be the best he or she can be according to their talents and abilities”. Ms Low Sin Leng, 67, who was also part of Dr Goh’s team, says: “We were focusing on what was wrong with our system and what we could do better. Attrition was one of the things that shocked us. “The principle is that not everyone has the same level of capability, and if you push all of them through the same system, the weaker pupils would not be able to keep up and the gap will become harder to close over time. “The education system at that time did not give such pupils an opportunity to learn something else, and hence they dropped out. We felt this was unacceptable and could not go on.”
Ms Low, who was 27 and had just given birth to her first son in June 1978, the same year she was asked to be part of Dr Goh’s team, says the group’s main task was to gather feedback from educators on the ground, study the problems and come up with recommendations. A President’s Scholar and Colombo Plan Scholar, Ms Low had been working as an engineer for a few years at the then Radio and Television Singapore, the predecessor of Mediacorp, before she was selected to join the team. They interviewed and consulted more than 260 education officials, principals and teachers, and referred to about 120 studies and reports from the Education Ministry (MOE) for their work. They also conducted 58 studies on their own where data was not available. Ms Low, who is now chairman of the board of Nanyang Academy of Fine Arts, recalls: “The work was very intense. We were stationed at Mindef’s headquarters at Dempsey because Dr Goh was then the Defence Minister. There were nights we worked through 2am to 3am.” In February 1979, their report was submitted to PM Lee, and in March, the paper was presented in Parliament during MOE’s budget debate.
Low says: “Society has changed. We are in a different league altogether, in terms of the languages that children speak, their parents’ education level and how enlightened they are.” The attrition rate has fallen to less than 1 per cent today, down from a third of every cohort four decades ago. Still, what has not changed is that children must be taught according to their abilities, she adds, and MOE has been gradually fine-tuning the system over the years. “Overall, I still think Singapore’s education system has been a successful one. It has earned praises from many other countries,” she says. “No system is perfect. Streaming was necessary in the past, but removing the stigma associated with it is a good thing.”
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Source: The Straits Times © Singapore Press Holdings Limited. Reproduced with permission.