Last Thursday, the Economist Intelligence Unit (EIU) released a report titled “Starting Well: Benchmarking Early Education Around The World”. The study was commissioned by Singapore’s Lien Foundation, and was an assessment of international childhood education, which took into account three main determinants: availability, affordability and quality. While Nordic countries such as Finland and Norway scored high on the Starting Well Index, Singapore lagged woefully behind, placing 29th out of 45 countries studied across the globe.
Was I the only one who found the policy response by our administration rather, underwhelming? I might have missed other responses from our ministers, but only TODAY ran a report on Saturday which cited Deputy Prime Minister Tharman Shanmugaratnam as contending that “[m]ore can be done to lift the quality of pre-school education inSingaporeand give everyone an equal chance early in life”.There could be two possibilities for such a nuanced reaction: first, our ministers do not regard the recent study very highly, given that recent initiatives have been introduced to boost preschool standards in Singapore (here); the second interpretation, which I reckon is more plausible, is the genuine recognition that the room for change and enhancement is tremendous. It has been comprehensively posited by the EIU that preschool education is extremely significant for individuals, for it establishes a sound foundation for children to do well in the future. Of course, these two perceptions are not mutually exclusive, but they both acknowledge the need for further improvements in this domain.
Singapore Plays Catch-Up
Beyond the generic quantitative information (Singaporewas 30th on quality, 21st on affordability, and 25th on availability), there were some poignant observations made by the EIU that should be taken into consideration (emphasis mine).
– Many high-income countries rank poorly, despite wealth being a major factor in a country’s ability to deliver preschool services … This is not to suggest that quality preschool programmes are lacking in these countries. But such schemes are not available or affordable to all strands of society, while minimum quality standards vary widely. As economies increasingly compete on the quality of their human capital, policymakers need to ensure that all children get the best possible preparation for primary school.
– Despite having a lower per capita GDP, Greece outperforms both Australia and Singapore, thanks in part to significant efforts over the past decade to bolster educational requirements for preschool teachers … [In Singapore] new teachers need at least five O-level credits as well as a diploma in preschool education … By contrast, at the top of the rankings, Finland requires a minimum of a bachelor’s degree for preschool teachers; many attain a master’s degree, which is the norm for primary school and above.
A good preschool education framework could potentially alleviate the problem of income inequality in Singapore (here); unfortunately, it seems as if the differences are – instead – accentuated. Based on the findings, I think the solutions lie in raising the standards of education institutions (specifically teachers, syllabuses and pedagogies), and involving parents at homes. The latter might appear ironic, since preschool education was popularly conceived to encourage more parents to continue with their careers or professions, but good household education can complement methodologies adopted in institutions.
We have the resources and capacities to do so in the short-term (in the long run, structural reforms need to be implemented accordingly). For example:
Given the accessibility of the Internet as well as the proliferation of neighbourhood or community organisations, channels can be created for the sharing of materials for home-based teaching-learning. This can include book reading lists for different ages and different interests, publicity for free seminars and programmes to accommodate working parents, sharing of personal parenting tips et cetera. Interest groups may be proactively formed, and indirectly create social circles between parents and families (here).
We look forward to the announcements by the Ministry of Education (MOE), for it is imperative for us to the raise the prominence and effectiveness of our preschool education. This rude awakening from the study might not necessarily be wholly negative; but for the first time in awhile – in terms of preschool education –Singaporeplays catch-up.