Posted by: Principal/Editor | April 16, 2012

Education Policies and System Perspective

As a teacher who spent the last two years as a staff officer in MOE HQ, I gained two different and useful perspectives on educational policy-making and implementation.  As an MOE HQ officer, I had a big picture, top-down view of how education policies are formulated and implemented.  On the other hand, as a teacher, I experienced how policies are viewed and experienced in practice on the ground, i.e. the school.

Overall, as I see it, education policies, as formulated at the central government level, are intended to address a fundamental question that every country or society faces.  That is, how the country/ society can equip its people with the right knowledge and skills to meet the key objectives of national survival and prosperity.  Thus, every education system is designed to meet this need and how well they do so is the subject of much consternation and debate among policy-makers and academics alike.  However, there is no single answer and it is not immutable, but instead changes with the times and the local context. In Singapore’s context, this can be seen in the transition from an efficiency-driven model in the early ‘80s, intended to produce highly efficient workers for what was still a manufacturing-based economy, to an ability-driven model spearheaded by initiatives such as TSLN and TLLM, aimed at creating an intellectually vibrant and creative workforce for the new knowledge-based economy.

It is also interesting to note the extent to which a society’s cultural values and history shape its education system.  One saying comes to mind – “every country gets the education system it deserves”.  For instance, it could be said that the highly competitive nature of East Asia’s education systems – Singapore, China, South Korea etc. – stem from their cultural pre-disposition to see education in competitive terms, somewhat akin to a race to the top.  This was accentuated by the long history/ tradition of the imperial examinations in China.  On the other hand, the western European systems view education in rather different terms, say like a voyage of learning and discovery, which are in turn shaped by their cultural history of a self-organised community of intellectuals and interested amateurs that sprung up during the Renaissance and Enlightenment periods.

By most international benchmarks, Singapore’s education system appears to have done well in meeting the country’s needs.  However, as resources are limited, any change would involve trade-offs, political, economic, social and structural.  As Singaporeans get more articulate and vocal in making their views known, talk of trade-offs can become increasingly unpalatable politically. Furthermore, over time inertia tends to set in, as stakeholders with vested interests in the status quo put up various barriers or resistance against new policies.  This is evinced by policy initiatives that had failed to gain significant traction on the ground, such as “holistic education” and TLLM.  Lastly, as parents become more well-educated, aspirations for their children correspondingly rise, leading to the inevitable pressure on the government to provide more resources to satisfy these aspirations.  This can be seen from the recent and on-going debate on university places.

These developments will make it more difficult for the MOE and the government as a whole to forge consensus, or at least some form of compromise, and determine the national objectives going forward and the road map to get there. However, we should not assume that the government always knows what is best for the country or the people.  Other stakeholders may have and do provide useful alternative perspectives. Effective policy-making and implementation can only be achieved by through strong two-way communication with stakeholders.  In school however, this does not always happen, as teachers may sometimes treat new policies as another layer of bureaucratic control or even interference, even if the actual intent of the policies is good and justified.  For example, when I was in MOE HQ, we tried to advise some of the more popular primary schools to control and reduce the number of parent volunteers that they took in, so as to minimise the anxiety and frustration faced by these parents if their child were eventually unsuccessful in gaining admission to the school.  However, some schools appeared rather resentful or even hostile and sent unfriendly replies to my colleague’s email.

Thus, in my opinion, some of the more specific challenges and areas for improvement for Singapore’s education system and policies are i) to forge a new framework for effective stakeholder consultation or even involvement in the policy-making process, ii) to take in the various, and often conflicting perspectives and arrive at a consensus or compromise that is acceptable to all or most parties, and iii) the communication of new policies to these stakeholders, i.e. school, parents and students, to obtain their support or at least acquiescence.

The implications, and challenges, of all these developments for school leaders and middle management, are that we have to understand how MOE’s policies fit in with the overall national objectives and imperatives, and explain this lucidly and convincingly to our teachers, parents and students whenever they are affected.  This is necessary so that we can act as effective conduits for policies to be brought to actual fruitful realisation in schools and our students.  Even at the individual school level, we should strive to forge a consensus before moving forward with new initiatives.

But this communication should not only go one-way.  We teachers are also the feelers on the ground for the policy-makers.  Where policies may go wrong, or the stakeholders may have their views or concerns, we should not hesitate to provide honest and constructive feedback through the proper channels, so that the policy can be adjusted to work better.

Posted by JJ


  1. Here is an example of how HQ policy appear confusing to teachers. Under the current policy for emplacement from GEO 2 (non-graduate) to GEO 1 (graduate), a teacher must have a minimum of Grade C for his work performance for the current year of assessment as well as the past two years. In another word, an officer who has received a D grade would have to attain C grade for the next three consecutive years in order to be considered for emplacement. On top of not being able to qualify for emplacement, his promotion would be suspended and he also forfeits his bonus. While it is understandable to suspend his promotion and not reward him with bonus, it is unfathomable not to emplace him if he has attained a degree.

    Promotion and bonus are awarded according to work performance whereas emplacement is based on qualification. At the point of recruitment, an officer is immediately emplaced according to his qualification without consideration of his work performance since there is none to speak of. How is it then that in the course of his service, emplacement is dependent on work performance on top of his new qualification? There seems to be a disparity on how emplacement is being considered at the beginning of an officer’s career and during the course of his service. For an organization that places integrity above all else, consistency in the way emplacement is managed seems to be amiss. If the ministry did not draw the connection between work performance and qualification in view of emplacement in the beginning, then it should not have along the way. In fact, emplacing an officer with a D grade is not inconsistent to the ministry practice of human resource management.
    Situation A; a graduate officer is emplaced as GEO 1 at the point of recruitment. A while later, his performance dips and he is graded D. He loses his promotion as well as bonus but he continues to receive his graduate pay.
    If Situation A is allowed to exist then how is it not consistent for a D grade GEO 2 officer to be emplaced? He will still lose his promotion and bonus and he enjoys graduate pay because of his qualification which is similar to Situation A.

    Some might think that it seems justifiable not to pay someone more if he is not performing up to expectation. My contention is that it is a matter of being fair to the officer. The ministry does not just pay more for good work performance but also qualification. We may want to remember that there is no distinction in the job scope and expectations of both GEO 1 and GEO 2 officers.

    What are the avenues to critically look at this policy?

  2. Dear Simon,

    to clarify: in the scenario you described, do you mean the teacher has, for e.g., just completed his part-time degree and thus has moved from being a diploma-holder to a degree-holder?

    If so, then I think – to really strip the argument / comparison to its bare bones, yes, the system does seem unfair to the teacher.

    Perhaps – if the teacher is a ‘deserving’ teacher, the principal’s division of the PB quantum could help to ameliorate matters.

    Just to give you a picture of my school: those teachers pursuing part-time Bachelors or Masters degrees are usually very driven and dedicated teachers. Thankfully, they do not allow the demands of their degree to adversely affect their core business in school. In addition, the D graders of the past few years have ‘truly deserved’ their D.


  3. Dear Jeffrey,

    Yes, I was refering to teachers who have completed their part time degree. My contention is not about seeking justice but rather a policy with clarity and fairness. My question is “Is emplacement the same as promotion?” If each of the policies is based on different criteria, then the policy about no emplacement for D grader should not stand. But let us not stray from discussing about the original post. In response to JJ post, I would just add that even between HQ and teachers, there ought to be a platform for consultation.

  4. JJ, you mentioned- “However, we should not assume that the government always knows what is best for the country or the people. Other stakeholders may have and do provide useful alternative perspectives.” How true.

    And reading the post from Simon and Jeffrey, I also have questions about KPs’ role vis-a-vis the STs.

    If we were to put things into neat categories and label them, it would seem as if the HODs are nothing more than managers, and the Senior Teachers are the real curriculum leaders. This thinking has been on the ground for a while, and if it went unchecked, would negatively affect the credibility of HODs.

    It does not help that in our performance appraisal, those on the leadership track are not adequately measured by how much curriculum leadership we demonstrate. Even though there is the core competency of ‘Visionary Leadership’, it is vague what ‘visionary’ means. It makes no reference at all to excellence in curriculum leadership.

    Under the next competency of ‘Leading and Inspiring’, the descriptors for leaders are ‘Impact and Influence’, ‘Leading the team’ and ‘Having organizational awareness’. The essence of this competency distils into having the drive and ability to produce positive outcomes by persuading, convincing and influencing others.

    Contrast this with the core competency of a Senior Teacher. The core competency is ‘Nurturing the whole child’. Under the next competency of ‘Cultivating knowledge’, the descriptors are ‘Subject mastery’, ‘Analytical thinking’, ‘Initiative’ and ‘Teaching creatively’. The essence is about knowledge of curriculum and pedagogy. For a Senior Teacher, she is also expected to mentor and guide the younger teachers and pass on subject domain knowledge.

    It is no wonder then that at the ground level, people perceive Senior Teachers to be the real masters of our craft and the HODs as merely administrators who make use of others to do their job.

    Because people management skills are very much emphasized over subject matter knowledge in the leadership track, certain ones thrive in this category. The lack of critical thinking over curriculum and pedagogy is masked by their effort at being a good resource provider and their ability to ‘work the crowd’. It is obvious that the structure of the EPMS has helped to engender this culture. The predominant thinking is- as long as you can get a critical mass of people to turn up and pull off a high-signature event for the school, you have arrived.

    I don’t know if you feel the same way. There are many capable people who do not want to take up leadership. I do not know if the MOE sees the fundamental flaw in the way the roles have been crafted.

    For me at least, honestly speaking, my aspiration is really to be a good Senior Teacher. I can say that for many of us who are teachers at heart, many of us have been thrust into leadership positions and we struggle with such thoughts. MLS is coming to an end. I wonder if an answer would emerge.

  5. Hi JJ,

    Thank you for your insightful article. Indeed, your work at schools and HQ has allowed you a view of both top-down and bottom up perspectives.

    I agree that the education system of different countries will evolve according to how its stakeholders mould it. As you have accurately pointed out, a stakeholder engagement framework must be formed.

    What Singapore should aim for is the amplification of the voices of those involved in the upbringing of the next generation. By this, I am referring to entities such as:
    – MOE (HQ)- policymakers
    – MOE (schools)- practitioners
    – NIE – researchers
    – Ministry of Community Youth and Sport
    – Media Development Authority
    – Family Research Network
    – EDB

    I take inspiration from what NUS-SPP is currently doing

    I had in mind what NUS-SPP is doing

    By engaging multiple stakeholders from various backgrounds through closed door meetings, they seek to provide a voice to a wider range of perspectives.

    I think such information is useful to the Ministry and there is definitely potential for impacting the system, since Education is a society-wide issue.

    What MOE is currently doing is basically seeking feedback within the ministry, through FGDs with staff and MyForum conversations. However, I think a platform independent to MOE can complement its efforts. Anyway, the discourse is already ongoing, for example, on Straits Times forum and the talkshow ‘Singapore Talking’ on how education should evolve.

    If decision makers hear from outside the walls of MOE, I believe that the discourse will lead to better outcomes for the system and the future generation of Singaporeans.

  6. A very insightful perspective, JJ!
    My take on your last two paragraphs…

    What’s lacking or not-so lacking in schools is the part on explaining to teachers and our stakeholders (students and parents) whenever there are new developments or initiatives that is to be introduced. While some schools excel in this area of communication, there are different schools of thoughts amongst school leaders who can be fixated in their beliefs, on what needs to be done. Sometimes, telling too much would also open up a pandora’s box of other issues that we sometimes may not be able to handle. So how much can we do to ‘kiss and tell’ what we are doing to our various stakeholders? That usually would be left on the judgment of the School Leaders, themselves. And as a result of holding back certain issues, we, the Curriculum Leaders and teachers, who are at the forefront, feel the frustration and perceive it as yet another form of bureaucracy that we don’t see much value in investing our time and effort, especially when there are already tons of things to handle prior to these new initiatives.

    I agree with you that communication should not go one way for things to work. But reality is that when we ask teachers on their feedback based on any reform policies that are introduced in schools, they provide generally ‘safe’ answers. This does not just restrict to evaluation of programmes in schools, but also at platforms whereby MOE personnels are around at course evaluation or when they want to gather feedback on new policies.

    I think our society in a way, still protects the identity of the voice. Just take a look at feedback forms dished out by schools or even any other big organizations. When it comes to filling up your name, the word ‘OPTIONAL’ is always bracketed and the tendency for the majority is to leave their names out. In a way, it’s already promoting ‘protection’ on who says what. And yet sometimes, we need to know who says what in order to address these concerns of the so-called target group. If left untouched and unexplored, that’s when conflict of ideas comes into play.

    I do applaud MOE’s move in getting teachers’ feedback, through Forum Pages and interactions with a wide spectrum of personnels who shape these policies. But then again, what percentage of educators actually login and air their views openly, with no holds barred? With some speculating whether they will be marked down for saying things that they shouldn’t say, even though it may be laced with positive strokes. Questions like, even if you use a pseudonym, you still have to login with your personal details. These are the real concerns that educators have that make them think twice on whether to air their views and how to put it positively. Well, for a start, it is a skill to put negative thoughts positively and in a non-judgmental way, but not many has the capacity to do so or is willing to invest the time to do it.

    But let’s face it. Until it comes to a point whereby we, as a society speak without being judged then I guess things will change. People are generally concerned about how their performance are being evaluated, not just through their actions, but also to what they say. So is it wrong for them to hold back their tongue, when afterall it is their rice bowl that they have to defend? So in the end what happens? Their honest take are left at coffee-table talk and it ends there.

    While at the other end of the spectrum, when educators are too open in their thoughts, we on the other side of the platform may perceive that they are against those new initiatives though we are consciously or subconsciously aware that there are always two sides of the coins and multiple perspectives to any issues that we face. Not giving ourselves room to think through is one of our weaknesses and jumping to conclusions would thus be the natural reaction of our human instincts. Therefore, we need to reflect on our actions when faced with such backlash and start to exercise STOP, LOOK and THINK as to what makes the other party ticks in that manner. The problem is that we don’t take the time and effort to analyze rationally in this fast-paced society and sometimes we forget that we could be the problem, ourselves.

  7. Reading JJ’s posting has triggered the ‘egg and chick’ question? Do the players shape the system and formulate the policies or do the system and policies shape the players? Perhaps, it is indeed a vicious cycle which inadvertently results in trade-offs or compromises. If the key players in the system have a set of pre-determined ideas of how they want things to be done, inviting other stakeholders may not necessarily result in a fruitful outcome. We can have as many FGDs, MyForum conversations or creating various platforms for discourse but at the end of the day, the key players would still be the ones discerning what and whom they want to listen to based on their pre-conceived ideas on how the system should be. But I do agree with Jachin that seeking feedback from outside the walls of MOE would be a good start to reflect on the existing system.

    Hui Lee’s comments about the expectations and roles of teacher-leader as compared with that of senior teachers have made me think about the need for greater clarity between the two which should be communicated explicitly to teachers. Reflecting on a recent incident that happened in school, I began to wonder if teachers perceive my role as an HOD as functional or operational one rather than professional. Hui Lee’s comments have more than confirmed my thoughts and that’s really sad…

  8. Simon’s posting on promotion and bonus awarded according to work performance whereas emplacement based on qualification has brought up memories of a past debate amongst teachers in my school on CCA awards being withheld from students with less than satisfactory conduct grade. Some teachers argue that any student who has made an outstanding contribution in their CCA should be eligible for the award, as the name of the award suggests, regardless of conduct or academic achievements. These students may have a different persona in class and out of class, so they should not be unfairly struck off the list of CCA awardees because of poor conduct. Others counter argue that deserving students should not have notable ‘blemishes’ in their conduct and behaviour. This group believes that at the end of the day, public perception plays a critical role in deciding the eligibility criteria, that the value of the award is upheld, the award must stand up to scrutiny and award winners cannot be individuals with bad names.

    Coming back to the emplacement unfairness, there are two sides to the coin as with the debate on CCA awards. MOE has to make a decision on where to draw the line i.e. if they should look at the performance and emplacement separately, or let performance be an influencing factor in emplacement. For new officers with no track record of achievements, qualifications alone is the only way to decide their emplacement. For serving officers, MOE is careful in making their choice because emplacement comes with a different pay scale and a subtle affirmation of past and present efforts, and an expectation of future contributions. From their dollars and cents point of view, why pay more for a D grader who has not met expectations given the current job scope and may not meet expectations in future? Why invite flack from the majority with grading of C and above who will feel indignant on rewarding undeserving officers?

  9. Hi Yi Cheen,

    “.. who will feel indignant on rewarding undeserving officers?”

    Emplacement is not a form of reward. Emplacement should be viewed as an entitlement. In our last MLS025 lesson, Dr Vicente shared from the CORE report that the most impactful character on a teacher’s paedagogy practices is his/her efficacy not her qualification. The EPMS is consistent in this aspect as it does not differentiate the job expectations of gard and non-grad. Why is it then that emplacement in mid-career has to depend on performance as well? I could be blind to other considerations but as for now I feel that the policy on mid-career emplacement is inconsistent.

  10. Thanks all for your comments. I’m glad that my post has triggered some thoughts and discussion among us.

    I’m afraid I won’t be able to respond on all the various strands here, but with regards to feedback and stakeholder communication, I think that sometimes the most useful feedback are the ones that are unsolicited. Take the kiasuparents forum for example. Plenty of good ideas and opinions there, if MOE would only take the time to look through. So I don’t think MOE really needs to go all out or even do more to get useful opinions and inputs from stakeholders. Instead, the government needs to provide citizens and civil society with more space physically, and through traditional and new media to express their ideas and thoughts. Then all it has to do is to provide a listening ear and sincerity to act on the useful bits.

    Hui Lee – you have brought up something which I have never thought about before, which is the conflation of roles between the HOD/SH and ST, and the dichotomy between management and curriculum leadership. And yes, it is usually the management aspect that irks most people. I’m not sure what each HOD/ SH has to keep him or her motivated, but for me it’s the striving for excellence. I like to get things done and done well.

    As for STs, I see their role more as the mavens of pedagogical knowledge and mastery. Classroom instruction, rather than curriculum leadership, should be the key strength and focus of STs. Curriculum is something that has to be negotiated between the HOD/ SH, STs and HQ.

  11. Hi JJ,
    The perspective by JJ provided a rather interesting read. However, there is just one aspect of it that I agree with- that education evolves with time. This can be easily explained by how 20 years ago, the teacher’s main role was teaching, imparting knowledge and guiding their charges in the path of education. This role has been through multiple facelifts in the last couple of years. The most impactful change has been felt in the last 5 years. The teacher not only performs tasks in the classroom but has become a partner with the school leaders in ensuring that educational policies that implemented by the governing body is carried out without any hindrance. While JJ’s opinion on areas for improvement resonates with my feelings, I have comment on his approaches as follows:

    i) to forge a new framework for effective stakeholder consultation or even involvement in the policy-making process,
    This is a great move, involving the stakeholders in decision making where possible and stakeholders will definitely have a lot to contribute. However, are we really ready to listen and involve their opinions and ideas as part of this decision making process? It is best embarked on with a lot of thought or it may not reap the best results.

    ii) to take in the various, and often conflicting perspectives and arrive at a consensus or compromise that is acceptable to all or most parties,
    The key words to note here is consensus and compromise. Conflicting perspectives reveals that ideas and opinions are going to be discussed at length before they are agreed upon. We can never satisfy all parties no matter how much we try to and this is true for all business or personal relationships. Compromise may not be a worthwhile solution. I think an alternative approach is to perhaps bring about all perspectives to identify those that will work, refine, modify or combine and implement what fits the objectives we are working towards. This perhaps will be better received by the majority.

    Policies should be implemented to ensure processes are structured to benefit the majority. The stakeholders who are at ground level should be able to discern the importance of a policy when it is introduced to them. If they need convincing, it simply tells me that they do not buy in to the objective of the policy. Shouldn’t we then re-examine the policy to identify why it is not convincing on its own?

  12. Maybe one of the problems “holistic education” and “TLLM.” have not gained traction at the early years was maybe due to the fungible nature of those terms. No one really knows what it means? For example, holistic education could be taken in the broadest sense possible, and when something means everything, it sometimes means nothing … Big goals and objectives look good politically and looks good on paper, but when you try to operationalize it and you realize its actually not very clear what it means, you quickly lose traction and you build cynicism, which makes things difficult later even when answers get clearer.

  13. Thank you for the exchanges above. I would like to add a point that, for me, sums up quite a bit of the discourse above. Literacies have become a kind of mantra in the world of education, and in the various usages, the concern has always been to enable the ‘iliterate’ to achieve the proficiency to make sense of what the subject pertains to. Perhaps it is time for us as a nation to talk about policy or reform literacy. By this, I do not limit ‘literacy’ to mere technical competency, but would suggest that there is a moral purpose as well. For a nation to grow and develop, its people should know more about the whys and hows of the way we have come to live and will live in the future. This is our moral right. It is also our moral obligation, as a ‘developed’ nation, to participate in the consideration of a range of options and the potential impact each act on various stakeholders.
    How can schools help? I’d make some broad suggestions which must be contextualized by individual schools:
    If we are to make initiatives like the National Conversations a regular feature and truly achieve TSLN, then I would suggest that part of what we do in school must include equipping our students to engage in a responsible manner to public conversations. They need to listen to how decisions are made rather than merely be relegated to being passive receivers or ‘guinea pigs’. Where possible, we should include their opinions and suggestions as we help them see issues at levels beyond their immediate personal reference. School policies are a great platform for this. We could also engage parents more meaningfully in those compulsory PTMs that have become such a daunting feature in our school calendars. Explaining to them changes and implications of policies is a different and equally important way of educating them and indirectly our students to better make sense of reforms. Inviting their considered response helps build constructive relationships within the community.
    We’re not likely to achieve overnight success and I’d suggest we don’t look too hard for it. But I do think we need to start doing more. It’s one way I can honestly make sense of Citizenship Education.

  14. I think curriculum leadership is very important as our core business is after all education. Curriculum is a conundrum that requires much grappling and time to implement and review. This is recognized by some schools which have two vice-principals – one in charge of curriculum and one in charge of administration. Some schools overseas have very distinct roles for administrators and teachers too. I think having such distinct roles for teachers and especially, key personnel in our schools would help to avoid a situation where we may become a jack of all trades and master of none.

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