Margaret Thatcher – British Education and Singapore

I am learning more about her beyond Thatcher for Beginners/Introducing Thatcherism. (It seems they were both authored by Peter Pugh. It is a huge loss that they are no longer available in the National Libraries of Singapore.)

So what did she do?

The Great Education Reform Bill (Gerbil) in 1988, consumed a massive 370 hours in parliament. It was a post 1945 precedent. Gerbil took place with the National Curriculum in the subjects of English, Mathematics, Science, History, Geography, Technology, Art, Music, Foreign Language, and Religious Studies. (The initiative surprisingly had spawned from the first three.) National Assessments were executed at ages 7, 11, 14 and 16. Thatcher directly charted the focus for History in particular, where she pinpointed the need to study ‘great British men, great British battles, and lots of great British dates’). This Curriculum was enacted in England and Wales after she left office. It increased government interference and control over performance indicators and duration of the 10 subjects.

Similar actions occurred in tertiary education with the Education Act of 1988. The University Funding Council (UFC), comprising government selected personnel, came to manage university finances. To account for the performance of tertiary educators/researchers, the Council compared publication numbers; page numbers and even citation numbers (Before any further research, I assume this to be the Bibliography rather than the footnotes.)

Centralisation in the education sphere (here I agree with Veldman) proved ironic. Thatcher, the very face of rolling back the state ended up expanding bureaucracies to oversee the teachers and lecturers throughout the country. One can only imagine the damage done. Injecting competition may have turned out top performing schools/universities but the funding decreases probably turned education into merely a means to an end (what end it was requires greater analysis)… This is not to mention reduced educational opportunities for students who simply needed more time to do well.

We juxtapose this against the Singaporean system. It is essentially centralised as the above (unless one homeschools or sends their child/ward to the international/private schools). Students (at least those from the top tier) have done well for international tests like the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) – 2012. Therein lies the dilemma. Students who operate well in the rather fixed exam environment arguably face difficulties in becoming ‘innovators’.  Dr Tony Wagner, an expert-in-residence at Harvard University’s Innovation Lab said as much during World Educational Leadership Summit of 2015. (Incidentally, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, had replaced admission assessments with students portfolios.) For those on the short end of the stick, Wagner does not use the term ‘failure’ – he utilises ‘Incomplete’. This parallels the Singapore Workforce Skills Qualifications framework (WSQ, begun in 2005) outcome of ‘Not Yet Competent’ for adult learners.

The country has moved, albeit modestly, in the right direction nonetheless. Achievement Levels (AL) of 1 to 8 would substitute the T-score (upon 300) for the Primary School Leaving Examinations from 2021. This stops using bell-curve (normal distribution) methods to distinguish students. It recognises each student on their own merit.

The pressure is unlikely to dissipate. But life is like that. It is a stressful thing. Nevertheless, the grace to accept things as they are would bring us peace; and remind us to plan for failure at different moments of our lives.

Hopefully one day, Singapore education would gain the comment given to its healthcare counterpart of being ‘…the least imperfect in the world.’

References:

Meredith Veldman. (2016). Margaret Thatcher: Shaping the New Conservatism. New York. Oxford University Press. p.137; 147-149.

Barry Neild. (8 Apr 2013). Margaret Thatcher’s death greeted with street parties in Brixton and Glasgow. http://www.theguardian.com/politics/2013/apr/08/margaret-thatcher-death-party-brixton-glasgow. The Guardian.

Siau Ming En. (7 Apr 2015). Exam smarts could come at expense of encouraging innovation: Experts. http://www.channelnewsasia.com/news/singapore/exam-smarts-could-come-at/1771074.html. Channel NewsAsia.

Lianne Chia. (14 Jul 2016). PSLE changes unlikely to eliminate pressure unless parents change mindsets: Parents, teachers. http://www.channelnewsasia.com/news/singapore/psle-changes-unlikely-to/2957422.html. Channel NewsAsia.

Sharon Chen and Sterling Won. (18 Sep 2014). Singapore Beats Hong Kong in Health Efficiency: Southeast Asia. http://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2014-09-18/singapore-beats-hong-kong-in-health-efficiency-southeast-asia. Bloomberg.

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