Friday, 6 April 2007

Budget 2007 Debates: Ministry of Defence, 5 March 2007 and Ministry of Education, 7 March 2007

In an earlier post, I talked about these two speeches I made during the Budget. These are the official transcripts of the speeches, responses given, and clarificatory question asked (for Mindef).

National Service

Mr Siew Kum Hong (Nominated Member): Mr Chairman, Sir, all NSmen face reservist liability. I understand that PES-C NSmen, including clerks, are subject to NS call-ups as well. I was told of a case where a company was deciding whether to locate an investment in Singapore. But they could go ahead in Singapore only if a PES-C NSmen could get a deferment from his ICT. He was crucial to the project, if it was to happen in Singapore. But his ICT clashed with an important deadline. Despite repeated request, he was not granted a deferment. He went for his ICT and his company located the project in China.

Sir, I can understand the rationale if this NSmen was a key appointment holder and essential to the ICT. But he was not. I would like to ask the Ministry what is the value of calling PES-C NSmen for reservist training and whether more flexibility can be introduced in considering deferment for NSmen who are not key appointment holders and, especially, if they are clerks? Is there sufficient consideration given to the actual benefit derived from calling up an NSmen compared to the potential opportunity cost to his employer and his career?

Sir, there is a wider dimension to this. Many NSmen seem to believe that NS liability has adversely affected their career prospects. There is also some anecdotal evidence about employers discriminating against Singaporean males to do their NS liability and in favour of foreign talent. I hope that the Ministry will also state its position on this issue and explain what measures are in place to address such discrimination.

The Second Minister for Defence (Dr Ng Eng Hen): Mr Siew has asked how we can actively engage employers, and we do, so that they can better understand the needs for NS and see how we can better address their concerns. For example, MINDEF organises employer visits where employers can witness what their NSmen do during in-camp training. I was in one such visit where an employer says, "Thank you very much. I thought my employees were having a good time during their ICTs. But I realise they are really doing serious training, and that helps." This has helped employers appreciate the role of their employees and how they have a role as citizen-soldiers. And, indeed, quite a few employers have also told us that the certificate of service for full-time NS is really useful to them when they want to employ prospective job candidates. They look for it because, if this person can succeed as a commander, they think he can add to their organisation. They look more favourably on a candidate if he has been a commander, because it reflects capable leadership and initiative.

Mr Siew has also asked us about our policy on PES-C clerks' or reservists' duties. Let me first state that, through National Service, every serviceman is responsible for and expected to contribute to the defence of Singapore, the principle of universality I articulated earlier. The 3G SAF, as with all modern armies, requires servicemen of different vocations and specialisations to work together to fight as a cohesive unit. Therefore, we need frontline soldiers who need the critical combat support and combat service support sustainment to achieve their victories. Our NSF and NSmen are assigned to duties according to their Physical Employment Standard (PES). But let me remind Members and the public that a lower PES grading cannot and does not mean that less is required of that soldier. The responsibilities they are asked to shoulder in their vocations depend on their aptitude, motivation and demonstrated leadership qualities.

Service-fit servicemen or those graded PES-C, as alluded to by Mr Siew, therefore, can and do play important roles. We do deploy them on a diverse range of vocations, including doctors, technicians, signal operators, medics, drivers and clerks. Each one of them, in their own significant way, is a vital link in the defence of our nation. To enable our servicemen to carry out their duties, we need to call them back for annual in-camp training to refresh their skills and ensure that they are always operationally-ready. Otherwise, they will put the safety of their own lives and the lives of their comrades at risk. For these reasons, it would not be possible to exempt every PES-C NSman who is assigned to be a clerk. We do need them to carry out their duties in their units, and it would erode the cohesiveness of units if we were to disrupt them. Also, it is not equitable to exempt all PES-C clerks from in-camp training.

In summary, Mr Chairman, Sir, the training of our soldiers and units is of paramount importance to the operational readiness of the SAF, and a capable SAF is vital to the security of Singapore.


Mr Siew Kum Hong: Mr Chairman, I would like to thank the Second Minister for this thorough responses to my questions. However, I am not sure that he addressed the specific issue of employers favouring foreign talent over Singaporean males due to NS liability. So I would like to clarify if the Ministry is aware of this perceived bias, whether it has investigated its existence and what measures are in place to address any such bias?

Dr Ng Eng Hen: Sir, first let me thank Mr Siew for bringing them up. As he said, these are anecdotal incidents. We have various committees. We have the ACCORD and we interact with employer organisations and we have awards for employers. Perhaps we should invite Members of the House to attend these to give a sense of how we engage the employers community.

By and large, our feedback from them is that there is no, if you like, systemic discrimination against NSmen; in fact, the reverse is true. Many of them had fed back that they actually value, as I said, the Certificate of Performance. They want to know how Singaporeans have performed in NS. We have one story where the employer said he had so many applications, he wanted to shortlist them, so he said, "OK. Show me those who have done well in NS and I will just concentrate and start there." But if there are specific instances that Members know, then, of course, please forward them to us and we can look at them.

In terms of his question about calling up NSmen and losing out business opportunities, I admit there might be many instances where Singaporeans have to sacrifice, whether it is opportunity loss because of specific instances. We will try to reduce them because we give advance notice for deferment. But I accept that out there, in terms of our NSmen, there could be opportunities missed. That is why we choose other ways to recognise, through RECORD, through our NS bonuses, and this year in the GST offset credits. It is a very small token never commensurate with the sacrifices that our NSmen have to make but, nonetheless, there are certain ways that we can show that we appreciate their efforts and sacrifice.

Enhanced Performance Management System

Mr Siew Kum Hong (Nominated Member): Mr Chairman, Sir, the enhanced performance management system, or EPMS, is MOE's method for assessing teacher's performance. It has been a subject of repeated criticism by present and former teachers and blamed for many teacher resignations. But MOE has consistently endorsed it.

These are some of the criticisms. Firstly, some see it as simply an administrative chore to get out of the way as quickly as possible. Secondly, there is no transparency in the rankings as teachers are not told what they have been ranked, and teachers have to guesstimate their rankings based on their performance bonuses, if any. Thirdly, and perhaps most crucially, it does not adequately recognise good classroom teachers. In fact, teachers believe that the way to a good EPMS evaluation is to simply cite a long list of projects and then play them up as much as possible. Actual merit does not seem particularly relevant.

Sir, the teachers themselves said it better than I can. From a friend, "How I have seen it used is, either not at all, people ignore it, see it as a nuisance thing to be filled up and done with, or by superiors as a way of forcing more work out of people. So, what did you do this past half a year? If you do not tell me the next five minutes, you are going to get a "C" grade." From Wong Siong Yan, in a letter to the Today newspaper last March, "Supervisors usually rely on work review discussions, during which teachers are encouraged to showcase what they have. Those who can produce photographs, video clips and reflective journals often steal the show. Good but modest teachers who do not blow their own trumpets get sidelined." Finally, retired teacher, Ho Kong Loon, who had won an MOE Caring Teacher Award in 2000, wrote in the Today newspaper last October, that EPMS currently marginalises outstanding classroom teaching and that many good classroom teachers get poor EPMS gradings.

Sir, I think the amount of unhappiness with and criticisms of EPMS shows that there is a problem, and we need to remember that a lot of the criticisms have come from ex-teachers who are far more likely to give honest feedback than serving teachers. So I would like to ask how does the Ministry explain the discrepancy between its official stand on EPMS and teachers' perception of it. And in the light of these criticisms, does the Ministry have objective evidence that EPMS does work? Also, given the view that more projects equal a better EPMS ranking, teachers are compelled to pile on extra duties, that means, long hours in school. A teacher in the morning session will have classes from 7.30 am until 12.30 pm or 1.00 pm. This is followed by CCAs, projects, workshops, meetings and other commitments that can last till 5.00 pm or later. So when does the teacher do things, like marking and lesson preparation? At night? Sir, that is not tenable. I would therefore also like to ask the Minister what institutionalised measures and safeguards are in place to ensure that teachers are not overtaxed so that they are able to devote sufficient time to their students and through lessons and teaching while not burning out. If there are no such measures and safeguards, will the Ministry consider doing so?

Sir, Minister Tharman emphasised last week in the Budget debate that education is the starting point in ensuring equality of opportunity in Singapore. But for education to remain the great leveller that it has been, we need a strong and healthy teaching profession. We need to resolve these problems with EPMS so that we will have one.

RAdm (NS) Lui Tuck Yew: Let me thank Mr Siew and, earlier, Mr Alvin Yeo, for their comments and questions about teachers.

Teachers are critical and special in our system: critical because they have the important responsibility of nurturing our young with the skills and attitudes that they will need to face the future with confidence; special because their role is not just about imparting knowledge but also about engaging hearts and minds - encouraging every student on, and helping them find their unique strengths and talents.

Over the past five years, we have grown the strength of our teaching force from 25,000 in 2002 to about 28,000 today. We have maintained the high standards that we expect of new entrants and we have also been able to retain good teachers. This is despite the competition from other attractive sectors in a robust economy. The major improvements in the “Grow” Package for teachers have also helped to keep the teaching profession an attractive one. The overall attrition rate due to retirement and resignation has remained steady at a low rate of about 2.4% over the years, and we intend to watch this very carefully.

Before I address Mr Siew's points on the EPMS, let me talk about managing the workload for teachers. To achieve a high quality holistic education for our students, we expect our teachers to play many different roles: mentors, facilitators, coaches and counsellors. As professionals, they want to excel, give of their best and make a difference in the lives of their students. Many take it upon themselves to upgrade their skills and knowledge by tapping on the wide range of training courses available. We recognise the demands and challenges of being teachers and are keenly aware of their workload. Let me share with you three areas in which we are working on to give them greater support.

Firstly, we are recruiting and deploying more teachers to schools. With the additional teachers recruited over the past five years, we have, on average, been able to give each school an additional five teachers. By about 2010, provided we can sustain our pace of recruitment and keep attrition low, we target to deploy another five teachers to each school.

These additional teachers have resulted in a significant improvement in the pupil to teacher (PTR) ratio over the past few years. The pupil to teacher ratio for primary schools was reduced from 24 in 2004 to 22 in 2006 and for secondary schools from 19 to 18 over the same period. By 2010, our target is to reduce PTR further to below 20 for the primary schools. I note Mr Alvin Yeo's earlier comment about reducing class sizes. But we think it is best for schools to decide how to use these additional teachers - sometimes a smaller class for a particular subject or assignment or give teachers more time to meet the other needs of their students.

To prescribe smaller class sizes for all schools across all levels, we will have to trade off quality for quantity, lowering the high standards that we expect of our teachers. Alternatively, it is to assign more classroom periods to each teacher. So recruiting new teachers of lower quality or assigning more classroom periods to each teacher, I think neither is a desirable outcome.

Beyond the allocation of additional teachers, schools can also leverage on the Adjunct Teaching (AJT) scheme, introduced in 2004, to appoint trained teachers who had left service. The adjunct teachers can support schools when their teachers go on the Part-Time Teaching Scheme, or pursue professional development opportunities. On average, each school managed to engage about four to five adjunct teachers last year.

With these additional teachers, schools have greater flexibility in terms of staff deployment. Many have introduced new programmes, or allowed greater diversity in the school curriculum to better respond to their students’ learning needs. At Guangyang Primary School, they have creatively tapped on their adjunct teachers to conduct differentiated teaching. During these lessons in Mathematics, Mother Tongue and English, small groups of students who are weaker in these subjects are taught separately by the adjunct teachers, giving them the special and dedicated attention that they need. The teachers focus on using strategies and activities that best suit the needs of these students. Such flexibility and enhanced learning have been made possible because of the availability of additional teacher resources that have been judiciously used to meet specific needs.

To further support teachers and meet the needs of the students, we have deployed para-educators like the Co-Curricular Programme Executives (CCPEs), the Full-Time School Counsellors (FTSCs) and Special Needs Officers (SNOs). These para-educators have enabled teachers to concentrate more on lesson preparation and classroom teaching duties.

Secondly, MOE has also provided schools with more financial resources to purchase manpower or other services to take over some of the duties previously done by teachers, for example, in running CCAs, training the school choir, and so on, where an external agency may be better equipped with the skill set to do so. This has helped to further ease teachers’ workload. The manpower grant had been increased over the years. For a primary school with 1,500 pupils, it has increased from about $50,000 in 2004 to $126,000 today, a 160% increase. Likewise, the grant disbursed to a secondary school with the same number of pupils has increased from $115,500 in 2004 to about $150,000 today.

Thirdly, within the school itself, there are systems in place to support teachers. To ease the transition of the beginning teachers to the demands of the job, they are given 80% of the standard teaching load. They are also mentored by Senior Teachers to help them better manage their workload and meet the challenges of the profession. By leveraging on IT, teachers are able to access databases of lesson materials and customise them to meet their students’ needs. Schools are also creating more opportunities for teachers to collaborate and plan together. By 2010, each teacher will have one hour of ‘timetabled time’ per week for this particular purpose.

We will endeavour to refine the ways where we can better support our teachers as they continue the important mission to nurture and develop our students.

Mr Siew Kum Hong also raised the issue of teacher appraisal. In particular, he asked about the value of the Enhanced Performance Management System (EPMS). In any organisation, there is a need for an appraisal and performance management system to help the organisation identify its talent, develop its people and reward their performance. The teaching profession is no exception. We need an appraisal process that is consistent, transparent and trusted. In this way, teachers who have done well are fully recognised and rewarded while others who need to improve on their performance are coached by their supervisors.

The EPMS is a new system fully implemented in 2005, and it was in response to feedback from the ground and designed with their inputs. We believe it is an improvement to the previous system. And I will talk more about this later. As professionals, our teachers have no issue with being held to high standards of performance; indeed, they expect it of themselves. Their request was for the appraisal process to provide a clearer idea of what competencies they were expected to show, and what areas they had to focus on to improve further. They wanted a more explicit discussion of their performance in specific areas, and clear identification of their training and development path.

The EPMS was developed after extensive consultation with education officers at all levels, phasing gradually from 2003 - first to the school leaders, then to Heads of Departments and other key appointment holders, and finally, school wide, to all teachers in 2005.

We believe the EPMS allows a holistic assessment on our educators’ performance based on competencies, and follows a more structured process to help them identify areas for further development and improvement. The system spells out the knowledge and skills required as well as the professional characteristics and behaviour patterns appropriate for each of the three different career tracks, namely, Teaching, Senior Specialist and Leadership. Let me say that there is no disadvantage in any of our teachers pursuing one of these tracks. They are not discriminated against in any way in the performance appraisal process. With this differentiation, teachers have the greater clarity of the expectations and behaviour that are essential for success in each particular field of excellence.

No assessment system is perfect, not least because there will always be some degree of subjectivity involved. Neither is the EPMS perfect nor has it been implemented evenly across all schools. We are committed to making it work even better. We are putting new teachers through EPMS workshops to help them better use and understand the tool, and we are putting also the new evaluators through the new supervisors through the system so that they can better understand their responsibilities in assessing teachers under their charge.

The Ministry will continue to take in feedback and suggestions from our teachers and school leaders on how to improve the system. For example, we have refined the EPMS work review form to include a training and development section that will encourage a more in-depth discussion of the officers’ career aspirations and developmental needs.

Mr Siew has given anecdotal evidence and extrapolated that to show that our teachers are very unhappy with EPMS. I am not sure that that is true nor does it do credit to the system and to the assessment appraisal process that we have today. Feedback from teachers that we have gathered shows that they recognise the benefits of the EPMS. Those who have been in service longer and were able to make a comparison between the past and present system, feel that the EPMS is a better tool compared to that used earlier. While it might still seem to some an additional administrative procedure to fill up the form, teachers acknowledged that the system has provided them with greater clarity in terms of expectations and how they can further develop themselves professionally. That is what the system was designed to achieve.

Mr Siew talked about teachers being given additional recognition if they were to work on projects, have more attractive means of delivering their lessons. I would say that finding ways to further and better engage the students is important. If you have two classroom teachers, one merely teaching from the textbook and the other finding new ways through projects and engaging methods to bring the lessons to life and engage the students, I think I would have to give a greater recognition to the latter. Let me say that EPMS attempts to capture the key essence of teaching in its many facets and challenges but, at the end of it all, it requires astute and perceptive school leaders to recognise and reward the many intangible but important aspects of teaching. They include care, concern and counsel that teachers give to their students, the values teachers impart through their interactions and through effective role modelling; and the encouragement and inspiration to students so that they will further believe in themselves and pursue their dreams. And this is what we are trying to ensure our school leaders take into account when they assess holistically the performance of the teachers.

But beyond formal recognition and reward, what motivates a teacher must be a calling, a deep sense of mission to shape young lives, knowing that what they do is a noble endeavour and a sacred responsibility. The gestation period is long and the results of their labour may not be immediately apparent. But it is the joy of seeing students do well in school and in life, sometimes seemingly against all odds, that have been and will be their best reward and lasting legacy. The recognition and appreciation by students, parents and the community are also an important morale booster for our teachers. I am happy that their dedication and commitment have not gone unnoticed. The public in 2004 ranked the teaching profession first in importance, ahead of doctors and lawyers in a public perception survey. Let us all continue to give teachers the support they need and deserve on their meaningful and important mission.

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