I talked about various things, and two of the questions I posed for the class were:
- Who are the people making policies in education -- the politicians and bureaucrats, or the educational professionals?
- And what are their motivations in policy-making?
The point I was trying to drive at, is that policies -- in general, not just in education -- are frequently or usually made by politicians and bureaucrats, who may not or are usually not subject-matter experts in the particular area. The policies may be, at least partly, consciously or unconsciously motivated or driven by extraneous considerations.
I am not saying that policies are self-serving or are designed in such a way as deliberately benefit any particular class or that policy-makers do not sincerely believe that the policies are for the best. But I am saying that when politicians and bureaucrats make policy, especially in complex specialised areas like education, they may be driven by other considerations.
So what to make of Dr Ng Eng Hen's disclosure that the Ministry of Education is re-looking the relative weightage of Mother Tongue in the PSLE examinations? This is the latest in a long line of moves to reduce the consequences of students doing poorly in Mother Tongue, largely in response to longstanding complaints from certain parents and students about the difficulty in doing well in Chinese.
I don't have a great command of Chinese -- it's not even remotely near good. I can just about read a Chinese newspaper article, with some struggle and a fair bit of contextual guesswork -- having a dictionary helps a lot, but doesn't really speed things up all that much. Nowadays, I am almost exclusively English-speaking -- I speak Mandarin mostly to my mum, frequently to the office pantry auntie, and otherwise to service staff. The decline in my Chinese grades began in Primary 3, and culminated in an E8 the first time I took 'AO' Chinese -- by some fluke, I scored an A2 my second time. That's one instance where the truth probably literally lies somewhere in between.
So if anything, I'm a prime candidate to sympathise with the complaints of the English-speaking chattering classes. Except that I don't, not really.
After all, the playing field is level. Everybody goes through the same exam. We don't move the English-language academic goalposts for those who don't speak English at home and accordingly have a weak command of English (not coincidentally, they also tend to be from the lower- if not lowest-income households) -- why then do we always move the Mother Tongue (specifically, Chinese) academic goalposts for those who don't speak Mandarin at home and accordingly have a weak command of Chinese (who, not coincidentally, tend to come from the other end of the socio-economic spectrum)? [and the Learning Support Programme in P1 and P2 for kids who are week in English is not given enough time or resources to make a difference -- 30 minutes per day is far from enough and smacks of lip service]
We talk about meritocracy and equity of opportunity -- in fact, the Government consistently boasts about it. But true meritocracy and equity of opportunity assumes that the ground rules are fair to all, and do not permit hidden biases (admittedly perhaps unconsciously-held) resulting in different rules for different folks.
What flabbergasted me then, was the suggestion that the current PSLE weightage for Mother Tongue may be too high, because it deprived otherwise-deserving kids of places in so-called top secondary schools. When I read that, I thought there was some kind of disproportionate weightage. Well, Mother Tongue counts for 25% -- I know lawyers are supposed to be lousy at Math, but that seems about right to me since there are 4 subjects at PSLE. Seems fair to me.
Looked at it another way, reducing the weightage for Mother Tongue effectively advantages (in a relative sense) those who are unable (for whatever reason) to do well in Mother Tongue. Why don't we reduce the weightage for Math, for those who are great at multiple languages but really suck at numbers? Everybody has different strengths and weaknesses, why is one particular set of weaknesses picked out for crutches and other special treatment?
And really, is the inability to get into a so-called top secondary school really the end of the world? That is cited as the driving motivation to re-look the weightage for Mother Tongue -- but in the same breadth, we talk about the need for different measures of success beyond academic results. Irony and mixed messages, anyone?
Perspective is important in policy-making, to remain objective and keep an even keel. I don't see too much of that in this particular case.