I am happy to join this event today, to recognise the efforts of our community partners and educators. You have been supporting children and students — many of whom come from less privileged backgrounds or face difficult home circumstances. You have worked tirelessly with their families and their schools. You have gone the extra mile to befriend and mentor these children. It cannot have been easy amidst the challenges of COVID-19 over the past two years, and we are grateful for your dedication and hard work. A big thank you to everyone!
UPLIFTING OUR CHILDREN
I am glad to see so many helping hands playing a part to uplift our children.
In every society, there is always some degree of inequality, to a greater or lesser extent. Some people are more fortunate than others, or they do better than others. As a result, children who grow up in different circumstances will have different starting points in life, and it is so in Singapore too.
But in Singapore, we try very hard to reduce these social and economic inequalities, to build a fairer and more equal society. We are determined to prevent poverty and disadvantage from becoming entrenched from generation to generation. We give those with less every support to compensate for this. We encourage every child to strive and do his best, no matter their family background. We enable them to make the most of their abilities and talents, and enjoy full opportunity to fulfil their dreams and aspirations. This is what our system upholds, and this is why Singaporeans support it.
We have made great progress in uplifting our people since Singapore’s independence more than half a century ago. Most of the older generations started from humble beginnings, without much money or education. They toiled through the tough, nation building years, but they had the satisfaction of watching their children grow up, and do well in life. They saw that the system worked for them. Even those who did not achieve as much as they could have in life, could take pride in their children’s progress and success.
But this is a never-ending mission. In every generation, there will always be some who do better, and others who do less well. Crises like COVID-19 show up such social disparities more sharply. For instance, when we switch to Home-Based Learning during the pandemic, it was not smooth sailing for every child. Some children had limited access to laptops or fast internet connections at home, others had to jostle for space with their siblings, parents, or grandparents, and this made it tough, or even impossible, for them to pay attention to an online class, or get their parents to help with their schoolwork. Post-COVID-19, we can expect some of these differences to persist, because this disparity is not due to COVID-19, even if the pandemic made it more visible, and depending on whether you have family support at home, and parental guidance and mentorship, or not, it can make a lasting difference in your life.
That is why we must keep on striving to uplift children growing up in disadvantaged circumstances, to help them close the gaps they started with as much as possible; to ensure they have more opportunities and choices than their parents and many more pathways to success.
Through Early Childhood Education
In particular, we must make a special effort on education, because education enables families, especially those with less, to improve the lives and futures of their children. Years of effort by generations of educators has done much to raise education standards and boost outcomes across the board.
But we are now redoubling our efforts, because there is still so much more that we can do. Starting from a younger age, we are investing heavily in raising the quality of preschool education, making it more accessible and affordable. We believe that closing the gap for less privileged children early will make a big difference to their future lives, not just in academic achievement, but also in their physical and socio-emotional well-being. The early, formative years are crucial. There are specific windows of development in the child’s first few years of life, when the brain is developing rapidly, and the child’s exposure and formative experiences shape him or her for life. For instance, children who regularly interact with their parents and have a warm secure attachment with them tend to grow up more attentive, resilient, and engaged in school. But not all parents have opportunities or means to give their children this nurturing environment. Some may be busy making ends meet, and lack sufficient time to spend with their young ones; others may be less prepared for parenthood or they may miss the know-how to develop their children in the early years.
That is why we launched KidSTART back in 2016. It was to equip these couples for parenthood and to support those with less resources, starting even before the child is born, through home visits to pregnant mothers to ensure they are healthy and prepared for their child’s birth. KidSTART practitioners impart to parents the knowledge and skills to develop and nurture their child. They help to ensure that the parents enrol their child in preschool once he or she reaches about three years old. KidSTART works closely with many partners, including hospitals, social service agencies, corporate and community volunteers, and some of you are here today. Thank you for your support! With your help, KidSTART has shown good outcomes. So far, over 2,000 children have benefitted. Their parents understand better how to nurture them. The children, in turn, are more confident interacting and socialising, and picking up life skills, like reading. These benefits carry through to school, and later in life. We will build on this initial success. KidSTART is on track to support 5,000 children by 2023, in two years’ time. Thereafter, we will progressively expand the programme nationwide, to reach even more eligible families.
Through Our Schools
National schools must follow through on this work with infants and preschool children. Our primary and secondary schools develop each child’s strengths and teach them the knowledge and life skills they need as they grow up. School is also where children can be guided by their teachers, make friends and develop character, and focus on learning.
For children from troubled homes, the school environment plays an even more crucial role. Such children benefit from additional attention from teachers who act as significant adults – someone whom the children can relate to, can give them good advice, and can sustain their interest in attending school, someone to encourage them to discover their strengths and strive for their dreams.
It is thus particularly worrying when some of these children stop attending school regularly. We must do all we can to help them enrol in school, stay enrolled, and do well in their studies.
To cater to these students, MOE ran a pilot project with a small group of schools. They gave the schools additional teachers and resources to better identify and support these kids; to reach out and mentor them; to develop customised programmes to keep them engaged after school and during the holidays; and to help them with their academic work and other socio-emotional challenges, so that these students feel supported, and motivated to do well. The results from the pilot have been encouraging. More primary school students enrolled in their school’s Student Care Centre; secondary school students got along better with their classmates; school attendance improved. We are keen to expand this pilot. We have identified about 100 primary and secondary schools which have more of such students who will benefit from this extra attention. MOE will deploy additional teachers to these 100 schools, so that around 13,000 students can benefit from integrated and holistic support.
We are also doing more to support our students as they progress through their post-secondary education. We are reviewing the opportunities and pathways in applied education. ITE will enhance the curriculum structure, so that more students can complete a Higher Nitec directly in three years. This will equip graduates with deeper industry-relevant skills, strengthen their career and income prospects, and provide them a stronger foundation for future skills upgrading. We will phase in the enhancements, starting with selected courses next year. We are also strengthening pastoral support care to support polytechnic and ITE students’ social-emotional and learning needs. This will help those who need extra attention or support in their post-secondary years.
And At Home
Our efforts go beyond the education system, because ultimately, the schools and post-secondary institutions cannot substitute for a stable home and nurturing parents. We have to work holistically with the family too.
This means paying attention to the pressures and challenges faced by the whole family. Sometimes, the parents go through a difficult phase. They may be in debt or face financial problems, perhaps after losing their jobs. Conflicts at home may affect their ability to care for their children. Such difficult conditions and home environment can prevent the children from focussing on their studies, and affect their mental and emotional well-being.
Take Syazliana, for example. She is a Primary 5 student, living with five other family members in a two-room rental flat. When she was in lower primary, Syazliana attended school irregularly, mostly because her mother had to care for her younger siblings at home, and had difficulties sending her to school. Unsurprisingly, Syazliana’s motivation and school performance suffered. Luckily her teachers saw her struggling, and reached out to her mother to enrol Syazliana and her brother at the school’s student care centre. That made a difference.
To help children like Syazliana, we also need to help their families, which we are doing. For instance, through Community Link (or ComLink), Comlink will reach out to 14,000 families with young children living in public rental housing over the next three years. It helps their families holistically, to access the resources they need.
In addition, we set up the Uplifting Pupils and Inspiring Families in Life Taskforce (or “UPLIFT”). UPLIFT is led by Minister Maliki Osman. UPLIFT works with schools, community partners, Social Service Offices and other government agencies to bring together all the different resources available to help these families. Four towns are currently participating in the UPLIFT Community pilot – Boon Lay, Bukit Merah, Kreta Ayer and Woodlands. These efforts have benefitted Syazliana and her family. UPLIFT connected the family to the Social Service Office and a befriender. Syazliana started participating actively in community-organised homework supervision and life-skills programmes. Her school attendance improved. She became more engaged and motivated in her studies. Last year, she achieved the Edusave Good Progress Award! Syazliana’s is one of many UPLIFT success stories. The UPLIFT Community Pilot has helped many students. 8 in 10 of those on the Pilot for the whole of last year saw improvements in performance and attendance. We intend to progressively expand the Pilot into a nationwide UPLIFT Community Network, starting with another eight towns next year and more over the coming years.
Our efforts, through KidSTART, ComLink, school programmes and UPLIFT, are levelling the playing field for those who start out in life with less. We are coordinating and integrating all these efforts for maximum impact. It is easier for the family too, because they now have a single point of contact, and will not need to deal with many different parties. We are taking a family-centred approach. Dedicated befrienders will check in regularly with the families to build relationships with them and coach them through their action plans, to relay their needs to the SSOs, community partners and other government agencies, so that they can get timely support. We will help every family in the way that makes the best sense for that family, for the parents and children. Ensure that every family has a comprehensive, coordinated action plan, to get back on their feet.
As COVID-19 has shown, life is full of unexpected surprises, which can strike us hard, anytime. Almost everyone will face some temporary setbacks and unexpected hurdles at some point in his life, but some families face longer term difficulties, which often affect their children.
Therefore, we must do our utmost to protect these children and help these families. We must not let setbacks and family difficulties prevent younger generations from thriving and improving their lives.
All of us have a part to play. The government will do its part by investing in good quality education for every Singaporean and providing every additional support and resources to those who need it, to bring every child to as fair a starting point as possible. But it takes many helping hands to uplift our children. Our educators in preschools and schools who walk this journey with our children, and the community, groups and activists with a social conscience, who want to help others less fortunate, who are willing to commit the time and effort to nurture, mentor, and support those who may fall behind. Many of you here today have partnered with us on this journey. Thank you for working with us to support these children and their families. You are making a difference. I hope that more Singaporeans will step forward, and like you, join us in this endeavour. Our mission is to uplift our children, preserve social mobility and deliver on the promise of a fair and just Singapore for our next generation and beyond.