Preschool education: Why some kids are a class apart

The Sunday Times, Jan 9, 2011
By Irene Tham
itham@sph.com.sg

These days, parents willingly fork out $20,000 a year – what one would pay in university – for preschool education, believing it gives their tots a head start in life.

Some parents even go to the extreme of enrolling their preschoolers in every enrichment class imaginable – from music, drama and ballet to mathematics and Mandarin.

After all, aren’t kids supposed to ‘absorb’ the most at that tender age? Understandably, parents would milk every minute that counts.

On the other end of the spectrum are those who would rather let their children roll in the mud and enjoy their childhood, only to discover later on that their little ones are severely disadvantaged in primary school.

In one example two years ago, Ms L (she declines to give her name), a housewife in her 40s, was told by her son’s Primary 1 teacher that he was lagging behind his classmates, as 28 out of the 30 students already knew hanyu pinyin, the romanisation system for Mandarin.

The teacher said she could not hold the 28 kids back for the sake of the weaker two – although she was supposed to teach hanyu pinyin in the months ahead.

Another parent, who wants to be known only as Ms Christine, said she was also told by her son’s Primary 1 teacher last year that he was falling behind in his reading in both Chinese and English.

The 31-year-old executive was advised to find a private tutor for her son. Both parents did not even send their children to elite schools, but neighbourhood ones in the eastern part of Singapore.

After the shocking wake-up call, Ms L shipped her son – now in Primary 3 – off for a private crash course in hanyu pinyin, cramming six months’ worth of curriculum into eight lessons.

Ms Christine too hired a private language tutor for her son, now in Primary 2.

‘During our time, we went to school to learn. Now, the school expects the kids to know the subject already,’ she laments.

These stories sent chills down my spine. Like many young parents, I am worried about not doing enough to provide for my child’s education. My daughter is turning two this September.

Also, I do not have funds on tap. Like many Singaporeans who feel the middle-class squeeze, I must confess that my limited resources forbid splurging on tier- one preschool and incessant enrichment lessons.

One question begs to be answered: How much preschool preparation work is enough?

Local parenting website Kiasuparents.com recommends that children entering Primary 1 should have the following proficiency:

•Blend phonetic sounds of a combination of letters in the English alphabet.
•Write all 26 letters of the alphabet in capital and small letters.
•Read and spell simple words. These words include run, car and orange.
•Construct simple English sentences.
•Verbalise answers to picture comprehension.

A spokesman for the Ministry of Education (MOE) said the Primary 1 curriculum is designed to meet the learning needs of ‘all pupils, regardless of their background and level of competency’.

The spokesman also told The Sunday Times that it is not necessary for children to be exposed to hanyu pinyin before Primary 1.

If that is the case, why are Primary 1 teachers allowed to raise standards arbitrarily, driving the uninitiated parent into a frenzy?

It is no wonder then that many parents succumb to the blatant advertisements of toddler enrichment centres.

The unregulated preschool scene – comprising 500 kindergartens and 800 childcare centres run by a range of operators from religious organisations to companies – is also fertile ground for these enrichment centres.

If you are looking to the Government for a preschool prescription, you can stop now. The Government said a year ago that there were no plans to nationalise preschool education.

Education Minister Ng Eng Hen explained in Parliament last January that there was no universally accepted model for kindergarten teaching. Imposing one would not only deprive parents of the choice of what to expose their children to, but also give rise to counter-productive comparisons between preschools, among other things.

Dr Ng was addressing concerns among educationists, politicians and parents that free-market forces with insufficient regulatory supervision may allow some preschool operators to compromise on standards and charge overly high fees.

There were also concerns that children were entering formal education on an unequal footing, depending on whether their parents can afford premium preschool education fees.

The Government’s philosophy is that preschool goals should not be assessment-based, but focused on social and communication skills development. Such thinking is sound and fair. I am for a free and creative preschool market for the same reasons put forward by Dr Ng. But such thinking must have continuity beyond preschool. Right now, there seems to be a huge disconnect between preschools and primary schools.

Lofty preschool goals are somewhat lost in translation when the time comes for the children to enter Primary 1.

The recent encounter of Mrs Chan, an accountant, with a neighbourhood school in the western part of Singapore is a case in point. A few days ago, the 36-year-old mother discovered that the school put her son and its entire Primary 1 cohort through a reading and comprehension and mathematics proficiency test during orientation – presumably for grouping pupils based on their abilities.

Mrs Chan found out from other parents that her son is in a ‘good’ class, but remains concerned as the school did not inform parents about the test.

If preschools are not meant to be academically driven, why then are kids tested on their numeracy and literacy skills when they enter Primary 1?

Pat’s Schoolhouse founder-director Patricia Koh, 59, said such tests serve only the teachers’ interest but do nothing for the students.

‘You can’t divide children into ability groups so early on in primary education. A child who is not ready can learn from one who is,’ said the veteran preschool educator, who started Pat’s Schoolhouse in 1988.

‘The problem is that some teachers are not enlightened enough to deal with Primary 1 children,’ she added.

Perhaps, it is time for MOE to look into preschool training for its primary school teachers too.

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One thought on “Preschool education: Why some kids are a class apart

  1. Pingback: Tick. Tock. | the bottomsup blog

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