Tuesday, 31 January 2012

Finnish schools

After my previous post I read Mr Yee Jenn Jong in a post about the Finnish school education system.

I must confess that I had not taken too much notice of Finnish schools in the PISA ratings. Some might argue that it is the ratings and league tables that have played a big part in dumbing down the British education system. Just read today's news Thousands of 'dead end' courses axed from school tables.

However I can see why someone could become very enthusiastic about a system where children are not labelled and the dropout rate is low/zero and everyone sings from the same song sheet (which I would hazard a guess is led by the tune, "Don't Worry, Be-e Happy").

I like Finland a lot. I had spent many hours at Helsinki airport en route to somewhere (can't remember where). And then I spent time in Helsinki with a co-worker en route to Latvia. I stood outside the University of Helsinki for a long time, got chatted up by new immigrants, etc, and acquired the taste for smoked mackerel (eaten with boiled potatoes and some peas).

My Finnish hostess spoke fluent English. She also speaks Finnish, Swedish and Estonian. I enjoyed staying in her tiny studio apartment, available for rent to singles at reasonable prices.

(Like I've said before, if we want our singles to mingle, what better way than to let them live in tiny homes with shared leisure and laundry facilities?)

The public transport in Helsinki was also excellent.

I like Finland. I might go work there myself.

So I nosed around a bit more to learn about the Finnish education system. This is what I discovered:

The current system was started some 40 years ago and the government mandated that all teachers must have at least a masters' degree. There was, effectively, a paradigm shift in thinking and policy.

Children only start school at age seven. Before this, most children are in government provided childcare.

Come the age for pre-school, or kindergarten, children do what the originator (Friedrich Fröbel) of kindergartens (children's gardens) intended this transition period between home and school to be: for children to be "nourished" like plants in the garden (note, not "hothoused" as in a greenhouse).

Instead of times tables children learn self-reflection and social behaviour (which I imagine to mean being gracious, being courteous, respecting teachers, being able to empathize, etc). They learn to behave before they are taught to read.

Class sizes are often about 20 or fewer. If pupils are too difficult to teach (eg if they have special needs), then the class could have a second teacher, and a third adult as an assistant teacher. That is three adults to 20 children. [Why do I suspect that the children are actually taught in "sets" in class?]

The children take no national exams but are graded by the teachers who are trusted to do a professional job.

Teachers are a highly regarded profession in Finland where only the best and brightest are recruited. (I have not discovered where they recruit their doctors and lawyers from.)

Finns are polyglots. They speak Finnish and Swedish (one as mother tongue, the other as "other domestic language", the latter of which has to be spoken to a very high level of competence). Many speak English and another Germanic, Nordic or Baltic language.

The Finnish population stands at about 5.4 million with a school population of about 600,000. There are 10 universities, 7 specialized universities and 27 universities of applied sciences (polytechnics). Because everyone is well educated, no one looks down their noses at someone else.

You might be a house painter (or painter/decorator as they would say in Britain), but at least you are a numerate, literate painter/decorator who have post-secondary education and we respect you.

Well, we aspired to "a Swiss standard of living" some years ago. Maybe at the next election we can aim towards "a Finnish standard of education".

However the Finnish education system is not just/only about teachers and schools. One has to take the whole package -- it's my famous anthropological 'holistic approach', or 'joined-up thinking again -- starting with maternity leave.

Stress-free pregnancy with no fear of losing one's job. Affordable and high quality childcare when one is ready to return to work. Subsidized health provision. Employment legislation which is family-friendly (I imagine). A wide choice of universities and polytechnics catering to the natural talents and skills of all individuals. And no mention of the foreign domestic worker, mate.

But how do you legislate against parents being "kiasu"? You cannot.

How do you stop people from looking down at people who are not similarly qualified and have to do ostensibly "dirty jobs"?

The Finnish people appear at one level to be more homogenous than Singaporeans. But dig a little deeper and you'd find that there are distinct ethnic differences. However a school system that requires the study of national languages and cultural knowledge has ironed out these differences, even amongst the new arrivals.

You want to live in Finland, you speak Finnish (or Swedish).

Singaporeans used to have a national language. It was called Bahasa Kebangsaan. I learned it till I was in secondary two. I used to be able to hold simple conversations in BK. And that is why our parade commands are ke-kiri pusing and all that.

Would the Finnish system translate into Singapore?

Why, we could not even cope with ONE national language, let alone two. English is ostensibily the main business language and yet Singapore-born Singaporeans cannot even speak the English language properly, how can they expect us to speak two like the Finnish?

So can we ever be like the Finns? Yes, we can. We only have to think "Singapore River".

We used to be able to smell Singapore River before we came anywhere near it on a bus and saw the copper green (or was it chocolate brown?) water filled with detritus of every description.

In 1977 Mr Lee Kuan Yew said, "Clean it up!" By about 1988-9 the river was transformed. I played with the NUS Orchestra on a barge at its re-opening ceremony, complete with fireworks and all that.

It took political will, adminstrative gumption, and not a little bullying (uhm cajoling), as lots of people had to be moved from their sources of livelihood from either side of the river, lock, stock and barrel to other locations. (Were these folk merely relocated or were they also dis-located? Discuss.)

People shift? Business shift? Education shift? Paradigm shift? All of the above.

Singapore River took more than ten years. The Finnish education system started changing 40 years ago. Where do we start?

Class numbers? Three teachers to a class of 20?

Teaching children (and parents) to behave before they start to read and write?

No more exams?

Reverse the foreign domestic worker culture?

Incidentally the Finns pay up to 30% in income tax, another 16% to 21% local tax (depending on where you live) and a church tax. The tax on investment income (earnings from capital income, stocks and shares, etc is 28%).

They also say there is not a vast gap in household incomes.

Ah! I guess this is where us Singaporeans come unstuck.

I asked my son whether he would like to be taught in a class of 20 where children of mixed abilities learn together. I can't describe the look of horror on his face. But that is just my son. Ignore him.

Are Finnish schools the best in the world?

Several Lessons to Be Learned from the Finnish School System

Sunday, 22 January 2012

What can we learn from British grammar/state/private schools?

Recently in the UK there has been much written and said about the "grammar school".

Singapore has its PSLE. Britain had the 11-plus.

Those who were deemed academic were streamed into grammar schools. Those who did not do so well were channelled into the comprehensive or vocational schools.

Today there are only 164 grammar schools as most have been converted to comprehensives, taking children of all abilities.

Children who wish to have a shot at the grammars are still required to take some form of entrance exam. Otherwise children are allotted schools by postcode, except for certain selective church-based and other "government-maintained" schools.

So it does not matter whether you worked hard or not. If you happened to live next door to a very good school you get there even if you are thick. That is why property prices near good schools are much higher.

If you are clever, very clever, and your nearest secondary is a sink school, and even if your parents indicated that you would prefer to travel further to get to a good school, you often got sent there any way.

One reason for abolishing/reducing grammar schools is that it segregates and labels one group as "able" and the rest as "not-so-able". People opposed to grammar schools say they "fuel elitism".

O no, you cannot have one group of students given an educational advantage over another group based on innate ability.

A British idea of fairness? Or at least one (rather skewed) view of it.

[Compare: Lots of children are scarred by doing badly in PSLE, so let's scrap it.]

Some have argued that the 11-plus was not a true test of ability because those from better socio-economic backgrounds have the wherewithal to hire tutors to coach their children whilst the poorer children cannot even afford to buy assessment papers for practice.

Are PSLE age children not coached to death? [O, most children in Singapore are coached to within an inch of sanity, some say.]

Grammar school supporters argue that it is the best mechanism for social mobility. It did not matter that children came from poor families. If they were gifted and/or hard-working, they got to grammar schools.

Here they learned Latin and other classical subjects, learned to do serious maths, and then moved on to Oxbridge and other red brick universities.

Opponents however say, "Only a tiny proportion of grammar school pupils actually do come from poorer backgrounds."

Ergo, the social mobility argument was shot down. Even that tiny proportion who might have managed some social mobility via grammar schools are now deprived of that opportunity.

The Labour government (many of which ministers had a grammar school or private school education, I've been told) said "no more new grammar schools".

These days the new education minister (called Secretary of State for Education) Michael Gove seems to like the idea of grammar schools but has his hands tied by legislation. And so some are accusing him of bringing them back "by the back door", through allowing existing grammar schools to start "satellite schools".

Whatever the rights and wrongs of the 11-plus and grammar schools may be, I think we need to examine the issue of selection.

The purpose of exams, surely, for any rational human being is to separate the sheep from the goats at some point or other. (Please feel free to disagree.)

Those who do well academically are rewarded in one way, and those who don't must be helped into areas of training that would prepare them for an independent adult life.

It pains me to hear my son complain about how he feels he is a failure on the football field. He does not like football. He does not even watch football on TV. Frankly he is rubbish at football.

He plays football because as a conscientious pupil at this school he is required to play. But he would drop it as soon as he could. If football is a compulsory exam subject, my son would be totally and utterly miserable.

By the same argument, why make a child who is not good at Maths, Science and English (or second language for that matter) continue to struggle with those subjects at a level of competence that they would not need to assure their chances of personal and career advancement?

Ergo, selection is a good thing.

On the other hand, when we do not reward children appropriately, when we give them nothing to aim towards, it becomes a race to the bottom. Why work hard? If no matter how hard I worked I would end up in the nearest sink school , why bother indeed?

All around me I see parents desperate that their state schools are not looking after their more gifted offspring.

If you are middling or not so clever, you're OK, but if you are gifted, or of above intelligence, or are just keen to learn, you have a hard fight in a class full of children who do not wish to learn.

I "taught" a group of young secondary school age children at Sunday School. I could not get a word in because they are not used to sitting quietly to listen to someone else expressing an opinion.

"Is this how you behave at school?" I asked.

"Yes," they chorused in reply.

In the last couple of days we have Failing secondary schools placed on list of shame. It highlights how schools ignore the needs of gifted students. Instead they focus on the borderline C-D pupils, trying to push the Ds into the Cs so that the school appears to do OK on the "A to C" league tables.

As for the social mobility argument, it has been observed that many Labour politicians and teacher leaders who have benefitted from a grammar school education, benefitted from social mobility, have raised the drawbridge once they got "inside".

[Is this the same picture in Singapore? Are past scholars now making it difficult for other non-scholar families to access the privileges they received?]

I write as one born into a family which would have been considered very poor. Passing my PSLE well and going to RGS completely changed my life and aspirations.

And I want the same for every young boy and girl who is able to have a chance to go to a school like RGS, both in Singapore and the UK.

Some pupils make it to grammar school after intensive tutoring. And then they struggle. Worse they could actually slow down the progress of the more able students, dragging the whole school down.

The headmaster at my son's school advised: if your child needs tuition to get to a [certain highly academic] school, then it is not the right school for your child.

How wise.

I would ban private tuition. But of course this is not possible. Or children who have had tuition should be marked differently from those who have not.

Only when we level the playing field could the truly able children from whatever disadvantaged background be given the chance to get to a grammar school and then to university.

Because there is no reward commensurate with doing well, or attempting to do well, UK schools have failed many of our brightest children.

OK, perhaps it's not fair to select merely on academic ability. What about selecting on the basis of natural talent in art, music, drama, sport, DIY skills, etc.

[It heartens me to know that there are some Singapore schools already selecting on such bases. But we need more of these.]

If your child happens to be shortchanged even by those criteria then what about selection on the basis of good behaviour? Or helpfulness? Then at least some schools have a chance to teach those who really wish to learn.

Of course the minimum skills in Maths, Science and English, knowledge which help us to function as normal human beings cannot be overlooked. Not many of us need to have an intimate knowledge of calculus to go through life. Maths, for example, could be taught at a slower pace for those who are less able.

The problem with British schools is the race to the bottom means many pupils leave school without the minimum skills required to do any job to any degree of competence. (I've been told that there are school leavers who wouldn't know that 0.5 and 1/2 (half) are equivalent measures.)

A school is not a factory. What I like about the ethos at my son's school is their firm belief that every child is gifted. The teachers try to identify these (sometimes hidden) gifts and nurture them.

It is a school where the teachers know every child by name. Senior Science and Maths masters go down to read books to the youngest children. This is especially important for boys so that they do not think that teaching/learning is a female thing.

The staff are able to discuss the progress of every child at meetings due to the small size of the school. They also get to know the parents well.

The size of classes vary from a high in the mid-twenties to single-digit numbers (in the upper classes when children leave to go to other schools, countries, when parents can no longer afford the fees, etc).

Economists preach the economies of scale. I don't think this works in the ideal school context.

If the aim of schools is to make carbon copies of items, then yes, let's talk economies of scale. But identifying the innate gifts of children and nurturing these gifts is a totally different mission.

Schools can try economies of scale in different ways.

My son is going to a school with nearly 700 pupils. It is not big compared to many schools, but the boys are looked after in groups of 60. There is a constant figure (and two assistants) to see to the pastoral needs of each child throughout his five-year stay in the school.

Mum used to say yaat yeung maai sek choet baak yeung yan (Cantonese: one type of rice feeds/produces 100 types of people) and hong hong choet zhong yuen (Cantonese: you can produce a "scholar" in every occupation).

My vision for the new Dragon year? An education system that would nurture a "scholar" in every field, to support every child into a career that will be respected by a gracious society that does not only worship the academic, the rich and famous. I wonder if that would make happier, more creative and confident children, and therefore happier parents.

If you wish the school system to improve, perhaps you could copy this post to your MP or the ministry of education.

Saan nien faai lok! Sum sheung see seng! (Cantonese)

[Akan Datang: a post on why boys should transfer to secondary school later than girls.]

A green light for more grammars?

Grammar schools 'to expand' to meet growing demand

The new academies are a revolutionary force in British education

The creeping return of the grammar school ("creeping"?)

So who is good enough to get into Cambridge? (first hand account that might interest parents and young people)

Tuesday, 17 January 2012

It's not always black and white

My first client today at the CAB was a foreign born woman asking whether there is a chance that she might qualify for some benefits.

She has three children. Her husband works 40+ hours on minimum wage while she works part-time. (She also volunteers at her son's school.) Together they manage to cobble together just enough money to rent a three-bedroom property, but there is very little left after paying rent.

Hmm, another scrounging family?

I withheld judgement and continued to do all that I was supposed to do to find out which is the best way out for her.

She is half an hour short of qualifying for Working Tax Credit but could certainly get some help with Child Tax Credit. As her husband is on very low income, he might also qualify for Working Tax Credit.

Probing further I learned that this family has, to date, not received a single penny of benefit.

Not even Child Benefit which is supposed to be a universal benefit. Either because their immigration status made them ineligible or that it was far too difficult, they had not bothered to claim.

Then there is Housing Benefit and Council Tax Benefit. If they manage to get this sorted, or even any of these options sorted, it would make a huge difference to their lives.

Then I learned that their 19-year-old has been offered a place to study Medicine at Kings College London.

Now, THAT is quite some achievement. Despite being so poor her daughter was able to capitalize on the state school system, almost universally villified by commentators in this country.

She must be a very bright young thing. During this "gap year" she decided to give tuition to earn some money. The father of the girl she was tutoring thought so highly of her that he offered her a job.

Any parent would warm to a story like this.

And I felt no resentment at all in advising her on how to claim these benefits. It was great to see that despite all the disadvantages her daughter now stands a very good chance of lifting them out of poverty. Her skills as a doctor would also benefit the British public.

The next client was an older woman who kept on and on about how "I was not able to get MY money" -- because she was a bit confused about bank holidays, etc -- and failed to pay her council tax leading to the council cancelling her agreement and demanding for the whole sum to be paid or the matter will be passed on to bailiffs.

This old woman was really frightened, "I'm afraid I would lose my house."

[It is a council house, not hers.]

She also managed to raise two useless sons who were not able to help her very much in disharging her debts -- council rent arrears, council tax arrears, bank overdrafts, etc. [She is paying £400 for a three-bedroom council property, while the first client is paying £1400 for a privately-rented property of the same size.]

This woman is nearly 70. Her sons are not youngsters who she says live with her, and yet she is not getting any help from them. (She did say the one who's on the dole does give her some money.)

The most difficult bit was trying to get her to understand that in order for us to help her sort out her debts she has to provide us with the information we need. [We need to get her to do her budgeting statement and then talk to all her creditors to negotiate a loan repayment on her behalf.]

Every time I tried asking if she was able to gather all the information to tell us exactly how much she owed she interrupted, "I've already done that! I was given some forms which I filled in and sent them off to Lloyds. Now they want me to fill them out again," getting quite agitated.

Keep calm, keep calm, I told myself. Take a deep breath.

After further questioning I figured that the bank had passed her case on to a debt collector who in turn wanted to help by asking her to fill in a form (probably a budgeting statement). Her refusal to "do it all over again" made it impossible for anyone -- even the debt collector -- to help her.

I  could not actually help her, bar calming her down and making her see that she must help herself by providing the information required.

After carefully explaining to her what I thought the bank had done, and what the debt collector was trying to do I asked, "Are you willing to do this?"

She agreed, at long last. This interview could have been shortened by 10 minutes if she would only let me finish asking the questions, really.

In ten years one immigrant family was able to nurture a hardworking disadvantaged young woman into a potentially net giver to society.

But the indigenous family, given all the benefits and privileges (my house, my money) they have enjoyed for years, only managed to produce children who either cannot or do not help an aged, widowed parent.

People in this country often assume that the immigrants -- anyone of colour -- are the ones who scrounge. The white indigenous people are the angels.

This afternoon I had the perfect example, side by side, "ebony and ivory", to show this is not always the case.

I am not saying that all immigration is a net benefit. I still have to think about that one. (UK did gain me, that is true.)

Rather it is the "failure to thrive" by some groups of people despite everything provided for them by the welfare state that I worry about.

Compare with this news: Homeless teenager competes in national science competition

Monday, 16 January 2012


Some weeks ago I dealt with a young man from the Horn of Africa. I came this close to throttling him.

He slumped into my office and started off straightaway with "I want to know what benefits I am entitled to".

[Why should he be "entitled" to anything? He has not contributed a penny to the British economy.]

He told me he was being given some benefits in another part of the country and so clearly he was "entitled" to those benefits. But his JSA (JobSeekers Allowance) was stopped because the woman at the Job Centre said as a student he is not looking for a job and should not be entitled to JSA.

This woman is right. Otherwise there will be lots more people on JSA.

The point is without his JSA his Housing Benefit (paying rent) and Council Tax Benefit (paying council tax) were also stopped. So this poor chap had to move in with his sister. Previously he had "his" own little flat.

I was distressed because every time I followed a line of inquiry and went outside to seek help from my supervisor, and returned to ask further questions, this young man changed his story.

Time and time again he changed his story until I felt that he had been telling me nothing but lies, wasting my time.

First he was receiving JSA in Yorkshire. Then he was not receiving JSA in Yorkshire. [We wanted to establish why a benefit approved in Yorkshire was withdrawn where we are.]

First he put in an appeal for a decision to strip him of his benefits. Then he did not put in an appeal, "but something was submitted at the Job Centre". [We could help in advising on the appeal procedure, hold his hand a bit, if he did appeal.]

First he said his college had "given them everything" to prove that he was attending class for less than 16 hours a week. Then his college merely told him to photocopy information in the college prospectus. [Previously I've seen letters written by colleges on headed paper to support their students. Why did his college not do the same?]

Throughout the interview he was also going, "But I am entitled to this," "I should be entitled to that." At one point he asked for a lawyer to help him fight his case.

And who would pay for the lawyer?

In the end we decided that we would help him if he would do steps 1,2,3, etc. and gave him a slot to see an adviser.

Then the pièce de résistance (for want of a better phrase but I think you get my drift). Just before he left my office I passed on my manager's advice, "Well, if you are only studying for 14 hours, there's nothing to stop you looking for a part-time job." [This is what most foreign students do. They are allowed to work up to 20 hours a week, and most do.]

His reply was, "There are no part-time jobs out there. They are all full-time jobs."

Liar. Complete liar.

Everyone else tells us that there are only part-time jobs, offering a few hours here and there, but far fewer full-time ones.

And he just shot himself in the foot: If there are full-time jobs and he cannot, or refuses to, take up a full-time job, then he is NOT a JobSeeker by definition and therefore should not be given JSA. Simple.

My young friends at church work for minimum wage at bars, restaurants, cleaning, etc. for pocket money whenever they can. (They also have parents who pay tax, unlike this young man.) This young man could do the same but refuses to.

He much prefers to "sign on", pretend to look for a job or two to fulfil his "job-seeking" obligation under JSA, continue to complete his course at college, and expect the taxpayer to give him a nice little flat meanwhile. [It is pretence because he has already indicated that he was not going to give up his college course even he was offered a job.]

What makes him think he is entitled to certain benefits in the first place?

He is "entitled" to money if he is being owed money. By insisting that he was "entitled" to benefits suggests that he was being owed benefits. The taxpayer pays these benefits. He is in effect saying that taxpayers (yes, people like myself) owe him these benefits.

As a taxpayer, I fear, I do not feel I owe him a thing. I do not owe him money and do not feel obliged to help someone like him. So his stance that he was "entitled" to something for doing nothing, worse, by pretending to be a jobseeker, does not help his case.

Claiming benefits fraudulently is a crime. Perhaps I should have warned him.

Today I checked. This young man did not bother to show up for his appointment. Why was I not surprised?

He wasted an advice slot that could have gone to someone else needing urgent help.

20/1/12 Update: Out of curiosity I looked up the college at which this young man said he was doing a diploma in engineering. The only engineering diploma courses on their website require full-time study. So how he could argue that it is for 14 hours a week is quite beyond me.

2/2/12 Update: The plot thickens. Talked with a friend whose son is at the same college. She tells me even though her son is at a "full-time course", he only has 14 and a half hours of lessons. So the college claims to run a full-time course (and gets the relevant amount of money from the govt.) but actually only provides 14 and half hours contact time.

She also tells me the college allows students to work a maximum of 8 hours. But of course, one may argue, full-time university students could have as few as 9 hours of contact time. The rest of the time is required for personal study. Still, does not make the case for my young man from the Horn of Africa.

Sunday, 1 January 2012

Thanks for the mammary

Well, you know, it was the end of another year and I could not resist the pun.

I sent a letter on this subject to the Straits Times. It is written in a light-hearted manner although the message is a serious one, and I don't think it is going to be published.

So it goes here, with several edits as I do not need to worry about a 400-word limit:

Two Straits Times stories inspired this: faulty silicone breast implants and toxic milk.

It now appears that no one is exactly sure how many sub-standard implants had been used as the Dutch believe that implants banned in France could have been re-branded and used in the Netherlands.

If a British newspaper is to be believed, a staggering 25,000 British women a year have breast implants. Of these, only a small proportion is done as reconstructive surgery post mastectomies (due to breast cancer).

Most breast implants were done ("made", "performed", "inserted"?) purely for cosmetic reasons. Of course some people think that breast augmentation could enhance their careers in modelling, acting, and other media or non-media work.

Should I feel sorry for the women who now face a life sentence of not knowing what may hit them next (like a Damoclean sword), or that they had their breasts augmented in the first place (ie without medical reason to do so)?

Some may suggest that it is just sour grapes on my part (pun originally unintended, but I'm leaving it in), that I am just jealous of women who fill out those T-shirts a bit better than I who have a triple-A rating … in the chest department. "Frontally-challenged" is the phrase I've just coined. :-)

We have yet another tragic episode of contaminated Chinese milk.

When mothers breastfeed they need only concern themselves with their own nutrition. They know what goes into their milk.

In my case it was very clear that onions gave our baby colic. Ginger, on the other had, had a positive effect. So I had ginger with everything, and avoided onions like the plague.

Not so when we buy milk off the shelf.

These stories remind me (hence "memory") that:

(1) “breast is best” for babies, and thanks to my late mother for bothering, and

(2) the safest breasts are our natural unadulterated ones, whatever (less than ideal) shape or size they might be. Look after them.

Look after them well to keep them cancer-free.

Wishing everyone a Happy New Year and good health!

Update 3/1/2012: See also If a vanity breast job goes wrong, that’s just tough (NB: NHS - National Health Service is completely FREE at point of service)