When I visited you earlier this year it was obvious that no one takes education as seriously as you Singaporeans.
But, as a quick read of the The Straits Times made clear, there are few things that cause you more stress and anxiety.
Indeed, while your children are amongst the highest achievers in the world, few of you seemed satisfied.
So, for once, I am going to allow you to relax a little. I’m going to make you feel better about yourselves - and what your kids are doing.
But this wouldn’t be an article about education if there wasn’t a test. So please have a look at the following passage, and try to guess the job of the person who wrote it.
Take this simple test
The only clue I’ll give you is that it is about the advertising craft of copywriting - and how it has lost much of its status in recent years.
“Copywriters need to be put on a pedestal the same as great designers and developers do. Unfortunately, because most people can write in one form or another it’s not seen as difficult a skill to find. But because bosses, clients etc often have no idea how to put code together they see it as magic in comparison. Clients, agencies, bosses whoever need education as to what copywriting really is and it’s worth.”
It’s not very good is it? Indeed it looks like it was produced by someone who is barely literate.
And yet, this passage was written by someone who makes their living as a copywriter in the UK. In fact, they could be earning as much as £85,000 a year if they are in senior position in a London agency.
Worse still, it appeared in a book produced by the UK Direct Marketing Association. So one assumes that it was proof read by at least one other person before it appeared in print. And yet no one sounded the warning bell and sent it back to its author to be re-written.
Why HSBC, Tesco and Deloitte aren’t happy with our youngsters
This kind of thing hurts me. You see, I am also a London - based copywriter, and I have seen the basic skills needed to do the job properly disappear as each new wave of graduates (and yes, by and large, they are graduates) enters the industry.
And it isn’t just the UK ad industry that is suffering the effects of the dumbing down of our education system.
In a recent poll of 127 companies - including the likes of HSBC, Deloitte, BT and Tesco - half their bosses said university leavers struggle with basic English and nearly two-fifths claim they cannot do simple Maths.
More than half of these companies were having difficulty filling vacancies and most will spend more on training to bring recruits up to standard.
The situation with school leavers is just as bad.
Research by the Chartered Institute of Management Accountants revealed that the UK’s youngsters were twice as likely to lack functional skills, basic literacy and numeracy in comparison to their European peers.
Bosses highlighted problems such as school-leavers struggling with mental arithmetic and practical maths skills, showing poor grasp of English language both verbally and written, and having limited knowledge of basic office IT skills.
Imagine your child sending an email like this
If you’d like an example of how this ignorance manifests itself in the workplace, then read this.
A couple of months ago, I took a call from a real estate agent asking me if I would like to sell my apartment in London. I told her to put her proposition to me in writing. This is what I got from her:
“Dear, Me Steve Harrison
Thank you for your time earlier today when we had a very nice conversation about the valuation on your property to give you the concept of what budget you will be in if you come across your dream home. However of what best possible price we may achieve in the future for you if you wish to go on forward. I wish you the very best of luck with your plans if you do wish to consider taking this valuation on forward do keep in touch and will keep in touch just to advise you how the market is going. However, please do not hesitate to contact me on 0XXX XXXXXX if I can be of further assistance.
Kindest regards Sandra”
This was no country bumpkin. This lady works in the central office of one of the biggest real estate agents in London.
When I called her to let her know that I could neither make head nor tail of her email, she said she couldn’t see anything wrong in her efforts - and was offended that I had criticised her.
Why you should be proud
I know that you will see why her writing is so appalling. But, more to the point, if you have a six year old child, then I’m sure they’ll think it’s risible too.
And that’s what I found so refreshing about your education system when I visited Singapore earlier this year. There is a rigour to it that has long been abandoned in the UK.
Indeed, I got hold of some of The Learning Lab’s Mathematics test papers that were set for your nine year olds, and to my embarrassment, I found them too difficult to complete.
(I freely admit that I have always been atrocious at Mathematics and still cannot count up to 20 with both socks still on my feet.)
What I saw in Maths applied across the curriculum. In fact, the Maths, Science and English classes intended for 12 year olds were set at a level that might be expected for GCSE O Level students in the UK.
And as for Chinese? Well, despite the fact that this is supposed to be the ‘Chinese Century’ in which anyone hoping to do business internationally will have to speak some Mandarin, the only exposure most UK kids get to Chinese comes from the menu at their local take-away restaurant.
So, you should be proud that you are giving your kids the firmest of educational foundations here in Singapore - and confident that you are producing a new generation of youngsters who, academically, will compete with the best that the world can produce.
Another thing you beat us at
But that is just the part of it. For there is something else that impressed me about what The Learning Lab does for the children who attend its classes.
And I need to go back to our experience in the UK to highlight my point.
We are producing graduates and school leavers who have no interest in the life beyond the self-centred bubble in which they live - and no skills that can be bartered in the workplace.
That was certainly the finding of the first research report that I cited above.
In the survey of 127 UK bosses, more than two thirds said that the graduates who come to them could not handle customers, and half said that these young adults could not operate independently.
John Cridland, Director-General of the Confederation of British Industry, said schools had become ‘conveyor belts’ with too little emphasis on wider skills and attitudes.
He said, “Rigorous standards are vital but there’s been too little emphasis on the wider skills and attitudes that employers demand. Instead of trying to push students over the grade C line at GCSE, we need a system which prizes rounded and grounded young people.”
Our problem is that we are breeding a generation of youngsters whose are ferried back and forth by doting parents who ‘protect’ them from harm both real and largely imagined. Indeed, their only interaction with society beyond their bedroom comes from an iPhone screen.
Meet the kid who doesn’t know his own address
Sadly, it isn’t just the UK that is producing a generation of youngsters who have no understanding of, or exposure to, the real world.
This became all too apparent to me when I was in Los Angeles last April. I’d decided to walk the three miles from my apartment to my friend’s home, and had taken a hand drawn map with me to find my way.
After walking for about half an hour, I stopped to check if I was on the right track by asking a teenage boy which street I was on.
He looked puzzled and shrugged his shoulders. I repeated my question and he replied ‘I dunno’. I asked him if he lived in the house he was standing outside and he nodded. He then shouted up to one of the many bedroom windows, ‘Pop, Pop, what street is this?’
I get the feeling that if I had asked the same question in Singapore, the young lad would have stopped what he was doing and offered to personally escort me to my destination.
Preparing for life beyond the classroom
That’s because the kids here show so much more initiative. Moreover, those who are enrolled at The Learning Lab are actively encouraged to look up from their screens and learn, first hand, about the world about them.
When I read the Director- General of the Confederation of British Industry calling for ‘more grounded and rounded young people’, I felt like sending him some of the English Comprehension papers that are given to ten year old students at TLL.
I remember when I visited the United Square centre, I was so impressed by one of those papers, I popped it in my bag and, on my flight home, read all about Travis Kalanick and his vision for Uber’s domination of the world. Believe me, I still dine out on the knowledge I picked up from that paper!
Recently, I was interested to see if TLL was covering the Brexit debate that was raging here in the UK. Sure enough, when the English Comprehension paper dealing with this issue was emailed over to me, I read it and learned more from its pages than from three months of superficial media coverage.
I’m sure that the teachers at TLL also achieved something else with Brexit that we failed miserably to do back here in the UK. I’ll bet they made it fun.
More fun than Disneyland
Which brings me to the last of my overriding memories from my trip to Singapore and my visit to TLL: the fact that the kids seemed to love being there.
This surprised me because I’d read a lot about the pressure that kids were under to succeed academically. Indeed, I knew that it was so serious an issue that the government was stepping in to make the PSLE exams a little less competitive.
So, when I first visited TLL, I was expecting silent classrooms, stern teachers and sombre students.
Yes, the place looked unlike any school I’d ever been in. In fact, the rooms resembled the many board rooms I’ve had the dubious pleasure of presenting in during my 25 years in advertising.
But the atmosphere was electric. The kids couldn’t wait to get in the classroom, and the shrieks of excitement were more akin to Disneyland than a place of study. And, as I kept on having to tell myself, this was on a Saturday - the kids’ day off normal school.
You can’t teach a bored kid
I asked one of the teachers what drugs they were dispensing, and if I could have some to take home to the Ministry of Education in the UK. The teacher said the only stimulant was the special TLL curriculum.
To which I replied, ‘But English is English isn’t it? And you’re here to help kids pass their English tests, so how exciting can that be?’
She explained that the right academic content was simply the starting point. The forty or so people who set the curriculum - and reset it on a weekly basis - strive to ensure that the subject grabs the kids’ attention and fires their imagination.
As she said, there’s no point in trying to teach a bored kid who doesn’t want to be in the room with you. You have to get them interested by relating the things they are learning, to life beyond the classroom.
A lesson for the UK
From what I could see, it certainly seemed to be working. And the parents appeared to be as content as the kids. Moreover, none of them resembled the legendary Tiger Mums I’d heard so much about before I arrived in Singapore. Nor was the equally (in)famous national trait, “Kia-su”, too much in evidence.
Sure, you all want your kids to succeed. But the overriding sense I got was that you also want your children to enjoy a sense of fulfillment, too.
As I sit here in a post-Brexit Britain, I realise that, if we are to compete in the open world market then we are going to have to emulate you - and what you have done since you were in a similar situation in 1961.
At the moment, however, I’m pretty certain we’re not setting the academic bar high enough. And, despite (or maybe because of) this more lenient approach, I’m not sure our kids feel all that fulfilled either.
But let’s not leave on that note. My aim has been to use the grim situation in the UK in order to cast light on what you are doing brilliantly here in Singapore. So relax and enjoy one article about your education system that doesn’t paint a picture of frazzled parents and furrowed young brows.
Indeed, you deserve a break. So why not celebrate by cancelling the kids’ classes (and their piano, swimming and tennis lessons) next Saturday - packing the car with a picnic hamper and all heading off to the beach?
About the writer
Steve Harrison is a British copywriter and an author. He was the former European creative director at Ogilvy&Mather Direct. Regarded by Campaign Magazine as the greatest Direct Marketing Creative of his generation, he won more Cannes Lions Direct awards than any other Creative Director in the world.
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