Heng Swee Keat popularised ‘every school, a good school’ phrase when he was education minister

Heng set the tone for moving away from grades in education.

Matthias Ang | December 02, 2018, 04:44 PM

Over the past week, there is much interest on Heng Swee Keat, Singapore’s likely next Prime Minister and successor to PM Lee Hsien Loong, following his new appointment as the most senior People's Action Party (PAP) leader among the fourth generation leaders.

Several leaders and political observers have mentioned his extensive public sector experiences as his key advantage among the 4G leaders.

The latest leader was Emeritus Senior Minister Goh Chok Tong, who told Channel NewsAsia in an interview on Nov 27 that Heng’s strengths lay in his strong experience in governance. 

Heng's first portfolio is in the Education Ministry, having been appointed as the Education Minister in May 2011.

During his tenure from 2011 to 2015, Heng is known for popularising the following term:

"Every school, a good school."

Indeed, it was a phrase that ended up stuck with Heng due to how misunderstood it became.

This is because the short nature of such a line lends itself easily to misinterpretation.

Does it mean that elite schools and neighbourhood schools are equally good?

That a neighbourhood school can be considered an elite school and vice versa?

Or that there are no bad schools in Singapore?

In any case, Heng had to clarify the statement's definition in Parliament in 2014.


Here's what Heng states at the two-minute-and-ten-second mark of the video:

“Every school a good school does not mean every school the same school. But it does mean every school good in its own way, seeking to bring out the best in every child.”

Here, we assess his impact at MOE, beyond the "every school is a good school" term.

Launching the shift away from grades

Perhaps another way of looking at Heng's statement is to view it against the backdrop of the initiatives and policies that were implemented by the Ministry of Education (MOE) during his time.

Even if Heng's statement "Every school, a good school" could be easily misconstrued, it was hard to doubt the efforts that he poured into ensuring his statement could be a reality.

Among some of the more notable things that Heng did as Education Minister were:

Abolishing school rankings

In 2012, Heng announced the abolishment of secondary school banding by academic results, stating that school banding had since achieved its purpose of spurring schools to higher standards and was now creating the perception that MOE measures schools by academic results instead.

It was part of his push towards what he saw as a more "student-centric, values-driven education."

A press release by MOE, on Sept. 12, 2012, saw the ministry acknowledge that while students’ knowledge and skills in academics remained key, it was also necessary to recognise that a school’s effectiveness in academic education would be better measured by the academic value that it added for students.

In a speech given by Heng the same day at Ngee Ann Polytechnic, he added "the fact is there is no single yardstick to measure how 'good' our schools are."

Rather, it was important to ensure that educators could "ignite the joy of learning, provide learning support where necessary, and design multiple pathways to suit different learning styles."

Accordingly, the School Information Service was adjusted to help parents better select secondary schools based on:

"...distance from their homes and transport arrangements, the schools’ ethos, the intake cut-off points and PSLE point range of secondary schools, whether the school has CCAs and programmes that match their children’s’ learning needs and interests, and the schools’ academic value-added and other non-academic achievements."

Halting the release of the highest and lowest PSLE aggregate scores

Perhaps it was not too surprising then, that in 2013, as reported by The Straits Times (ST), MOE made the decision to not release the highest and lowest PSLE aggregate scores.

Heng put up a Facebook post a day prior to the release of the PSLE results, stating that it was "not healthy for the children if we put undue pressure on them over one exam."

He also urged parents not to judge children "by a number."

Heng added that instead, parents should compliment their children for the hard work put in and look forward to spending quality time together for the holidays.

This was because the PSLE was essentially "just one stage of a long and hopefully rich education journey, and just one stage of an even longer and fuller lifetime of learning."

Improving the lot of polytechnic and ITE students

2014 saw Heng set up a panel with Senior Minister of State for Education Indranee Rajah known as the Applied Study in Polytechnics and ITE Review (ASPIRE) committee.

According to TODAYthe aim of the committee was to enhance the career and academic prospects of polytechnic and ITE graduates.

Some of the measures that ASPIRE recommended MOE to take included:

  • Improving education and career guidance efforts in polytechnics and ITEs.
  • Launching place-and-train programmes, similar to the apprenticeship models in Germany and Switzerland, where students received on-the-job training as paid employees of a company.
  • Better Post-diploma Continuing Education and Training opportunities at polytechnics for graduates to improve themselves.
  • Developing career progression pathways and frameworks for sector-specific skills together with industry players.

In total, ten recommendations were put forward by the ASPIRE committee, with MOE accepting all ten of them.

In Heng's own words, as quoted by TODAY:

"We must break the boundary between learning in the classrooms and learning at work. In fact, the workplace should become a great learning place."

Expanding the number of places at universities

2014 also saw an expansion of the number of places at universities by MOE, with the Singapore Institute of Technology (SIT) becoming Singapore's fifth autonomous university.

In a Facebook post on March 28, 2014, Heng stated that the expansion was aimed at "increasing the diversity of our higher education landscape" and would "better prepare students who enjoy hands-on learning for the challenging careers ahead in the working world."

In total, up to 14,000 university places were made available by MOE in 2014, 1,000 more than in the year 2012, with the bulk of the new places coming from SIT and the introduction of new full-time degree programmes at UniSIM (SUSS prior to becoming autonomous in 2017 and having its name changed) at that time.

Heng added that the aim of MOE was to ultimately ensure that 40 percent of every student cohort by 2020 would have a space at a publicly-funded university.

Heng also stressed that attending school was not the only way to learn -- if a student could pick up skills, knowledge and values through gaining experience at work, they should "do that! And persevere."

While it is still debatable whether the current education landscape has achieved the state of "Every school, a good school", one cannot deny that Heng has made his mark as Education Minister.

After all, considering the aspect of current discourse on education needing to move away from grades -- it's not a stretch to say that Heng laid the groundwork for it.

Top photo from Heng Swee Keat Facebook