It was reported in the news that the Ministry of Education (MOE) has a “long-standing practice” of withholding the original copy of a student’s Primary School Leaving Examination (PSLE) results slip if school fees are not paid. MOE told Yahoo! News Singapore on Tue (26 Nov) in response to queries that the real aim of doing so “stems from the underlying principle that notwithstanding the fact that the cost of education is almost entirely publicly funded, we should still play our part in paying a small fee, and it is not right to ignore that obligation, however small it is”. “Further, students from lower-income families can apply for financial assistance that covers their miscellaneous fees, uniforms, textbooks, transport and school meals. If it is about money then the easier solution would be to reduce subsidies and financial assistance,” it added. MOE’s statement was made in response to an earlier case brought up by Gilbert Goh, founder of Transitioning.org – a support site for the unemployed. Mr Goh made a Facebook post highlighting the plight of a student whose original PSLE result slip was withheld by MOE, as her parents had incurred $156 in unpaid school fees. Eventually, a kind member of the public paid the school fees for the student so that she can get her original PSLE result slip. Mr Goh did not reveal the name of the school she was attending nor her name probably to safeguard her identity. MOE said the parents of student in question had not settled the miscellaneous school fees for two years in spite of several reminders. Additionally, her parents has also not applied for any financial assistance, which the ministry said “would have covered all the costs”. MOE added that the student “will still receive a copy of the results”, and “can still apply for secondary schools and will progress like all students”, in response to Mr Goh’s assertion that a student’s original copy is required for admission into secondary school. MOE also accused Mr Goh of “trying to call into question the intention and values of the MOE” with the Facebook post. MOE said, “Our educators, parents and members of public will have to decide whether the MOE’s action is fair and educationally sound, and what the lesson of this teachable moment for our children is.” Former NCMP Yee: Many from lower income group not aware of help After MOE went public asking members of public to decide “what the lesson of this teachable moment for our children is”, former NCMP and opposition member Yee Jenn Jong wrote on his blog the next day (27 Nov) recounting his experience working with the lower income group who sometimes could not even pay for children’s school fees (‘Unpaid school fees – What are the teachable moments?‘). He said that the reported incident by Mr Goh reminded him of a case he took when helping out at the Meet-People-Session in Aljunied GRC sometime back. Near closing time one evening at 9.30pm, a 2nd year diploma student rushed desperately seeking help. It turned out that she had unpaid fees and was told by the school that unless she paid up, she would not get her official results which she needed to register for her third and final year courses. “She was very distressed because the last date to register for her courses was like that next day or very soon after that. She was sobbing as she told her story,” Mr Yee recalled. She is the eldest in the family with her illiterate mum working part-time supporting the family. Needless to say, the family was constantly in debt, borrowing from relatives. Her previous year fees had been paid by an aunt who was not able to give her another loan so soon. The student had to work part-time but the money earned wasn’t enough to pay for the school fees. She was naturally worried that she would be kicked out from the school for owing school fees. In fact, she did not even know what her 2nd year results were because the school’s policy was that they wouldn’t release any results with fees outstanding. Luckily Mr Yee has a friend working in the school and was kind enough to go out of his way to help. His friend linked up Mr Yee and the student with the school’s finance manager. The school didn’t know of her financial situation. “The finance manager was very kind and revealed that she had passed and may register for the third year courses and asked her to apply for a bursary,” Mr Yee said. The school also gave her time to pay up for the previous outstanding fees, which she eventually borrowed from her relatives to pay off. She also got a bursary for her final year of studies. Mr Yee himself tried to help by engaging her on a part-time basis to do work at his company. Eventually, she graduated and found a job in an MNC as a web designer. Mr Yee opined, “Hers is a happy story that could have turned out badly. I asked why she did not try to apply for any financial assistance before then. She said she was not aware (even though the school had schemes and were indeed kind and fast to act when her situation surfaced).” “It is hard to blame her as she was not yet an adult then and the family already had so much problems. Relatives were afraid of them requesting for more financial assistance. She only came to the MPS because she shared her problems at a church meeting and her friend suggested going to meet her MP, which she promptly rushed to because the MPS happened to be that evening,” Mr Yee added. “The problem often is that when there are persistent unpaid fees, there are often some deep issues or dysfunctional family situations. I am not sure if the family would be in a good situation to talk to the child about the learning points of having to pay their dues if they had many other daily stresses or were dysfunctional.” Mr Yee said he did not know why the PSLE student in Mr Goh’s case didn’t apply for financial assistance. “I know schools have lots of ways to help low income family pay for fees and even get pocket money allowances because I have been involved in helping to raise such funds for schools. The young lady I had helped could have raised her problems to the school much earlier and she would likely have gotten a bursary from day 1 but she said she was not aware of support schemes and did not know that she would have qualified,” Mr Yee explained. Kindergarten principal and teacher visit family who hasn’t paid school fees for child Mr Yee then told a second story, also about a family who owed school fees. Apparently, one family had not paid their child’s kindergarten school fees nor the school bus fees. The school bus refused to pick the boy up and he stopped attending the kindergarten altogether. The principal and the form teacher then decided to visit the family. Mr Yee recounted, “They reached the home of the family just as the father and son were stepping out. The father was apologetic and promised to pay up the fees. He thought that the school had come to chase for the debts. The school explained that they were not there for the fees as they had already asked the Board for permission to waive off the fees.” “They just wanted to ask the child to go back to school as they did not want him to miss out the memorable final weeks. They even asked the bus company if they could sponsor the bus trips for the final period for the family,” explained Mr Yee. So, what are the teachable moments? “It can be to tell the family and child that they need to pay for all financial obligations. It can also be to tell them that there’s grace in the society if there are truly situations that call for it,” Mr Yee said. “I hope the young preschool boy will grow up well and one day remember that the school (kindergarten) he attended reached out because they did not want him to fall behind no matter what the family circumstances were; that if he is financially capable one day, he can pay it back to others.” Mr Yee did not think that many families like to owe money especially over education. It is embarrassing to the child. “With persistent unpaid fees, there are often stories behind these which can only be known if we probe further. Probing needs time,” Mr Yee further opined. “As much as there are teachable moments to the families, there are also engagement opportunities by the schools and by social welfare organisations to use these as trigger points to dig further and to help families work a way out of problems.” In fact, this was exactly what Mr Goh did – to help those low income families who especially are not aware of the many confusing government schemes available. Rather then accusing Mr Goh of having ulterior motives, perhaps MOE should thank people like Mr Goh for surfacing such cases which apparently fell through the crack. MOE should be asking why the PSLE student had owed 2 years of school fees. Did the school principal or teacher bother to find out like what the kindergarten principal and teacher did for the family of the preschool kid?