How Should We Develop Potential and Broaden Aspirations?

Education is such a thorny issue. Ask any three Singaporeans what they think about the current system, and you’ll walk away with four opinions. It’s easy to rehash platitudes like “every school is a good school”, but does “good” even mean? Does it mean “every school is good, but some schools are better”? Or “every school is good, but each with different niches”? Or “every school is identical, pressed-from-the-same-factory-mould good”?  

I ask these questions in light of the planned revisions to PSLE heading (from a finely differentiated T-score system to broader grade bands), and the ongoing discussions regarding the DSA scheme (whether GEP students should be considered for DSA by virtue of their GEP status). These are cautious tweaks aimed at resolving the long-standing problem confronting our society: How should we value talent, and consequently, give every child a reasonable shot at social mobility?

My view is that, while well-intentioned, these measures merely redirect pressures elsewhere. In a society with a fairly narrow and rigid conception of success, the stresses facing our children won’t vanish overnight. Parents want the best for their kids, and those cheering the recent changes do so because they believe it will give their children a solid chance to enter a ‘good’ school. As other commentators have wisely observed, when there are more students who can potentially enter a school based on grades, this either means they will be differentiated based on their co-curricular achievements or by ballot. And it’s not clear that this will be any fairer.

Without addressing more systemic issues, this is much like putting lipstick on a pig. We don’t have to completely tear down the status quo, but we should have the courage to make bold revisions.

First, I think a review of the streaming and classification system is in order. I support there being a range of schools which each cater to students of particular academic abilities, and I do feel that streaming students within schools makes some sense. What should be interrogated is the age at which we assess students. Currently, we sieve out bright performers at 9 (GEP selection tests), sort students into secondary schools at 12 (PSLE), determine their junior colleges or polytechnics at 16 to 17, and finally select for university students at 18 to 19.

This seems fairly front-loaded, especially given that most good performers at the age of 9 and 12 will then enter Integrated Programme schools, and not sit for ‘O’ Levels. By front-loaded, I mean that the MOE is assuming children can be accurately evaluated for their academic potential at the young ages of 9 and 12. My belief is that at such a formative age, standardised assessments end up testing for privilege and nurture rather than hard work and ability. At an age where kids are more concerned with eraser duelling and playing catching, it is very often socio-economic status which sets them apart. Someone from a stable family, whose mother can tutor him or her every night, whose maid keeps an eye on him after school, who attends Math enrichment on Friday nights and piano classes on Saturdays. To be fair, these factors do still affect one later on in life. But they play a disproportionately outsize role at a young age, when kids are naturally rowdy and mischievous. When children don’t really understand the value of education and have their development scaffolded by their surroundings, it is their circumstances which influence their achievement.

My worry is that such standardised testing at an early age only serves to perpetuate inequality, by locking people into their positions of privilege. However, if we back-load the process, and stream for talent at later ages, our meritocracy might better facilitate social mobility. How could this work? For one, do away with the GEP and PSLE. Scrap the IP system as well. In its place, implement an alternative through-train system, where all primary schools now take students through from Primary 1 to Secondary 2. Obviously, this would mean changing the labels, to something like Primary 1 to Primary 8. In this scenario, make all primary schools as identical as possible: same funding, same teacher mix, same teacher-to-student ratio, same student demographic mix (to be achieved through assigning students to schools rather than letting parents choose).

At the age of 14, they will sit their first standardized test, something midway between the PSLE and ‘O’ Levels in terms of difficulty. Based on their grades, they’ll be streamed into Secondary schools. The stronger students might do an Express programme lasting two years, while the weaker students might do a Technical or Normal programme lasting three to four years. Again, at the end of this period, we’ll do another round of compulsory standardized examinations, to further place students into JC or Polytechnics. The goal is to create a porous meritocracy, where students aren’t identified for success too early based on factors related to privilege, and everyone has a more equal chance to excel.

Of course, this will be a massive logistical nightmare. It would mean merging some schools, increasing the size of all primary schools, re-tooling the syllabus to fit this new normal, and re-training teachers. I think the potential benefits in the long run definitely justify this cost, but I’m also sympathetic to the opinion that this is just too administratively challenging to be worth it.

A complementary second approach would be to decisively broaden the definition of success. Some encouraging steps have been taking in this regard, in the form of schools like the Singapore Sports School and SOTA, but more can certainly be done. The government should review the career pathways in areas like the sports, arts, and music, and increase funding or co-pay the wages of promising non-academic talents if need be. More scholarships (both in terms of the scholarship quantum and number of scholarships offered) would also be welcome. I’m definitely no expert in this area, so these might well be things we’re already looking at.

Also, an interesting tangent to consider would be if softening our current anti-welfarian rhetoric would encourage a broadening of aspirations. I suspect that our government’s stern focus on individual responsibility and one’s ability to pay his or her way through their entire life without being a drain on state resources has subtly influenced the way Singaporeans perceive success. It makes intuitive sense that more capitalist, free-market economies naturally cultivate a hierarchical winner-loser mentality, given that no one wants to be the painfully stereotypical starving artist who lives paycheck to paycheck. Whereas strongly emphasising the more socialist, compassionate elements of our social policy (without changing too much in actuality) could actually encourage parents to allow their children to explore alternate pathways to success, without imposing a draconian emphasis on conventional social metrics of success.

As a product of our existing education framework, in all its flaws and benefits, I can say that I have definitely met dozens of brilliant friends who have come from less-than-privileged backgrounds and excelled within the system. It’s not that social mobility is non-existent; for them, it is very much alive and real. But ultimately I feel that anecdotes don’t constitute good social policy, and it may well be the case that many more of such people will surface if we have the political bravery to re-examine the way we structure and plan education.


One Reply to “How Should We Develop Potential and Broaden Aspirations?”

  1. I see a few problems with your revamp of the system. Firstly, you’re assuming that Primary 8 students will be significantly more mature and emotionally developed than Primary 6es (let’s face it – at 12, we were retards. At 14, we were also retards.) such that the majority of students move from a “lets fuck around and have fun” attitude to a “let’s invest some time and effort into our future” way of thinking. Im no expert, but I definitely didn’t see the change when I was that age.

    Secondly, I think it’s safe to assume that students of different academic capabilities function best when taught at a pace or in a style that best suits them. By pushing back the first round of streaming two years, you’re essentially denying students of 2 years of ability-catered education, instead replacing it with one where advanced students are placed with comparatively weaker students, leaving teachers at a loss as to what pace to teach at – too fast, and the latter cannot keep up, too slow and the former lose interest.

    Finally, and this is a purely subjective point, I found that 4 years was an ideal duration for my secondary school education. I was given enough time to pursue my interests (sports) surrounded by the same coach and teammates. Changing schools, and thus teams, after just two years would make it difficult for sportsmen to grow and develop in a constant, non-volatile environment. After all, different coaches and teams have very different playstyles and expectations.


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