August 2016

Express your views on the recent move to revamp the PSLE scoring system and Singapore's education system and academic culture as a whole.

1st Place - Calvin Lee

If academic excellence forms the bedrock of the typical Singaporean parent’s aspirations for their child, excellence in national exams must constitute the cornerstone of this structure. Surely then the degree of controversy surrounding the proposed reforms to the Primary School Leaving Examinations (“PSLE”) is not surprising, ranging from criticisms that the reforms do too little to criticisms that the reforms do too much. The proposed revamps include adopting a cumulative T-score of each student’s Achievement Level (“AL”) for the 4 compulsory PSLE subjects based on how well each student does in a subject (instead of how well each student does according to their peers), changes to the Secondary School balloting system to accord more weight to a student’s listed priorities, and amending the Direct School Admissions (“DSA”) criteria.


This essay seeks to critically analyze 3 assumptions inherent in these reforms: that stress is ‘bad’, that a less fine and more generalised grading system would reduce stress, and that grading is, ultimately, still beneficial for students, families, and Singapore as a whole. This essay concludes that these reforms should be lauded as a step in the right direction, although the effectiveness of these reforms will be hampered by current societal attitudes and biases.


Assumption 1: stress is ‘bad’  


First, the revamps assume that more stress is bad for children and their families, and thus must be addressed through means such as adopting a more general grading scheme. Instinctively, this must be correct, as the notion of deliberately causing a child unhappiness through institutional means reeks of a dystopian nightmare. Asian parents bear a stereotypically harsh approach towards the upbringing of their children (see the New York Times bestseller, Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother by Amy Chua), and Singaporean parents are no exception. On the contrary, Singaporean parents are notorious for being at the frontier of such extremes in Singapore’s pressure-cooker society. Families are not spared too – it is not uncommon to hear of annual family holidays being cancelled because of a child’s exams, or a parent taking a sabbatical in the year when a child is taking the PSLE. Psychological studies further buttress the general trend that stress, at any point of an individual’s life, has negative effects on that person’s mental health.


However, a more big-picture perspective presents things in a less gloomy light. Fundamentally, the issue lies with the definition of ‘bad’. Contemporaneous discomfort can be justified as a prelude to prospective delayed gratification. For example, the stress caused to a child in his formative years due to an intensive education may be justifiable if it is seen as a crucial part of enabling the child to perform excellently in his future studies and even career. Such a connection between Singapore’s stressful society, its highly educated population and its booming economy is unlikely to be coincidental. This may be supported by Singapore’s commendable ranking on the United Nation’s ‘Happiness Index’ of 22nd, the highest score in the Asia-Pacific, based on factors such as per capita Gross Domestic Product, level of social support, healthy life expectancy, freedom to make life choices, generosity and freedom from corruption.


Ultimately, the issue of whether childhood stress is ‘bad’ is not as clear-cut as considered at first glance. There might not even be a clear-cut answer to this, as it depends on each individual’s priorities in life, such that academic excellence might lead only to economic happiness. The results of a 2015 Gallup survey bear this out: out of 145 countries surveyed, Singapore did well for financial well-being (9th), but poorly for community well-being (72nd), purpose well-being (111th), social well-being (127th) and physical well-being (137th). This survey shows the wide range of concerns that collectively constitute an individual’s ‘happiness’, and these dismal results paint a more sobering picture than the UN’s ‘Happiness Index’, which focuses more on larger institutional measures of happiness. Notably, Singapore’s regional standing of 97th was rather poor, as compared to the following scores: Myanmar (20th), Malaysia (41st), Philippines (43rd), Thailand (50th), Indonesia (73rd), and Vietnam (93rd). There is, perhaps, cause for concern in relation to this issue.


Assumption 2: a less fine and more generalised grading system would reduce stress


Acting Minister for Education, Ng Chee Meng, shared that “[t]he main issue to address is that the way we currently score the PSLE is too precise, and differentiates our students more finely than necessary”; there was hence a need to “move away from such fine distinctions, which are not meaningful, especially at that young age". The basis of this revamp thus seems to be to encourage students to view themselves in a more egalitarian manner, as students within a certain range of scores will all receive the similar AL. This is a commendable approach, as it is generally questionable how different children who have only had limited opportunities to fulfil their academic potential by the tender age of 12 can be. It should follow from the developmental nature of education that the disparity between students of differing intellectual capability should be proportionate to the amount of time spent in the educational system, such that a more specific differentiating system is crucial at older ages, while a more general system may be applied at younger ages. Furthermore, the normative effect of such broad achievement levels stresses that all students within the same AL are of equal capability. This is a particularly notable point in relation to AL6, which applies to scores from 45 to 64 marks, hence straddling the numerical pass-fail margin of 50 marks; the government appears to be implicitly stressing that the difference between a pass and a fail is but an arbitrarily blunt label.


Crucially, the government appears to have avoided basing its approach on the belief that students will be less competitive in their quest to achieve the highest AL. This must be correct, as Singaporean parents have demonstrated a cynical commitment to competing in every manner. For example, although the DSA programme was initiated to reward a more holistic education instead of purely academic rigor, a market for DSA preparation and enrichment classes has since developed. Hence, the DSA program has backfired; instead of its initial goal of encouraging parents to stress the child less by recognizing a child’s wider strengths beyond academics, parents now stress their child even more by requiring their child to be the best at everything. It is also doubtful whether the change from a bell-curved system (where students are graded in relation to their peers) to a raw score system (where students are simply graded on how well they do) will be effective in reducing inter-student competitiveness, as their competitiveness is still ultimately propelled by the recognition of the scarcity of the desired vacancies in the best schools only for the best students.


The classification of achievement bands into ALs also raises the specter of arbitrariness: how logical can it be that a student is distinguished from a Normal (Technical) stream (which requires a 5-year secondary school syllabus) instead of a Normal (Academic) stream (which only requires a 4-year secondary school syllabus) on the basis of a single mark? Arguably, however, this criticism can be leveled against any sort of classification system. One can only hope that such a rigid system is tempered by the enlightened exercise of discretion by its administrators in deserving cases. 


Assumption 3: grading is, ultimately, still beneficial for students, families, and Singapore as a whole


It is notable that the government has not adopted the extreme measure of doing away with examinations completely, as would be the case if the only concern was to reduce stress for children and their families. There are, instead, 2 countervailing considerations. First, the categorization of children according to their academic ability is meant to enable students to receive education most befitting to their academic ability so as to maximize their potential. It does no one any favors if teaching is simultaneously too fast and too slow for different students in a single class. This approach is supported by the recent development of alternative paths of education, on the basis that academic strengths are not everything. For example, the government has invested heavily in the development of Institute for Technical Education (“ITE”) facilities recently, as well as in the development of educational institutions for children with special needs. 


Second, and most primarily, this must be because of the countervailing concern of ensuring meritocracy. A lack of examinations would mean a lack of means to select the most qualified (and hence most deserving) individual for any particular opportunity, thus undermining the mechanism by which meritocracy functions. Admittedly, the common criticism of meritocracy that it entrenches elitism holds true, since the classification of students according to their academic ability creates institutionalized social strata even at a young age. However, this problem should be addressed through ‘softer’ means instead, such as through the reformation of societal mindsets to recognize the societal worth of members of society that contribute in different ways.


A more palatable proposal could be, instead, to abolish the PSLE with the intention of making the ‘O’ level examinations the first form of nationalized examinations. The basis for this proposal would be to recognize the importance of differentiating examinations, but argue instead that the appropriate age for such sorting should be at 16, instead of 12. However, this goes against the present government’s assessment of the appropriate manner to assess a child’s development. Without descending into the myriad of sociological and psychological arguments for the merits of each side, it should suffice to say that presumptively, a democratically elected government has the moral authority to make such a determination on behalf of society, and the PSLE at the age of 12 is what our present government has decided to endorse.




The effectiveness of these measures is still hampered by ‘soft’ non-institutional factors. Primarily, there can be no watershed progress in improving Singapore’s educational system if parents still possess a mindset that academic achievements are paramount. Additionally, the effectiveness of such a newfound emphasis on holistic education is also hampered by employers’ primary bias towards academic excellence. It is perhaps in light of these considerations that Minister Ng commented that the changes were not meant to be revolutionary, but rather evolutionary: “[s]ome things are best evolved and not revolutionalised”. Nevertheless, this essay bears hope that the normative effect of such changes signify slow but steady progress towards a society where each child’s strengths are discerned and catered for, be they in the pursuit of academic excellence or in other non-academic strengths.

2nd Place - Eric Bea

Not too long ago, I was asked to cross-critique some student-participants’ proposals for a parliamentary bill they would like to introduce. This was in my capacity as a student mentor for the Moot Parliament Programme, under the auspices of the Gifted Education Branch. One proposal was particularly bold — introducing compulsory pre-school education in Singapore, by amending the Compulsory Education Act to lower the starting point of compulsory school age from 6, to 4. Other than the usual ramifications of increased costs to the State, as well as what KPIs would be used to measure the success of this scheme — which us student mentors feared would include standardized testing, one question stuck in my mind: why does the topic of education induce so much hand-wringing in Singapore? To be fair, this isn’t a phenomenon restricted to this little red dot; the same can be seen in China, Japan, Korea, and India, just to name a few. Still, the recent PSLE reforms have brought this debate to the fore again.


I intend to look at this topic from three recent phenomena / policies:

  1. The recent PSLE reforms, and standardised testing more generally

  2. Character and Citizenship Education, and the Singaporean identity

  3. “Every School a Good School”, and school choice


For the avoidance of confusion and doubt, these are the age definitions I will use “child” to mean a person who is below the age of 14 years; and “young people” to mean a person who is 14 years of age or above and below the age of 16 years. Both are derived from the Children and Young Persons Act (CYPA). For the most part, my discussion will focus on young people in these age categories.


1. PSLE Reforms and Standardised Testing

On the recent PSLE reforms, some have pointed out that the new Achievement Level bands are still too fine-grained, with the top AL (AL1) being only 11 marks wide; and the next three (AL2, AL3, and AL4) just 5 raw marks wide. This does little to change the underlying issue — replacing T-scores with ALs this narrow doesn’t change the essential issue of “fear of missing out” (FOMO): in this case, rather than being one mark short of getting into a specific school or stream, now parents will be concerned that their child was 1 mark short of getting into a higher AL, and thus into a choice school.


In any case, my personal view is that the PSLE is being introduced at too early an age — but children are being streamed even before that; for the purposes of the Gifted Education Programme (GEP), the Screening and Selection Papers are administered in Primary 3; and the entry point is at Primary 4. The GEP students then undergo three years of specially-designed education before sitting for the PSLE with the rest of their cohort at Primary 6. In any case, the two selections for ability at 9-12 years of age (GEP and PSLE) are probably premature. The CYPA seems to agree, as it considers people under 14 years of age as “children”, and treats them differently from “young people”, presumably based on maturity, or the lack thereof. Until children gain sufficient maturity, it would be better to assess them based on class performance and group work — this would also allow them to pick up interpersonal skills while at it.


That being said, I still believe standardised testing has its uses; just that it would be better to implement it when students become young people with more maturity to appreciate the effect of education on their own futures. To that end, I would retain the A-Levels and the International Baccalaureate systems, with a preparation process stretched out to four years, allowing students to transit from foundation-building to academic development. Testing would be gradually introduced from 15 years of age, increasing in weightage and culminating in the one standardised test at 18 years of age. The Finnish only have standard tests at 18 years of age; there is no reason why we cannot adopt that model.

2. Character and Citizenship Education, and the Singaporean identity

Much has been said about what makes up the Singaporean identity. It is heartening to see that the Ministry of Education has decided that character is a core element of citizenship, and to that end, has extended civics and moral education to the secondary and tertiary levels via the new Character and Citizenship Education curriculum, introduced a few years ago.


However, some aspects of the implementation of our citizenship education still concern me. I was surprised to find out that some of the Secondary 3 students I was mentoring did not know who the leaders of our immediate neighbours are. But at least they know Barack Obama is the President of the US, not Singapore. Being a small city-state, it is essential that we know where we stand in the world, especially when much of our existence owes to our favourable location at the crossroads of the world — between East and West, North and South, China and India. Singaporean students should at least be knowledgeable about our neighbours, their culture, our historical interactions, and current relations, with them. As citizens of a global city-state, this should be a core duty of every citizen. To that end, the Social Studies curriculum should be bifurcated into the basic subjects of History and Geography, focusing on Singapore and its neighbours. Only when Singaporean students have a firm foundation in knowing where we stand in the world, will they be able to progress into problem-solving, and exploring the world, while being rooted to our island home.


As a side note, I note that the Speak Mandarin Campaign still has a purpose in building bridges across dialect groups, establishing a common identity amongst all Chinese Singaporeans. It is fine and well for Singaporeans to explore their ancestral roots and their tongues, but it should bear reminding that our forebears spent the past half-century trying to come together. Let us not divide amongst ourselves now. In the same vein, the Speak Good English Campaign is increasingly finding itself at odds with Singlish. I consider Singlish the natural development of the globalized nature of English — a sort of language register, if you may; but one that goes to the core of the Singaporean identity. With its characteristic efficiency and thrift, it celebrates the best values of Singapore.

3. “Every School a Good School”, and school choice


In recent years, the line “Every School a Good School” has been much-heard. To alleviate the rush to get into a “elite school”, the Government is now trying to close the gap between those schools and the “neighbourhood schools”. Customised programmes, and professional development for teachers, go some way to closing these gaps. However, the “elite schools” have developed a large reserve of goodwill which continue to attract parents. Just look at the annual Primary 1 registration exercise, with the inevitably attendant balloting at different phases. Some parents have even been known to volunteer their time, or move house, for this purpose alone.


Rather than trying to curb parents’ urges to get into “elite schools”, maybe we should ask what these schools have been doing well, and whether they could be expanded to more schools. In England, “academies” have been set up to allow more freedom and differentiation in the education scene. Singapore already has them in the form of our “elite schools”, but English academies have begun to create families of schools. There are, of course, some school “families” already present here, but they could well do more and each adopt a primary school in each region of Singapore. It would be no bad thing if there were wider access to the Raffles, Special Assistance Plan, and Christian school families across the board; the other schools would also see the benefits of belonging into a family or some other network and act accordingly. That, in effect, is what is happening to our healthcare sector: every public hospital, specialist centre, and polyclinic belongs to a larger group — whether it be SingHealth, the National Healthcare Group, the National University Health System, or some other.



At the end of the day, Singapore is still an Asian society, albeit a young one still trying to find its footing. The premium that Singaporeans place on education is a positive thing, and an advantage for us in the knowledge-driven future; we should not be trying to tamp down on this. Rather, we should harness this appreciation of education in Singaporeans and make it work for us, rather than vice-versa.

3rd Place - Joshua Goh

Early in 2016, the Ministry of Education announced that the PSLE scoring system would be made less precise. Previously the system utilized a final T-Score where just a point difference can decide whether a child gets into their first or second choice school. The proposed changes would bring the scoring system in line with the "N", "O" and "A" Level scoring systems with students placed into wider bands and would ensure that a child's dreams of a certain secondary school do not live and die by one mark.


The cohort of primary school students enrolling in 2016 will be the first to be graded under the new system, instead of a precise numerical score, the students will be given "letter" grades and placed in bands in a way that resembles the scoring system for "O" and "A" Levels, for example, a "A1" grade at the "O" Levels would be a score given to student who had scored between 75 and 100. As a result of such reforms, the system for admission in secondary schools is also set to be reviewed.


Are these reforms really reforms?


These reforms ostensibly would avoid the pain associated failure to get into a "desired" secondary school, usually one with a long and illustrious history and a track record of academic excellence. Competition for such schools is intense, driving some parents to find ways and means to enroll their students into ideal primary schools that would increased their children's chances of getting into a "desired" secondary school. The recent adage by the Ministry of Education that "every school is a good school" has not seemed to have had any impact on this academic rat race.


I would not blame such parents to an extent, given the high costs associated with raising a child in Singapore and the competitive nature of the local employment market, parents naturally want to given their children the best advantage in a small competitive and stressful society. The reforms to the PSLE scoring seem to try to combat this competitive ideology by suggesting that "In short at the end of your primary school education, your grades do matter, but not as much as before, so don't worry".


However advance beyond primary education in the realm of the N, O and A Levels and you do find that grades do matter, a lot. Advance into the working world and you find that your grades can make or break your first attempts to secure employment. And that is not going to change anytime soon. This is the main issue with the recent PSLE scoring reforms, it is not an overhaul of our current educational system, but rather a minor technical adjustment. The unchanged reality is that our system and the academic culture that pervades it, still remains the same.


Our Academic Culture


Much has been said about Singapore's educational system and how it is extremely stressful and places the burden of finding one's future place in society at such a tender age. It is born out of 1970s Singapore, a nation faced with no option but to elevate its workforce to a highly-skilled one, emphasizing basic subjects such as Mathematics and Science in hopes of building a foundation for Singapore's future engineers and researchers, 51 years on, the economic realities have changed but our mindset to education is the same, it is how Singapore survives, by ensuring that all students undergo rigorous academic learning and are sorted into specific areas of learning based on their proficiency. In short our education system is not only effective, it is efficient.


However its effectiveness is being brought into question, and as a result, so too is its efficiency. In his most recent National Day Rally, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong spoke of the need to adapt to disruptions across most industries, this is not a new phenomenon, but the rate at which such disruptions are happening means that instead of formal institutions such as our educational institutes reacting to such changes, the rapid speed that modern disruption occurs requires individuals to themselves possess skills that are interchangeable across disciplines and adaptive to such changes.


What the recent reforms have done is merely to change the scoring of the current system, it does not change the current subject matter. It might make the PSLE a less stressful experience for most students but it does not really have much impact beyond that.


Academic culture develops in tandem with the various spectrums of a nation's culture. In Singapore most of our cultures grow out of a pragmatic need, Singapore’s economy is a developed one, with our services and research industries requiring qualified persons with relevant expertise. Hence examinations and education and general has always been directed to this end. So in addition to ensuring that students meet certain academic prerequisites, examinations also serve to better determine the allocation of our scarce academic resources, hence increased performances in recent "A" Level examinations have been reflected in an rise in the number of Junior Colleges and similar institutes such as schools offering the IB Programme.


Thus it can be argued very strongly that Singapore's academic culture is a subservient one. Academic study is generally not an end in itself, students study in order to obtain relevant qualifications for their careers. Resources dedicated to institutes of further study are limited and the career options that require such skills are yet scarcer, therefore the competitiveness of the entire process is exposed to children at an earlier age, particularly through national examinations. Our grading system is full of the banding and sorting of students into a certain category


In fact, students in some way are a resource that must be efficiently maximized, with those inclined to mathematics and sciences put onto a certain track and those with an interest into the humanities onto a similar track. This is no doubt a good way to promote interest but it also leads to a zero-sum approach where a decision to focus on science at a young age could straitjacket you into that choice throughout your schooling life. This of course is not a uniquely Singapore problem, with the Chinese and Koreans also facing this highly stressful system of national examinations in which a person’s career lives or dies by.


The recent move to revamp the PSLE scoring system is simply that, it is not a move to revamp the PSLE itself, nor is it anywhere close to any substantial education reform. It is simply a measure to make the outcome of a child's first national examination more palatable and less jarring, however a child’s education is not just the PSLE. In fact at secondary and tertiary levels, examinations often cleave through a cohort, separating schoolmates into various academic bands after the PSLE is long over, hence given this stressful system of allocation by examination, these PSLE reforms merely delay the inevitable.


Is there any hope for change?

The current global climate might provide the real impetus for rethink of our academic culture and a rethink of our education system. Singapore’s commercial and economic place in the world is being challenged and education is at the forefront of measures to lead the counterattack. Singapore as a small state with limited resources and opportunities will always be too small for people’s hopes and dreams, there are only so many veterinarians, artists and sportspersons that the local economy can support. Even then, the established and sought-after professions of financial experts, accountants and lawyers are also being challenged with our economic outlook proving uncertain. Thus, instead of pigeonholing students into certain tracks from such a young age, it might be wise to equip them with skills that enable them to develop their chosen interests while at the same time remaining aware of the road less travelled. All this is easy to say in hindsight, would education planners in the 1990s have predicted the pervasion of technology in this digital age? The reality with education planning is that it is too easy to end up fighting the last war instead of trying to imagine what the world will look like, and understandably so, a country like Singapore lives and dies by the education of its children, to allow children a better childhood by giving them a less stressful PSLE is a generosity, but to end up leaving them unprepared to face the world is a grave disservice.


However the two are not mutually exclusive especially when we are talking about schoolchildren who have not hit their teenage years yet. Mr. Ng Chee Meng, Acting Minister Education (Schools) was quoted by the Straits Times as agreeing with Member of Parliament for Jalan Besar GRC, Ms. Denise Phua's statement that the current PSLE scoring system grades pupils too finely. Mr. Ng seemed to endorse her suggestion, saying that "what is measurable may not be what is most important in the long run. Chasing after that last point in an exam could come at a cost to other aspects of our children's overall development."


The Minister here seems to suggest that the priority of the education system is to promote the child’s overall development, a blanket statement that could encompass also anything from academics to motor-skills. However I do not take these PSLE reforms to mean that the system is giving children an easier life or allowing them to reclaim a “lost” childhood, rather it is to refocus families in Singapore about what it means to grow up in Singapore and the reality that our academic culture serves the greater purpose of preparation for the working world.


I am not concerned with whether children get enough play or stress in their lives within the school system, that I feel is a decision left to parents. For every child that was piled with work from a young age there was one that was left to grow with minimal academic intervention and tuition, the factors that shape such children are immense but the job of giving a child their childhood is not the primary function of the education system, that will lie with the parents, for it is plainly obvious that even if the education system slackens their academic expectations of a child for just a bit, some parents will stem the tide and pile more pressure on their children to excel. I can’t blame them, the reality of working life in Singapore is that material success is highly dependent on academic performance, and I don’t see this changing anytime soon. This is the fate of Singapore’s academic culture as I see it and given our present situation, it cannot be anything different, however academic culture is not just grades and paper-academics, rather it is a love of learning and a skill to be flexible and open to changes around you, this is the sort of academic culture that we should aim for, even though it serves the same subservient purpose. Singapore’s academic culture is still developing in the greater scheme of Singapore’s society and these PSLE reforms are well meaning but ultimately keep to the status quo. However what is important is that they are only a vanguard to a new movement in Singapore’s academic culture where the focus is no longer on grades, but a holistic development of a child’s skills to prepare them for an uncertain world ahead.