Education system a high stakes board game

The other day, as I was waiting in line at an automated bank teller, I overheard several schoolgirls talk among themselves about their choice of subjects to major in. They were about 14 years old  and were probably at the point of being streamed into Science, Arts . . . and then I said myself: Gee, I really don’t know what streams there are or how our educational system is structured anymore.  It’s been decades since I left school.

So, I asked around a few people more knowledgeable than I, and I thought I might share with readers what I learnt (apologies if you already know all this).

It’s obviously an important topic for many parents. A few months ago, I noticed several among my acquaintances figuratively biting their nails as their kids sat for the Primary School Leaving Examination (PSLE). This national exam for the 11-plus is often seen as a make-or-break point in their lives. The Education Ministry says it shouldn’t be (and rightly), and that our school system has several cross-pathways to allow slower developers to catch up. But I have the feeling that few parents know it or believe it. We more readily believe that the Singapore system is quick at judging and condemning, with no opportunities at remedy.

The diagram below should show the main pathways.

It looks like a board game, doesn’t it? But it’s a high stakes one.

The two secondary school pathways on the left side (Northlight-type schools and Normal Technical stream) rarely make it into our societal conversation. This may indicate the way Singapore’s priorities are permanently skewed towards high achievers, and the children of the rich and the privileged.

Normal Technical

Though seldom spoken about, the Normal Technical stream has been with us for quite a while. From an undated paper I found on the web,

The Normal Technical (NT) stream was established in 1994 to provide at least 10 years of general education to the lowest scoring students (approximately 15% or 7000 students) of each cohort (Ministry of Education, 2000) who were dropping out in large numbers after only 8 years of primary schooling. The government saw the need to equip these students who are deemed less inclined to academic studies with “the requisite skills and attitudes to enable them to contribute to the national economy” (Ng, 1993). The policy intent of the Ministry of Education (MOE) was not only to provide them with differential instruction, but a particular one that prepared them for further vocational and technical training at the Institute of Technical Education (ITE) after four years of secondary education. The curriculum was focused on strengthening students’ foundations in English and Maths. In addition to these, students are offered Basic Mother Tongue (Malay, Mandarin or Tamil, according to one’s racial background) and Computer Applications as compulsory subjects. NT students sit for the national GCE  ‘N’ level examinations at the end of the fourth year of secondary school.

However, they do fewer N-level exam subjects than those in the Normal Academic stream, to lighten the load.

Over the years, the pedagogical approach has become more practice-oriented, recognising that this group of students learn better that way. Nonetheless, from the same paper,

. . . low performance expectations coupled with narrowly defined vocational outcomes raise uncomfortable issues. It is impossible to talk of those at the bottom of the Singaporean educational system without acknowledging the dialectical tensions that exist within the wider society and educational culture which play out in schools and classrooms (Luke, 2005), principally, the tension between striving for excellence at the top while attempting to provide improving standards of education for all.


In Singapore, students placed in the Normal Technical stream carry a social stigma that comes from being identified as being in the lowest stream in the education system. The Institute of Education has entered local lore for the corruption of its initials ITE as “It’s the End”. Parents’ hearts sink when their children are consigned to the stream. Their children’s climb up the academic ladder has only reached the lowest rung (Straits Times, 2004). Added to the anxiety of performing well in school is the discrimination against students in the lower streams face when it comes to the social scene. For example, a full-blown internet debate that highlights the divisiveness and elitism in Singapore schools started after a Raffles JC school-boy advised boys from ‘neighbourhood’ schools to “quit trying to climb the social ladder by dating students from top schools” (Seah, 2004).

Recently, it was announced that two new schools that are exclusively Normal Technical will be built, to open in 2013 and 2014 respectively. Previously these students were just in different streams alongside Normal Academic and Express in the same schools. The feeling is that this may impact their self-esteem and learning outcomes. The school may not be giving them a fair share of attention and its approach may lean towards the academic when Normal Technical students need different pedagogical styles. Education minister Heng Swee Keat said as much when he noted that the two new schools are being built on the success of schools like Northlight and Assumption Pathway, which are more vocation-oriented (Channel NewsAsia, 30 Dec 2011, First specialised Normal (Tech) school to open in 2013).

Another uncomfortable thing is that pupils in the Normal Technical stream are disproportionately Malay and male. We need an honest conversation about what may be needed to help them best. It may be an unpopular concept in this day and age when “gender equality” is an unquestioned ideal, but educationists have long known that boys need to be taught differently from girls — generally speaking. It may be that our school system is too “feminine”, thus serving our boys less well.

Northlight-type schools

Although the expectation is that Normal Technical stream pupils should make it to the Institutes of Technical Education (ITEs) to acquire higher skills, some still don’t make it. Thus a few years ago, a new stream, now consisting of two schools (Northlight and Assumption Pathway) has been created. They are designed for students who do very badly at the PSLE. Previously, these students would just drop out or have to stay back another year and try the exam again, but I believe officials have realised that this is a fruitless way to deal with the problem. Instead, there is a new realisation that these students need a whole different way of teaching and learning — more task-oriented, hands-on, with a quicker, shorter feedback loop. Rather than have them acquire abstract concepts in science and geography, or even more complicated technical facts, they need to be prepared for working life. Thus the pull-down menus of Northlight’s website has the following:

Among the learning outcomes for English (Years 3 and 4) are the ability to read charts, tables, schedules and maps, filling in forms with personal particulars, being able to understand and follow multi-step instructions, taking notes, and answering the phone. The Vocational > Hospitality section contains electives that include making breads, pastries and cakes, and running a deli. Listed too are hotel housekeeping skills and restaurant service skills.

A-levels versus International Baccalaureate

At the other end of the spectrum is the integrated program, in which students do a six-year course that skips the GCE O-level exam and aims for the A-level, the International Baccalaureate (IB) or something similar. I am told that this scheme was originally introduced in all-boys schools because it was felt that boys do better in an environment that is less exam-oriented. But gender equality — or more likely, prestige considerations — soon reared its head and all-girls schools now offer it as well. The jury is still out on whether it serves one gender better than the other.

What is however becoming common knowledge is that there are pros and cons between A-levels and IB. Apparently, those pursuing science subjects are better off with A-levels, because the exam demands a more structured curriculum that puts more emphasis on acquisition of knowledge. Pupils get a firmer foundation for university. The IB stresses self-directed learning and project work and is better suited for the humanities.

Specialised, independent schools

A number of specialised schools have recently been introduced into the system. They offer a core academic curriculum, plus intensive courses in their specialisations. We now have the Sports School, the NUS High School, the School of the Arts (SOTA) and latest one, the School of Science and Technology.

SOTA and NUS High School, which specialises in mathematics and science, only offer six-year integrated programs. I can understand that of NUS High School which aims to nurture the brightest young minds in academic fields, but it seems somewhat strange for SOTA to do so. A child can be artistically gifted without being academically gifted; is there no place for him there?

The Sports School, on the other hand, offer both O-level and integrated programs. Yet, here again, why not cater to the academically weaker students who need N-levels?

My contacts tell me that it’s parents that have largely determined this set-up. None of them will send their kids to specialised schools if the schools did not also promise a bright academic future. Singaporeans can’t shake off their skepticism about any kind of career prospects in sports, arts or such airy-fairy things.

One thing about the Sports School — its range of featured sports is rather odd. It has golf, netball, bowling which are not exactly what comes to mind when we speak of sports. Better known sports like gymnastics and sailing are tucked away under “other”, whereas tennis, rugby and basketball are missing altogether.

The School of Science and Technology is affiliated with Ngee Ann Polytechnic and offers a four-year program leading up to GCE O-levels. From its website, one sees that its emphases are on communication technology, electronics, media, and biotechnology, and it is probably meant to feed students to polytechnics, considering its use of language like this:

The Applied Learning approach is embedded in the SST teaching and learning process and it places a strong emphasis on the relevance of what is being learnt to the ‘real world’ and their own lives. This connection will aid in holding the attention of the students and motivating them to want to learn.

In SST, the Applied Learning approach encompasses learning that is active and relevant, authentic, integrated, community focused, learner centred, and process focused.

. . .  in other words, avoid the abstract and theoretical sciences.

So much for the scheme, what about content?

Singapore’s overall educational scheme may be nice, but what about the quality of content? If at all to be considered, it has to be a separate discussion altogether, which I didn’t set out to engage my discussants on. However, there were tantalising side comments . . .

Generally, Singapore students do well in international comparisons in math and science, though whether it’s related to cramming is perhaps a pertinent question.

With language and communication skills, there may be room for doubt. One person I asked said something to this effect: “If you want to know about the quality of the teaching of English, all you need to do is just hold a conversation with any English teacher in a neighbourhood school.” This may well be an unfair statement reflecting the jaundiced view of that particular speaker, but seeing the language skills the vast majority of school leavers have, I have a feeling that she isn’t all that far off the mark.

Another teacher — she teaches chemistry — said something that made me even more worried: “Some of my colleagues hold shockingly unexamined views about race and religion — and they’re teaching the social sciences and humanities.”

A third contact reported increasing disciplinary issues in our schools, but with so much flux in thinking about how much control teachers should exercise, and how much spontaneity to encourage, there’s been a very uneven response to this issue.

42 Responses to “Education system a high stakes board game”

  1. 1 Western Cat 25 January 2012 at 13:32

    You may consider modifying the pathways diagram to reflect the following:

    Students from the Normal Academic stream, after the extra year, can go to polytechnics. In fact, the majority of them do.

    Students from the Express stream do go to polytechnic too.

    The number of students entering the polytechnics after JC is small.

  2. 3 yuen 25 January 2012 at 14:19

    the “board game” looks fine structurally; even the northlight students have a path that, theoretically, leads to university; whether the people in it have the correct spirit, is of course a separate question; it really depends on whether you see education primarily as an investment for economic advancement, or as a social service to maximize human potential; helping someone whose attributes and background are already favorable to become company CEOs, top professionals and cabinet ministers, is obviously better as investment, but if the system leaves too many less fortunate people behind, serious problems on other fronts can develop

  3. 4 Poker Player 25 January 2012 at 16:46

    ” but seeing the language skills the vast majority of school leavers have, I have a feeling that she isn’t all that far off the mark.”

    Given a choice between

    A) Reading/watching and discussing a good book/movie/documentary together


    B) Doing highly artificial exercises in a worksheet/workbook or whatever they call it nowadays

    which would a typical English teacher choose?

  4. 5 Gazebo 25 January 2012 at 18:51

    tennis seems an obvious sport for the Sports School to support… but it is probably also the most expensive. Multiple junior tournaments, dedicated coaching, and a really thin support base in Singapore. its a sport that truly requires dedication and commitment at an exceptionally early age, and Singaporeans in my opinion, is just too risk averse to embrace the sport.

    • 6 yawningbread 26 January 2012 at 11:13

      Isn’t golf expensive too? Yet it is considered a core sport.

      • 7 Gazebo 26 January 2012 at 12:31

        golf is definitely expensive too… but it doesn’t require sacrifice at such an early age as tennis. tennis players start far earlier, especially if the aim is to turn professional or even have the chance to turn professional. by age of 14 or so, the players have to make a decision to dedicate full time to the sport. golf doesn’t require that early a decision, generally speaking.

  5. 8 george 25 January 2012 at 19:01

    Have the MOE reverted to teaching English grammar?
    If not, what do teachers actually teach during English lessons?

  6. 9 swh 25 January 2012 at 20:52

    Might wanna add another symbol between the Poly and Uni branch, one must do very well in one’s time in Poly in order to progress to uni, with only the top (approx. 10% iirc, +/- for the various courses) reaching there. In some sense, I’m guessing the stakes aren’t just marked out in the various points, but in many more junctures in the whole education flowchart. From scoring well to deciding sci/arts specializations in sec3/4 to doing well in Os to decide subj combi for JC/getting into the course of your choice in Poly, it’s always a high stakes game.

    In a sense, at different levels in the system, it churns out the best, the brightest, the most efficient, and perhaps even the most skilled and technically capable. But there are those who do not like the stream/subjects they’ve been relegated to. Or even, those who do well feel pressured to take a more “prestigious” stream a la JC even if they wanna go to Poly.

    We utilize the learning capabilities of as many people as possible, yet it may not be what we want, or like to learn.

    Saw this comment on fb, pretty much sums it up: “You don’t choose what you’re interested in. You choose something that can get you an A. Thats what school is all about.”

    • 10 26 January 2012 at 00:20

      If you think getting from poly to uni is hard, try getting into poly after ITE. With the influx of express students signing up for polys, they will get priority seats in courses of their choice (via JAE) alongside the nA students. Leaving ITE graduates DAE which will be held after JAE, from what i heard a few years ago, its seats that are considered ‘leftovers’.

  7. 11 new citizen 25 January 2012 at 21:06

    If your diagramme had space for the silent armies of private tutors, then it would become quite apparent how the official school scheme is a by-product of income inequality.

  8. 12 Anonymous 25 January 2012 at 23:19

    Hi Alex,

    You have forgotten to mention the young Singaporeans who are deemed “unable to manage a mainstream curriculum” and are placed in Special Education (SPED) schools. For years, MOE had ignored the SPED sector and left it up to Voluntary Welfare Organisations to run SPED schools. Now, however, MOE is starting to be more involved in SPED (as they should have been since it is their moral duty to educate a special needs child just as they would any other child). In fact, I believe some students who end up in Northlight perhaps should have been in SPED schools right from the start but due to the social stigma, parents would rather their children spend years being unsuccessful in mainstream schools.

    In theory, the Singapore education system is one that does indeed to cater to different abilities. The government has correctly acknowledged that not everyone is academically inclined. Rather than allowing students who don’t do well in school drop out from the system completely, they have a vocational pathway to prepare them for the workforce.

    However, I believe that such a system inevitably breeds elitism and a stratified society. Take me and my social circle up till JC as an example. I studied in a “good” primary school and was streamed into the top class in my primary school from Primary 3 onwards. I went on to study in a “top” secondary school and JC. The majority of people I met all through my school days in Singapore were at least from a middle-class background. Very rarely did I have the opportunity to interact with students in the “lower rungs” of the educational system (who by the way also tend to come from low socio-economic status [SES] families). I daresay that most of my old schoolmates today seldom do interact with those from low SES backgrounds. Even some of the people I know from school who do interact with those from low SES backgrounds now (because they are doctors or teachers) tend to hold very prejudiced and unsympathetic views towards low SES families.

    On the other side of “educational spectrum”, even if a student is fairly bright, but somehow ended up in the Normal (Academic) stream, the odds are stacked against him to go to University. His class is more likely to have students who are not motivated to study and do well in school. Even if he does not succumb to peer pressure not to study hard, his teacher is less likely to deliver the same quality of lessons in his class as his class is overall likely to be rowdy (actually all it takes is one “bad” disruptive student to “slow down” the whole class). Put simply, my teacher friend believes that if she were to be studying in one of her Normal (Academic) classes, she probably wouldn’t have gone to University.

    I am not totally against streaming or having different educational pathways. What I feel is more important is that we allow students, regardless of academic ability, mix and mingle more. I don’t see the problem with schools having multiple streams (including SPED) so that students can at least mix and interact during nonacademic subjects like PE or for CCAs.

    • 13 yawningbread 26 January 2012 at 11:17

      Regarding SPED (Special needs education), it is such a huge subject (because the govt has done so little) it had to be kept outside scope for this article. I do agree with you however that due to poor early detection of special needs, pupils may be shoved into the mainstream primary schools, only to struggle for six years.

      For example, I wonder what is being done about dyslexic pupils, but alas, all the contacts I spoke with taught secondary school or higher, so I couldn’t get information about what was happening in primary school.

      • 14 Angie 27 January 2012 at 09:04

        My younger brother is dyslexic. He’s in Primary 5 this year. From Pri 1-3 he didn’t get much help, he pretty much struggled through his first 3 years of primary school. He failed every subject (English/Math/Chinese/Science). The best he could do was barely pass Mathematics and maybe English. It was only until he entered P4 did his form teacher recommend that my brother take extra lessons at the Dyslexic Association of Singapore (DAS). He goes for his lessons every Tuesday and Thursday. If I’m not wrong, the fees to pay to DAS are at a subsidised rate as well. Whether it’s because it’s due to the school’s referral or not I do not know.

        He was also exempted from taking Chinese that year, so his PSLE score will not have Chinese in it. My brother has since improved a lot- he passed all of his subjects and even topped his class for a Math test- but I do not know if his exemption from Chinese would significantly impact his academic path… But I’m glad that the school finally reached out to him.

        However, there are still some areas which I feel the school could have helped him in. For example, when the teacher assigns homework and writes it on the whiteboard at the end of every lesson, my brother does not have enough time to copy down the assignment (the teacher will erase the whiteboard for the next teacher who comes in for the subsequent lessons). It doesn’t help that his friends all look down on him (he has a heart problem as well, besides being dyxlexic) and refuse to let my brother copy from them. Time and time again I’ve asked the teacher to dedicate a column at the right side of the board to write all assignments there, so anyone that has missed out can copy from there at any time. I’ve also suggested that maybe the teacher can write it at the start of the lesson so everyone has until the lesson is over to write down the assignment. But some of the teachers just cannot be bothered to change their ways.

        I just don’t understand why it’s so difficult to make small, simple and effective changes to make everyone’s learning better. Is it just because my brother is just one person, whereas the rest of the class are 39 persons? It’s not like I’m asking her to teach at my brother’s learning pace. Geez.

    • 15 dZus 27 January 2012 at 14:15

      Angie: I’ve a suggestion for your brother’s predicament. How about getting him a good camera phone or a cheap digital camera to snap the assignments before they are erase?

  9. 17 lefouque 26 January 2012 at 02:46

    Finland does not have all this cr** about streaming, gender, SES, race inequality. their students achieve well, study much less, have more fun, no tuition, among other things.

    Btw, education needs to shift from skills and facts acquisition, to the development of identity

  10. 19 Angie 26 January 2012 at 09:51

    What I really hate is that the Arts/Humanities students have limited choices. Why can’t the government recognise that Math and Science isn’t the only field to focus on?

    If you’re good in your languages and humanities in Secondary School but you’re relatively weaker in Math and Sciences, you get streamed in Sec 3 and will not get a chance to do pure sciences (Physics, Chemistry, Biology as a individual subject)- therefore not being able to take up to 8,9 subjects. Instead, we get streamed into the last classes of the Express Stream (trust me this is bad because the best teachers only take the Pure Sciences Classes.. teachers assigned to the last few classes of the Express stream cannot be bothered with the students because they think that we’re ‘all going into Poly anyway’ so they don’t prepare you for JC. You can imagine what it must be like for the students in Normal Academic and Normal Technical stream…), are only provided with the choice of taking Art, Design & Technology/ Food and Nutrition, History/ Geography and maybe Principles of Accounts. We do take Combined Sciences (E.g Physics & Chemistry as one subject) and E-Math. But no Pure Science. No Advanced Math.

    While I understand it is precisely because us students are better in Linguistics and Humanities that we are offered these subjects, we can only take 7 subjects for O’s, unlike the Pure Sciences students which can have up to 9. Where’s the fairness in that? Why should we be denied the opportunity of taking more subjects?
    The end result is that even if one ends up with a good O Levels score, you can only do Arts in JC. Because you don’t have A Math, you don’t have Pure Sciences, you cannot take up any H2 Science/Math in JC. The moment you aren’t good in Math and Science, your academic path is going to be so much more constricted.

    If you’re in the Arts stream in JC, the only courses in Uni which you can take are humanities-related (E.g Business, Geography, Political Science, Psychology) as compared to Science students, which have a bigger variety of courses to choose from (Biomedical Sciences, Engineering courses, Material Sciences, Chemistry, most if not all of the Arts courses etc.) Yet how many places are there in uni allocated to the Arts and Humanities? Not forgetting that foreigners also get places in our universities … What are the chances of us getting a place? If we don’t have straight A’s, or B’s, we won’t even get a chance. And what about private unis- do they offer Arts and humanities related courses? Hardly. So where do we go from here after we graduate?

    The Arts students are a disadvantaged lot. And this is coming from the so called higher-end of the spectrum of education in Singapore…

    I apologise if my content is all over the place or if I sound incoherent at some parts. I’m a very disgruntled Arts Student from a neighbourhood secondary school and a neighbourhood JC. And yeap you guessed it- I didn’t get a place in Uni. But I only have myself to blame right? For not scoring Straight A’s and B’s. Tough luck, huh?

    • 20 swh 27 January 2012 at 00:22

      I’m from the arts stream as well and although I am from what is known to be a “top JC” in Singapore, it’s very true that the stigma remains.

      In all fairness, you can’t blame the medicinal/doctoring/engineering industries for not taking you in bcos science knowledge is definitely NEEDED to take these courses, for arts courses, there’s a common perception that “anyone can join”. Thus the govt and our people have always put science students on a higher pedestal.

      But for people like myself, I don’t see myself being in a labcoat doing experiments in the future thus I chose an arts stream which is trickier to score in the A levels cos of no “straightforward/correct answer”. There is a much greater risk of doing badly or getting shock results because of the nature of the paper involved.

      Actually uni courses offer Law/Accountancy alongside the ones you’ve mentioned, but it’s undeniably more restricted. One thing we arts students perhaps can take pride in is that maybe, just maybe, the education we receive allows us to think more outside-of-the-box to solve problems/look at things from different perspectives, understand society/culture more. Even though that has not much intrinsic value when it comes to initial job applications, it is definitely a useful tool to have as someone who is an inhabitant of this society, this country and this world. Moreover, at the upper echelons of a company, and increasingly in more job vacancies, such skillsets are required, not rote learning or regurgitation.

      It used to be a stigma in my parents’ generation, still a stigma NOW. Always hear my classmates saying things like “not taking chem or physics ar, next time cannot go professions like doctor/enginnering already”. It’s a warped logic, but ultimately it makes sense imo despite its unfairness

  11. 21 Cher Yiing 26 January 2012 at 10:14

    I have 2 daughters not yet at the ‘formal’ schooling age (one is 5 in June and other is 3 next month). Therefore, mostly what I know is from friends with older kids.

    Two issues related to the copious amount of tuition that I’ve tried to get a better understanding of, since quite a few of my friends tell me that they’re spending at least 2k a year on these ‘extra lessons’. :

    1) How widespread is this phenomenon of tuition? Let’s just use a simple market sizing approach that I’ve commonly employed in my past consulting work. We have about 30k kids per year in school. Given 10 years of formal education, that’s 300k kids between primary and secondary school. Throw in 2 years of JC (where I know there’s still tuition going on) but excluding ITE/Poly (where I seldom hear about tuition from my cousins enrolled there), you’re probably talking about 320k kids at any one time. Assuming – something worth verifying – that one-third of the kids at any one time undergo tuition (probably more skewed towards primary school?), you’re looking at about 100k market size in number of kids. Further assuming that these parents spend about 1k a year on tuition, that’s a good 100M tuition market! You can probably play around with the numbers but I’d say the market size just for ‘school subject’ tuition would probably range from 50M to 500M. Is there money well spent?

    2) So I ask my friends why they need tuition (I am genuinely puzzled as I’ve never had tuition in my life and I did well in school, enough to earn a scholarship to the US)…is it simply the famed Singapore ‘kiasu-ness’? They tell me that honestly the schools don’t teach what the kids need to learn for exams. They can probably take their kids out of school and tuition will allow them to pass the PSLE and O levels. Two questions than follow:
    a) It strikes me that we have a self-conflicting approach – if we think the exams are not testing the requisite things, should we not be changing the exams? If we think the exams are fine, should we not teach the relevant things to kids to handle the exams?
    b) I also understand that there are questions in exams that cannot be answered based on the standard curriculum, and tuition ‘teaches’ these additional approaches. My concern for that is it unfairly advantages the rich who can afford additional lessons and is not a test of true ability. A test of true ability should allow the children to solve problems with the same approach taught and reward those who can apply the approaches more innovatively / better.

    I am probably seeing things from a narrow perspective only and would appreciate wider set of views as my circle of friends are primarily highly ‘educated’ professionals. Nevertheless, I’ve seen a few articles on the Finnish education system where they have no formal schooling before 7 and no formal testing till mid / late teens, and their kids score just as well as ours (while suffering, I assume, less stress).

    Side note: In no way do I purport that higher education levels makes one more ‘worthy’. Our society has a distorted sense of value by measuring things in overly monetary terms. However, I do think that education is one (if not the key) approach to mitigating humanity’s excesses and foolishness, therefore my interest in it.

  12. 22 Dee 26 January 2012 at 21:47

    Erm, because the educational system completely sucks?

    I remember going for the O’Levels and doing quite badly because there was so much more I hadn’t been taught and hadn’t learnt. This despite the fact I received tuition from a mountain of tutors, some of whom worked at PriceWater Cooperhouse and other “elite” places.

    I know a primary school teacher and the fact that parents send their children for tuition at an early age is well-known. The schools often don’t bother to really cover the Alphabets and they simply skim through the basics. I was in fact, surprised to learn that the level of their Primary 1/2 materials was often equivalent to Primary 3 or higher, in my time(1980s to 1990s).

    Btw, why has no one mentioned the fact that quite a few primary schools are run like management companies these days? I’m unsure about secondary schools. I heard they spend a lot of time reviewing technicalities, objectives and other details. I’m unclear about the specifics but it must hurt the quality of education any child receives, as the teachers face extreme stress trying to meet the guidelines and whatever schemes the MOE and school authorities come up with. There’s also the problem about office politics, which is never good for schools and children. In fact, I’m left wondering if they outsource any work, in order to reduce workload. Anyone knows?

  13. 23 Chanel 27 January 2012 at 10:57


    Your flow-chart didn’t show an important educational streaming that occurs 3 years before PSLE. At P3, pupils are separated into gifted, BiCEP and “normal” programmes for their remaining P4 to P6 education. And then there is Direct Admission scheme, where pupils are admitted to the secondary school of their choice before PSLE.

    Our entire educational system can be summarised in one word: Elitism. The government’s elitist approach to governing this country has filtered to our educational system. This early streaming coupled with the “Teach Less, Learn More” approach adopted by MOE several years are clearly disadvantageous to the low income group, as well as those who are late bloomers. Some children from low income group don’t even attend kindergarten. The “Teach Less, Learn More” is ill-conceived because pupils are now expected to know their stuff even before they are taught in schools! So how did the pupils learn? Answer: Tuition.

    S’pore does not have a world-class education system. We just have a world-class tuition inductry.

  14. 24 Jonno 27 January 2012 at 14:01

    Singapore education system sucks! At the core of this problem is the rigid Bilingual policy which forces students to master in both English (easy!) and Mother tongue – in Chinese-majority Singapore, Mandarin (difficult)! It is no wonder that a lot of scholars in Singapore come from Mainland China due to their superior fluency in Mandarin whereas most native Singaporean are from dialect groups who do not take to Mandarin so easily. Even LKY’s grandson had problems with Mandarin and had to have special dispensation for him to attend International (American) School (hush-hush affair).
    The output over the past 2-3 decades have been a gradual dumbing down of students who can’t even speak good English nor write legibly and comprehensively well. Singlish is the by-product of this rigid focus on bilingualism. It is a regressive step as the world increasingly begins to evolve around English and the Internet.
    Singapore education is good up to secondary school with its focus on academic discipline and core subjects in language, math & science. Post-secondary – not so good! Especially when the academic focus should be more on thinking ability and inculcating independent views. Post-secondary education is just a rehash of secondary school which is also a rehash of primary school. Many wealthy (& progressive thinking) parents in Singapore send their children overseas to the US, UK, Australia and Canada to finish their high school and enter the universities abroad easily given the academic grounding they have in Singapore!
    The other major problem with Singapore education system is the over preoccupation with accreditation ie. paper qualification. It is a hangover from Imperial China and it’s elitist society where Imperial Scholars get promoted by taking and passing Imperial mandated exams. However, in an Internet era, past experience and knowledge is an obstacle. Witness how Kodak imploded into bankruptcy as the world moved from analog imaging to digital. Kodak as a company had loads of technical and research capability and in 1975, even invented the digital camera! Yet it failed! The reason was that Koday’s successful past achievements in film clouded its judgement and decision-making in the digital age – it frozed while smaller and nimbler companies quickly moved into digital imaging!
    Traditional high-paying professions like doctors, lawyers, accountants, etc. are not as attractive as it used to be in the past – long hours, stress, increasing professional liability – makes it unglamorous today. Education today should not be an end-all. Young people should take some time to travel and see the world, experience life in other countries and interact in social economic environments – that is the real education instead of in the classroom. In a lot of developed countries, young adults take time off to travel overseas, work in menial jobs for their living expenses and get to experience life. Today’s environment requires thinking-outside-the-box, social and internet skills which cannot be taught in the classroom by teachers who are not even equipped with these skills.
    Singapore’s rigid and narrow-focus academic system is at odds with the world today! Just like Sect 377 & the death penalty issues – the world has moved on while Singapore stands its ground – making it irrelevant in a fast moving global environment!

  15. 28 Teacher 27 January 2012 at 14:37

    Dear Au,

    The crux of the matter is really the Enhanced Performance Management System. This appraisal system pits a teacher against another teacher during the ranking exercise in August. Such a system erodes the camaderie in schools. You can ask any teacher teaching in the neighbourhood schools and they will tell you what the system is doing. Teachers are bonded for 3 years and many leave after the bond. 60% of the fraternity has less than 8 years of teaching experience. 40% have less than 4 years teaching experience. This compare this to America (20 years) and Japan (22.2 years).

    MOE chooses to turn a deaf ear to this issue. What the ranking has done is to reduce principals to get teachers to win awards and as many at that. This is because more awards meant a better chance for principals to get a higher performance bonus. Sincerity is eroded. Getting good grades is not about the student anymore. It’s all about money now in our schools.

    • 29 Dee 28 January 2012 at 02:49

      Ah yes, I can attest to hearing about this. It causes people to fight among themselves and the whole affair becomes a game where only the “strongest” and “most vicious” shall survive. Well that results in politics, unfair tactics and even racism as teachers form groups in order to ensure their place in the hierarchy. I guess the MOE has no conscience because the students learn from the teachers after all.

      Also, I remember hearing about inexperienced teachers who knew nuts about education and who implemented all sorts of schemes and measures, in order to “suck up” to the HOD, principal and other important people. Worse still, some of them were said to badly lacking in the fundamentals of the subjects they were supposed to teach. If this is true, I wonder: how were they accepted into the teaching profession in the first place?

    • 30 Poker Player 28 January 2012 at 12:09

      I say the only workable system for the teaching service is 100% seniority based.

      Once the necessities of life are taken care of, what an individual cares about is the esteem others hold of him or her.

      In the case of teachers, this esteem comes from peers, pupils and parents. Good teachers thrive and do not get demoralized and get encouraged and thrive even more – it’s a virtuous cycle.

      The teacher’s behaviour is geared towards maintaining that esteem because (since the system is seniority based) promotions and increments come automatically and depend only on him not getting fired or behaving very badly

      This means the teacher is motivated by the esteem pupils/parents/peer hold of him.

      The teachers who get demoralized are those who do not get that esteem.

      By introducing things like the “Enhanced Performance Management System”, we introduce an alternative route to a teacher’s sense of self worth. What will get a teacher ahead in this system? We all know the sort of people who do well in such a system.

      So the sort of teacher who is bad at teaching (or couldn’t care less) has an alternative route. Worse, it’s not only the alternative route – it’s the royal road.

      For these people: forget the esteem of pupils/parents/peer – it’s the principal and MOE bureaucrats who matter.

      Under this system, who gets demoralized and feel like patsies?

  16. 31 The Truth 27 January 2012 at 15:06

    It’s a known fact in schools that the principals do not deploy any support or remedials for the Normal Academic and Normal Technical streams. They don’t care about the Normal Technical results as their results do not affect “value-added” ranking among schools. All that matters is the O-Level results and in particular…the Secondary 4 Express O-Level results as this determine value-added ranking. Secondary 5 O-Level are also not a concern for the principals as it’s easier for schools to get VA ranking for it. What makes the difference is the VA ranking of the Sec 4 Express. Did you remember when principal was told off for advising her Sec 4Normal Academic pupils to not do Sec 5 O-Level and go to ITE. This si because such pupils will undermine the schools’ value-added ranking and results, should they choose to move to Sec 5 O-Levels.

    Normal Technical stream is a goner. And principals don’t bother about N-Levels as well since N-Levels and Normal Technical stream results to do not affect VA ranking. And the principals think about their performance bonus in the presence of their cluster superindentants.

    So, principals are VERY politically correct when you ask them. What has happened is that many principals are now “strategising” of using the NT students to garner awards for the school and beef up other award aspects of the schools and their academic learning is neglected or should I say…refocused to more hands-on learning.

    NT kids for winning CCA awards now and some schools ask MOE to give them more NT kids so that they could do this.

    It’s a tragedy. EPMS and ranking has caused all this.

  17. 32 Trebuchet 29 January 2012 at 01:36

    Just an observation: there are a lot of unsourced opinions being stated as facts here. Some of them may indeed by factual, but a casual reader can’t tell. So I’m going to contribute some information for which reasonable support can be found.

    I remember writing a report on the differences between the SG-Cambridge GCE A-levels (one of many A-level variants, and the one SG runs) and the IB Diploma; the result was that SG changed the A-levels to be more like the IB. This can be clearly seen by comparing the pre-JCUSE Review A-levels and the post-JCUSE Review A-levels. (You can find all this at the MOE website or even by looking at old JAE documents.)

    I’ve taught N(T), N(A), Express, GEP and IP students during my career. I have to say that educational provision in SG is a lot better than the various ‘the system sucks’ people are saying. Although it is improving only incrementally, there’s hope. Recent PISA scores show that our Normal students are about average for Eurozone nations, if not better; and of course, our Express students are doing very well. (For example, see Baker & LeTendre, 2005, ‘National Differences, Global Similarities’, Stanford University Press).

    I’m quite certain that most systems of education have their own inequities and difficulties, and that almost all of them can be skewed further by private application of cold hard cash. But the outcomes for SG students in general are pretty good.

    • 33 Hsien Liao La 29 January 2012 at 14:58

      You may think “the outcomes for SG students in general are pretty good”. I’m not sure what you mean by “in general”, but I’m taking no chances. I will not put my kids in the education system here. They need a childhood, not study slavery.

    • 34 Jonno 30 January 2012 at 17:24

      LOL, as an educator yourself – “I’ve taught N(T), N(A), Express, GEP and IP students during my career.” you would defend Singapore’s education system to the end!
      However, as a parent like myself, I would still insist that the Singapore education system SUCKS! It is rigid as hell and focuses on book learning and regurgitation during exams – it’s a rigid system bred to accept authority and “no questions asked” timidness.
      Just like “Kodak Moment” – the Singapore education system (analog) cannot see the digital movement – it is doomed for obsolescence!

  18. 35 Fox 31 January 2012 at 10:04

    ” Recent PISA scores show that our Normal students are about average for Eurozone nations, if not better; and of course, our Express students are doing very well.”

    These results are skewed. Singapore is a city and highly urbanised. Scores from cities tend to be higher on average anyway. Indicators from cities tend to be better on average. For example, Singapore’s GDP per capita is higher than Germany’s but if you compare Singapore with Munich or Frankfurt, Singapore’s GDP per capita is only ‘middling’.

    Furthermore, East Asian countries (of which I’ll consider Singapore of be one) have a very strong cultural commitment to education. Chinese American kids also perform very well in standardized tests. The high PISA scores do not necessarily indicate that our educational system has any significant advantages.

    • 36 twasher 1 February 2012 at 01:24

      Also, it is unclear how much private tuition (much more widespread here than in many other countries) rather than the public education system contributes to our high PISA scores.

  19. 37 Ryanlim 31 January 2012 at 14:09

    Reading the article reminds me of a TED video I came across by Sir Ken Robinson about education.
    2 things stand out upon reading the comments section, which is kind of reflected in Ken Robinson’s first tongue in cheek jib. One, Teachers/Educators are generally despised or at best ignored in Singapore. (I’m a teacher too.) And two, despite that education is close to the heart of many.

    Also what he said about “educational inflation” partially address the reason why the tuition industry is booming. Teachers are having less time to teach more content. (Yes, yes, there is the Teach Less Learn More initiative, however speak to any teacher worth his/her salt and you’ll realise that content mastery is still key to academic success.) However, is this an unavoidable global phenomenon? And also, for the alternative which he suggested, can it be implemented? Is it possible?

  20. 38 shar 13 February 2012 at 02:21

    i have a daughter in JC 2, a son in Sec 3 Express, a son in Sec 1 NA, and a daughter in Pri 5.

    my Sec 3 son is in a neighbourhood school in the north, and the school population is rather small. there are only 4 express classes. he had wanted to opt for pure sciences but was not given the opportunity. in the end he had to contend with taking 6 subjects. 3 compulsory subjects (Eng, E Maths, MT) + 3 Electives from Humanities and Others (such as Principal of accounts, Computer studies). it puzzles me why there is his choices so limited. cos it’s a neighbourhood school?

    i went with my Sec 1 son to collect his PSLE results last year. a neighbourhood primary school which has 1 principal + 3 VP, with majority of malay staff and PRC chinese teachers. TBH i was only hoping for him to pass his PSLE. he managed to get into NA stream. what struck me the most was the numerous kids who failed their PSLE. it’s sad to see 12 year old kids weeping openly in front of his other peers. it could have been my child.

    my youngest daughter in primary school was offered an Art-Elective Programme from P3 to P6. according to the principal, AEP students will be able to get direct admission into SOTA after their PSLE. i’ll have to wait and see how it goes as the registration fees and school fees etc aren’t cheap.

    i realised over the years my kids’ studies may have suffered cos i could not afford them private tuition. nevertheless they have achieved this much on their own. average grades, you can say. but at least they have a childhood which most of their peers did not have. no amount of future academic success can compensate for a kid’s lack of childhood. it’s the parents that determine the kind of education system that we want for our kids.

  21. 39 Jonathan 14 February 2012 at 10:01

    The irony of this all is that kids who received a technical education would be more internationally mobile /socially mobile (in the context that their jobs pay more lucratively in another country than it does in Singapore) as they would receive at least 2x points for migration (at least for Australia).

  22. 40 Viv 15 February 2012 at 10:01

    I am piqued by your last comment about the dismal standard of English instruction. There is something to be said about the language that many Singaporeans claim to be their “First”.

    My thinking is that this trend took a turn for the worse when the MOE did a policy-u-turn in the 80s on the mode of instruction, where they did away with a focus on rules of Grammar. I was a beneficiary of that policy change and I recall stumbling upon the rules of grammar in the most haphazard way: through trial and error and the daily remonstrations of my mother (an English teacher who studied under the British) for the first 15 years of my life. Worse, the PSLE continued to test students on grammar in the multiple-choice style which requires proper drilling in the rules which no student got.

    That was 1986 to 1991 for me, but I aced my PSLE (through rote memorising) and proceeded to Express Stream in a girls’ school where I got an English teacher from Manchester who decided he was going to teach us English Grammar lesson by lesson even if it was going to bore us all to death. It worked, I aced my English O Level but was defeated at Science because my school had decided to scrap the Arts stream in favour of a purely Science track for O Level students. Today, even if you can ignore the thinly-veiled contempt that schools pay to the Arts and Humanities, you have to flinch at the poorly chosen participle when some high-echelon director uses the past perfect tense or when he asks you to please “advice” when you are available and that someone would “revert to you” soon. I include government scholarship recipients here guys.

    I don’t wish to come across as some linguistic snob, my point is the MOE should focus on fixing some fundamental problems before they go running in the direction of newfangled ideas like the IT bandwagon. There’s also no point turning out hordes of Science and Math whizzes each year when most have trouble stringing an idea together in a coherent English sentence.

  23. 41 anon 30 April 2012 at 13:20

    “With language and communication skills, there may be room for doubt. One person I asked said something to this effect: “If you want to know about the quality of the teaching of English, all you need to do is just hold a conversation with any English teacher in a neighbourhood school.” This may well be an unfair statement reflecting the jaundiced view of that particular speaker, but seeing the language skills the vast majority of school leavers have, I have a feeling that she isn’t all that far off the mark.”

    As an English teacher at a neighbourhood school, I feel ambivalent about the implied point here. I consider a good number of my colleagues as being sufficiently competent in English to teach it at Secondary School level. On the other hand, there are also numerous English teachers who make unforgivable grammatical errors and, unsurprisingly, will fail to correct their students’ mistakes in their essays.

    But it is hardly these English teachers’ fault that they are not as competent in English as one would expect them to be. Most of my colleagues from the English Language department graduated from university with degrees in the social sciences or humanities, and not English or English Literature. Their main teaching subject would thus usually be Social Studies, Geography or History, but MOE requires every teacher to have two teaching subjects. Whereas graduates with degrees in the sciences are usually given Mathematics as a second teaching subject, graduates with degrees in the humanities are usually given English as a second (sometimes first) teaching subject as long as they did fairly well for General Paper or English. This method of assigning teaching subjects is not always the case but it is more often than not how it works. Many of my colleagues admit that they do not feel they are competent enough in English to teach it, but they really do not have much of a choice as their teaching subjects are ultimately assigned by the ministry. I am the only English teacher in my school with a degree in English Literature.

    In short, there is a severe lack of “truly qualified” English teachers on the whole which leads to a compromise being inevitably made to meet the demand for English teachers. And why is there a lack of “truly qualified” English teachers? The answer is obvious. There are are simply not enough Singaporeans who speak or write English very well. Why not? Well, it’s a vicious circle.

    • 42 IMGW 27 June 2012 at 22:12

      I know what you mean, I honestly think it would be better to give each teacher just 1 subject which is relevant to their major. I was forced to take computer applications as a second subject and I can’t even set up a desktop to save my life.

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