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.
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.
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.