Alan Soh

I am my own columnist, sharing my own thoughts and recent experiences!


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My reasons in supporting removal of streaming in Secondary Schools

Secondary School in Singapore

A major education policy shift in Singapore was announced by Minister for Education, Mr Ong Ye Kung during the Committee of Supply (COS) Bill debate session in Parliament yesterday (Tuesday 5 March 2019), which followed the Singapore Budget 2019 speech delivered by Minister for Finance, Mr Heng Swee Keat on Monday 18 February 2019.

Come 2024, streaming in all secondary schools will be scrapped. It will be replaced by subject-based banding. Following that, GCE N-Level and O-Levels examinations will also be consolidated into one common national certification examination, which will co-branded by Singapore and Cambridge.

The subject-based banding, or SBB will replace the current system of putting our students into Express, Normal (Academic) or Normal (Technical) streams based on their Primary School Leaving Examination (PSLE) results.

Yes, there will be no Express/Normal Academic/Normal Technical stream classes.

Streaming in primary schools was already scrapped in 2008, with the removal of EM1, EM2 and EM3 streams.

In this new system, upon entering Secondary 1, students will be able to take up subjects at different levels in accordance to their learning abilities. They will take a combination of subjects at 3 different levels based on their PSLE scores: General 1, General 2 and General 3.

The new PSLE scoring will be implemented in year 2021.

This new education policy will apply to pupils who enter Primary 2 this year.

According to Ministry of Education (MOE), these 3 levels are mapped from the current Normal (Technical), Normal (Academic) and Express standards respectively. This concept is similar to how Junior College (JC) students today take up GCE A-Level examination subjects at H1, H2, and H3 levels, and how Primary 6 PSLE students take up subjects at Standard or Foundation levels.

Speaking during MOE’s Committee of Supply Debate yesterday, Mr Ong said streaming which was implemented more than 30 years ago, has successfully reduced school attrition rates from about a third of every cohort to less than 1 percent currently. But he noted the downsides to streaming.

“In its original form, streaming assumed students needed a certain pace of learning in all their subjects, wheras many students, in fact, have uneven strengths across different subjects. More importantly, entering a stream that is considered ‘lower’ (Normal Academic or Normal Technical) can carry a certain stigma that becomes self-fulfilling and self-limiting. Students can develop a mindset where they tell themselves, ‘I am only a Normal Stream student, so this is as good as I can be.”

 

I wholeheartedly agree with Mr Ong Ye Kung.

Long overdue but finally in year 2024. It is late but it is better than never.

1. Stigmatisation

As a former Normal Academic stream student, I think streaming does create a bit of damning effect on the self-esteem, growth mindset and learning motivation of students who are weaker in academic subjects, as compared to Express stream students.

Especially in Asian context, parents and others would place labels on students of varying abilities. Often, people in Singapore presume that Express stream students are academically gifted, and shall “rise among the ranks to become successful individuals one day”. Talking about intelligence quotient (IQ).

Remember how people used to say “its the end” for students of Institute of Technical Education (ITE) who go for vocational training?

Many Normal stream students would think they will not become successful in life.

This is not true.

I believe everyone can become a capable someone.

Ingredients of success include: self-awareness, diligence, a positive growth mentality, a reflective mind, self confidence, self-discipline, good time management, an outward-looking approach and a keen desire to become the best version of oneself.

As parents, friends, and elders, we ought to give them encouragement.

No one in this world likes to be given a negative label.

2. Social Inequality

We must be aware that students of varying learning abilities also come from different family backgrounds. Most Normal stream students grow up in middle to lower-income households.

In the aspect of gaining access to learning resources such as enrichment classes or tuition, students from poor backgrounds may be at a disadvantage, as compared to affluent ones, due to financial constraints and family issues. Thus these students must be given more care, time, and patience by giving them extra coaching in their weak subjects.

We must help them to get their foundation studies solid.

Despite these hardships, it is also essential that we must motivate them to stay focused on studies, keep up a fighting spirit not to give up, making sure that they do not lose the passion and motivation in learning (in order to get out of poverty trap), so why must we stigmatise the academically weaker students, and worse label them as “stupid, you just cannot be as good as Express stream students”?

If necessary, lend them a listening ear to listen to their problems. Help them to sort out their thinking.

I know Normal stream students are already trying very hard, to the very best of their learning ability.

3. Different abilities during formative years

When we are born into this world, we are all wired differently.

Our strengths are at varying levels. As such I don’t think it is an effective idea to expect a class of 30-40 students to master a subject at a particular benchmark set by the MOE school syllabus.

Moreover, secondary school students are in their teen years. They are in the midst of self-discovery, to understand their own strengths and weaknesses, likes or dislikes. So it is not a good idea to “penalise” a student heavily for failing a subject.

Back in my former secondary school days, I loved history but I hated geography. Because I just couldn’t understand those theories of how mountains are formed, or earthquakes take shape etc. Hence my geography sucked. (Of course the teacher was one of the contributing factors. Haha!)

History was more interesting because it was like a storybook to me.

I also realised I am more a language person than being a science person.

Hence I am glad that future secondary school students will have the freedom to take up different subject combinations pegging to their own learning levels. This will sustain their learning interest in the long run, until their graduation year.

And please don’t forget there are late bloomers. Life is full of surprises.

For example, there could possibly be people who don’t understand basic accounting for in secondary school years but can later develop competency in accounting at tertiary level, thus become certified accountants!

You just never know what will happen in future.

4. Peer Influence

Presently, the concept of a traditional form class is where our secondary school students are grouped rigidly according to whichever stream they are in.

By taking away Normal Academic/Normal Technical and Express streams in year 2024, schools can exercising flexibility in organising classes.

The good scenario is that students across all classes at same level will now be looked upon “equally as peers”.

Here we can take reference from Edgefield Secondary School where Secondary 1 students from the Normal and Express streams are placed in the same form class, which I think is an excellent example.

There are 8 Secondary One classes.

In Euclid class, there are 24 students from the Express stream, 10 from the Normal (Academic) stream and five from Normal (Technical). Each of the seven other Sec 1 classes in the school has a similar mix of students across the 3 different academic streams.

According to a Channel NewsAsia report, these students are split into different classes for each subject – for example, Normal (Academic) students taking Express-level science or mathematics will attend classes together with their Express peers.

But they will attend lessons such as art, design and technology and physical education together as a form class.

I like this class arrangement because I somehow believe the academically strong ones can help to assist their weaker classmates without peer labelling.

The positive feedback from teachers at Edgefield Secondary School?

“Students tell us they enjoyed mixing with their classmates, and they find that some of their best friends are from different streams.”

“They also found that those who do well may not necessarily be from the Express stream, and they’ve learned a lot from one another.”

Isn’t this better? 

It is time to break down the walls separating the streams.

Apart from that, I think at the end of secondary school education, students will really have achieved some of the outcomes set by MOE, for example: 1) be able to work in teams and show empathy for others, 2) take responsibility for their own learning, 3) believe in their own abilities and adapt to change, and 4) appreciating diverse views and able to communicate effectively.

For the boys, it helps further when they are enlisted for National Service, several years later after post-secondary education.

Key stages of Education

As one grows older and upon stepping into the workforce years later, he or she would slowly realise that academic grades are not definitive in measuring a person’s level of capability or a predictor of life success.

If you are recognised as an asset in your organisation for your diligence, good attitude and work performance, your employer will not bother much about which educational stream and school were you from previously.

Learn to overcome labels which people may put on you.

Break free! 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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The talk about Scholars, University graduates and non-graduates (Pt 1)

In the past few weeks, there has been much discussion ongoing online and offline among Singaporeans pertaining the recommendation report produced by The Applied Study in Polytechnic and Institute of Technical Education Review (ASPIRE) committee which is chaired by Ms Indranee Rajah, Senior Minister of State for Education & Law.

This report focuses on the value of getting the right qualification, be it a vocational certificate, a diploma or a university degree. It stresses the importance of obtaining the right skillsets and knowledge that would enhance the value of an individual as a worker in our Singaporean society, for now and the future.

For full details on the report, do logon to this Ministry of Education (MOE) webpage on ASPIRE -> http://www.moe.gov.sg/aspire/

I would like to share this ST Sunday Times editorial commentary written by its deputy editor, Ms Zuraidah Ibrahim on “shattering myths about scholars, smarts and respect”. Dated Sunday 14 September 2014, page 39.

Which I agree wholeheartedly after reading it.

Last week in Parliament, MPs spent hours dissecting what it means to become a society that is less obsessed with the paper chase and more concerned with lifelong learning.

MOE Minister Heng Swee Keat tried valiantly to disabuse us of what he described as 3 “limiting beliefs” that could prevent people from fulfilling their potential.

One was the assumption that paper qualifications are the be-all and end-all. All the university degrees in the world might not get you a job, he said, if there are no jobs to be had. And, most jobs actually require a variety of skills, not just that one piece of paper.

Another limiting belief, perhaps in overreaction to the old obsession with educational credentials, is that qualifications do not matter at all.

The third is when people believe that they will lose out when others earn qualifications, overlooking the fact that the whole team can benefit when its diverse members develop better skills.

With regards to the ASPIRE report, nobody would disagree that this would be a proper and productive conclusion. However, people doubt whether our society has already arrived at this better place.

And until they are confident that the environment around them has changed, they cannot be blamed for continuing in the old mode. Afterall, where jobs are concerned, it is not a great idea to be too far ahead of the curve – you want to be valued by today’s employers, not those in some hypothetical future.

To make that leap of faith, one can see at least 3 mindsets in our society at large that needs to be broken:

Mindset no. 1 – Scholars equals smart (i.e talents)

It may be less pronounced than when my peers and I started out in the working world, but it remains an awkward truth. The divide between overseas scholarship holders and those who obtained local degrees persist. Defenders of the scholarship system insist that if scholars fly, it is because their GCE A-Level results and the hoops they went through to win scholarships turn out to be accurate predictors of their workplace contributions; non-scholars’ allegations of unfairness are just masking the fact that they are genuinely not as able.

Certainly, some of the strengths that won them their scholarships, combined with the exposure and confidence imbued by a good overseas education, do translate into superior workplace performance. But it would be disingenuous to ignore systemic reasons why scholars are unfairly favoured when they start work.

It is only human for bosses to fall prey to a confirmation bias. Having decided to invest hundred thousands of dollars in an individual and committed to a firm contract of 4 to 6 years, it is natural for employers to give the returning scholar more opportunities. It would take an extremely honest organisation to admit, actually he is no better than the guy who just showed up from a local university.

Of course, employers have tried to make the system more open and less determined by examination results. The Administrative Service (Singapore Civil Service), for example, is no longer the monopoly of returning overseas scholars that it once was.

Employers could do more to accomodate those who did not get scholarships but developed themselves in the course of higher education.

The reality, though, is that there is a limit to how much opportunities can be equalised as long as organisations use the scholarship system to compete with one another for the same bright young talents.

If they get too ruthless with their returning scholars, it will affect their ability to recruit the next batch of scholars. The top A-Level students have no shortage of opportunities and, often, multiple scholarship offers. They can afford to be fussy and to scrutinise what exactly are they getting into when they sign that 6-year bond.

An organisation where most returning scholars are being treated like the ELITE that their schools have taught them to believe they are will obviously be more attractive than one where scholars are routinely overtaken by local graduates.

Thus, just as with employees, it is unlikely that individual organisations’ mindsets will change as long as wider employment practices (in Singapore) are hooked on scholarships as a shortcut method to finding talent.

(To be continued……)


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My thoughts on the “Great PSLE Debate”

Primary School Leaving Examinations (PSLE) 2012 results will be released today.

Yesterday, the Singapore Ministry of Education (MOE) has announced that it will no longer publish names of top scorers in national examinations (PSLE, GCE O-Level, and GCE N-Level) as it wants to balance previous over-emphasis on academic results. It was a move made in alignment with its focus on giving students a more holistic education, putting less emphasis on the degree of competitiveness within our education system.

GCE A-Level exam top scorers are never named.

MOE wants parents and students to start seeing academic performance as “just one aspect of a student’s overall development and progress”. Hence it will start with the release of PSLE 2012 exam results today. Unlike past years, the press media will not be told who are the top scorers or given a list of primary schools making good academic progress.

Honesty speaking, since 1998, I’ve been waiting for this day to come.

Firstly, let’s talk about the recent moves made by MOE to introduce changes in the award structure for Singapore Youth Festival 2013 (SYF) inter-school arts assessment to put the focus on participation, rather than awards. In future, certificates of excellence will be given instead. And also the abolishment of its 8-year old system of banding secondary schools based on academic results.

I think MOE has done the right thing. In today’s school landscape, I believe the problem of stress overload mainly comes from the academic scoring aspect. Co-curricular activities (CCAs) are good for students, for they are supposed to be stress-relieving and teaching us life skills which are not taught in textbooks. But sad to say, CCAs have now become another stress points – everything become so award-oriented. All because students and parents feel that these are plus points which can be put into report books to create that oh-so-impressive academic track record for advancing to polytechnics, to JCs, to Universities. Double stress. What a mad rat race. 

Therefore I believe it is a good move to take away the award focus away from school performing arts CCAs when they participate in SYF. One is supposed to enjoy doing the CCAs, not to be pressurised to excel in it due to whatever upcoming competitions. Having said that; of course for students, I agree that hard work and excellence are to be recognised. 

In Asian context, parents place alot attention on academic excellence because they believe that by achieving good grades, one is able to get out of poverty and become outstanding in life, thus providing a good life for oneself and his/her family.

Fellow Singaporeans would agree with me that many of our students today (and their parents) have become self-centred, kiasu, obsessed with academic excellence, thinking scoring AAAs is more important than anything else. Some may become selfish till the extent that they can go tear other schoolmates’ textbook notes to get ahead in exams. Where is that conscience and moral values?

Why do we need to know the top national scorers? I do not see such a need.

Personally I believe if you want to have a benchmark, one can still use his or her school’s previous year top scorer grades as a goal to achieve. Provided if one is super intelligent, let’s admit it, most of us can’t reach the top national scorer’s grades isn’t it??

I think those super kiasu parents and their offsprings are going to whine at this news announcement.
No chance to become famous. :p

Come on, Primary Six students are still children. They are 12-year olds only. Yes, I agree with parents that they should study hard for PSLE but I strongly feel that they should not be purely motivated to study hard ONLY for the thought of being publicly recognised as national top scorers. Are you aiming for just that moment of fame?

Looking back, I tried my best when I sat for PSLE 1991 exams. I did not manage to get into Express stream by about 20 points. I was alittle disappointed at my results and aggregate score. Although my parents did not pressurise me but when I read news about the top PSLE scorer and his/her grades, it only made me feel more lousy about myself when I compared myself to them.

How many Primary 6 students out there are like myself? Does MOE still want to make them feel demoralised? Why do we still want to keep on comparing ourselves in terms of academic grades? Hence MOE did the right move to stop naming top national scorers.I learnt from my Secondary School form class teacher Ms Sumathi Krishna to “compete with just myself, and count my blessings by comparing myself with those who do not do as good as I am.” And continue learning from the best people whom I can identify. I realised: If I keep on comparing myself with the most outstanding ones, I will only create more undue stress on myself, setting unrealistic benchmarks and worse, feel super lousy about my weakness when I cannot achieve them.Regardless in Express or Normal (Academic) or (Technical) streams, go assess yourself in terms of your abilities. Rather than focusing too much on your weakness, why not shift your full attention to playing your strengths? People are generally happier when they do things they are best at. Be an expert in your strength areas.Trust me, this is where your confidence starts to blossom like a flower.
Remember to challenge yourself constantly in new areas, so as to further expand your capabilities at the same time. Don’t bother what others say — listen to your heart — go for things which you love to do! 🙂

As we grow up, we are all learning..to evolve to become the best self we can be. Right?
So why are parents placing too high stakes on PSLE?
Please look beyond PSLE.
There are many stories about 
Singaporeans who did not do well in PSLE but went on to excel later in adult life.


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Singaporean parents making a molehill of a trival matter?

For those of us of whom have been following the news recently, you would have noticed the $60 haircut saga case which was published in the press last week.

A working mother has lodged a police report after her 12year-old boy’s teacher cut his hair one hour before his Primary School Leaving Exam (PSLE) oral exam last Thursday. It happened at Unity Primary School.

Her son Ryan Ang’s hair was cut by his teacher just one hour before a crucial exam at 11am and it was done so without her knowledge. At 10am, Ryan called his mother, crying over the phone and told his mother about it.

Mdm Serene Ong was fuming mad because………………the teacher has ruined her son’s $60 haircut done by a hair-stylist at Reds Hairdressing Salon 5 days prior to the incident. As a result, she had to spend another $60 to “re-style the ugly haircut”. =P

Furthermore, Mdm Ong, 39, a sales manager, was also angry because she claimed that Ryan’s teacher Ms Belinda Cheng had threatened that marks would be deducted from the oral exams if he did not go cut his hair.

“The teacher has no right to cut his hair! She showed me NO respect by not telling me that she was going to cut Ryan’s hair beforehand. Worse, she threatened to deduct his oral exam paper marks if Ryan didn’t agree to let her cut his hair. It was just 1 hour before his PSLE oral exam. What if it had affected his performance?” she said.

Ms Cheng has rounded up Ryan and another two boys to cut their hair. She did not comment but had apologised to Mdm Ong and the three pupils.

Turning to the school principal Mrs Jasmail Singh Gill, she felt that Ms Cheng had actually meant good intentions of wanting students to look neat and tidy before an examination, but acknowledged that the teacher have no business to go cut a student’s hair. In fact, warning letters have been issued to Primary 6 students, telling them to go cut their hair before sitting for PSLE if they are seen sporting long hair.

Mdm Ong was so upset that she lodged a complaint to Ministry of Education (MOE) and filed a police report on the night of the incident. She added that Ryan did not dare to step out of the house for 2 days because he thought he looked funny.

MOE told her to “forgive Ms Cheng” and re-assured her that marks will not be deducted for pupil’s physical appearance during the oral exam.

I agree that the teacher could have done it in a more tactful manner but I also think it is drastic that the mother went the extent of reporting the case to the police.

If Mdm Ong wants to merely complain, she can do it directly at MOE. She has done that. And I think that should suffice.

But to make one more movement — report to police, wow, so perhaps she wants to sue the teacher for damaging her darling son’s $60 haircut, causing BIG exam trauma to her son as well as to let everyone know how ‘unreasonable’ the teacher is? Why???

I’m sorry to say this, but I strongly believe that by doing so, Mdm Ong is WASTING police resources.

I went for $10 – $15 haircut at a reliable neighbourhood salon only when I reached upper secondary. Till today, I never spend beyond $25 for haircut services. Oh my gawd = $60 haircut for a primary school kid at Reds Salon? I guess the mother Mdm Ong is a rich working mum that’s why. Yeah, the kind of values she is imparting to this darling son of hers. =P

By going to report case to police, this would give Ryan a warped sense of what is wrong and right. What is he going to do the next time any teacher punishes him? Oh, cry louder and tell Mother to report case to police to punish the teacher, even if the teacher is right?

Mdm Ong will regret one day if ever Ryan did an irreversible wrongdoing when he grows up in future…

I wonder how does Mdm Ong feel, when she sees more negative online and press comments from Singaporeans on this article, than the kind of ‘supporting’ comments which she wants to see. Perhaps then, she will realise and understand that she is actually creating negative impact..doing more harm on her son, rather than helping him.

On the other hand, for Ryan, I pity him. Perhaps thanks to his mum, he has been made to believe that his hair makes him as a person. He is made to believe that authority should be challenged. His behaviour of crying as an escapee was enforced. Wonder what will happen to him by the time when he goes serving National Service at 18 year old…

“Mum….the army barber shaved my hair!!!!!!” *Wails loudly to mum over public phone. @@

Are our Singaporean parents today too over-protective of their offspring? 

The truth was: Ryan Ang is dyslexic. The school has had issued him a warning letter early about his haircut. But he forgot to let his mother see the letter. The teacher Ms Belinda Cheng thought he didn’t do anything about his haircut despite warning letter. Okay. Out of good intentions perhaps, so she took things into her hands and went cut the Ryan’s hair without informing the mother Mdm Serene Ong, prior to the PSLE oral exam. 

But still, quite a number of people including myself thought that it isn’t really necessary for Mdm Ong to go the extent of reporting the incident to police. MOE can just solely deal with this case. Now knowing the whole truth, I wonder did Mdm Ong regret her rush action of making a police report? :\