Thursday, 29 August 2013

2013 National Day Rally: Change in PSLE policy and its potential implications

There has been a lot of online chatter recently on the speech made by PM Lee during the recent National Day Rally. In particular, the proposed removal of the PSLE T-score and the use of 'wider bands' for PSLE grading has been especially forthcoming, given that PSLE has become such a tremendous source of stress for Singaporean parents and kids in the past decade.

For overseas readers who may not be in the know, PSLE represents Primary School Leaving Examination and it is basically a national examination taken by every 12-year-old in Singapore for 4 basic subjects - English, Science, Mathematics and Mother Tongue. Those who do well in Mother Tongue can also opt to take Higher Mother Tongue. This national exam represents a much dreaded rite-of-passage that determines which Secondary institution the child attends for the subsequent 4-6 years after leaving Primary School. Socially, it has led to an increase in suicide rates among 12-year-olds and contributed to the kiasu Singaporean mentality. PSLE has also boosted the local economy as there are many local businesses thriving on the demand, including specialized PSLE tuition agencies and PSLE textbook/guidebook/assessment book publishers etc.

You can find an enormous variety of assessment books in Singapore. No kidding.

So yeah, PSLE is a VERY big deal in Singapore. It would seem the entire Primary School System revolves around it.

Since the National Day Rally, I've had the opportunity to speak to a number of parents and current teachers about their take on the perceived impact of the PSLE policy change. Some readers and acquaintances have also written to me to ask for my 2 cents worth (as an ex-teacher) on the change. Since there are no details released by the Ministry at the time that this post is published, most of what you are about to read below is based entirely on the intelligent speculation of a random group of educators - so do read with discretion.

Will the policy change affect my child's chances to enter his/her dream secondary school?

I guess this is the million dollar question. Since the policy changes will not affect this year's P6 cohort, I expect it is the parents of the P5 children who are most concerned and eagerly awaiting the details of how the banding of PSLE will shift or be redefined. Without the T-score as a numerical benchmark, everyone is probably wondering how this will affect the Secondary School 'cut-off' and intake criteria.

What is your mindset towards PSLE and your definition of success? If you are a relatively well-balanced parent/student, you are likely to accept and adapt to any policy changes that come your way. You probably set realistic expectations and are able to manage stress relatively well. In the big scheme of things, any changes in education policies should not adversely affect the outcomes or entry into a school of your choice. 

How do you define success?

However, if your mindset is one which is  blindly kiasu, then frankly any policy change will make NO significant impact or improvement when it comes to high stress level, high expectations, taking leave to help your child or other exam preparations. Some specific kiasu examples include:
  • students who blindly pursue leadership positions in school / community service programmes / external competitions etc not because they are passionate about the opportunity / programme/ role /community but because it looks good on their portfolio / testimonial
  • parents who send their straight 'A' child(ren) for additional tuition and enrichment classes or parents who hire tutors to help their kids with tuition homework
  • parents who flood their kids with excessive assessment books / ten-year-series / revision guidebooks even when the child's school does provide sufficient resources
  • parents who hound their child's teachers through phone calls/emails/SMS on a regular basis to track their child's progress in school
True Story...

I wish I could say the above examples are exaggerations but the truth is, they are based on real people I have encountered in my years as a teacher. Parents/students who fall under this category tend to be insecure because they view academic success as a direct measure of their worth/parental success. Regardless of any education policy changes, very kiasu Singaporeans will complain for a while then proceed to strategize in order to engineer the best possible outcome for their kids/themselves - at all cost, it would seem. Unfortunately, such parents/students also tend to be defensive, so let's move on.

Possible Implications

Most stakeholders agree that removing the PSLE T-score is a good move (probably way overdue anyway). It will certainly help to reduce the fixation on a numerical score which has always been computed in an opaque manner, since it depends on variables unique to each cohort. Instead of a single PSLE top scorer, we will likely end up with a group of top scorers (with 4 A*s) each year. This is good for morale of high achievers and will possibly reinforce the notion of 'every school a good school', especially if the spread of top scorers span a few different schools each year. Furthermore, there will no longer be an indication of a bottom score, which will likely help to cushion the blow for those who have failed the exam.

If a child is headed for 'O' and/or 'A' level, introducing a wider band of grading at PSLE level may be beneficial to some extent because of the greater consistency in the grading of the national exams. This is also consistent with the grading at University level of individual modules.
On the other hand, if the wider band for grading is going to be more 'forgiving' by blurring the distinction of grades, then we will see an increase in the number of primary school students pursuing leadership positions and other co-curricular pursuits in order to distinguish himself/herself from the pack. As an example, we can simply look at the 'O' Level students competing to enter Junior Colleges every year - what happens if a JC's cut-off is 7 points (for L1R5) but there are also limited spaces for 8 pointers? How will the school determine which 8-point applicant to accept into these limited spaces? I'm guessing it'll depend on the child's co-curricular portfolio, performance at a face-to-face interview as well as a good dose of luck. Such is the nature of meritocracy. Of course, connections and/or affiliation to the school may help as well.

How do you stand out in a competitive society?
In fact, we see the same trend happening for admissions into the most desired/competitive University faculties as well. Achieving at least 4 straight 'A's at 'A' level will merely get an applicant shortlisted for admission into NUS Medicine or Law. An actual admission offer from the Faculty will depend on the outcomes of several other means of testing in order to differentiate each applicant, which include interviews, writing of statements and essays, specialized tests and the compilation of a co-curricular portfolio etc. Therefore, the removal of the absolute T-score implies that each Secondary School will most likely have to come up with a specific set of criteria (on top of the minimum grade criteria) used to grant entry into the school, especially for the borderline cases. What used to be a simpler 'posting exercise' for admission into Secondary School will become much more complex.

Our PM has made it quite clear that where education is concerned, any policies made will NOT change the inherently meritocratic nature of the Singapore Education System. Since a meritocratic system inherently encourages division, ranking and differentiation based on ability, our societal focus on academic achievement is here to stay. Making technical changes (such as removing PSLE T-score) will not alter reality. We can only console ourselves with the knowledge that Singapore is not really unique in this aspect - we see similar trends in other meritocratic societies such as China, Japan and UK

Anyway, feel free to leave a comment below. I'll probably do a follow up post in time to come, after the policy details are released. Stay tuned!

- A


  1. My comment would be welcome to the real world and your cartoon is very idealistic to say the least and very misleading since in most schools they are now having remedial lessons and the govt of the day invests in the public library system for kids.

    If you do expect everything on a platter, maybe Oz will provide but do not bet on it as long as capitalism still holds sway across the world.
    In the wonderful world of OZ where you will be heading, well if you do decide to have kids, well, to be prepared to pay if you want the so called best schools as they would normally be private schools with govt funding.

    Frankly, the best and most succesful kids are not the ones with the 1st class honours but rather the hard scrabble ones

    this applies even more once you are in the private sector, in the public sector(maybe not).

    There will be work life balance in Oz maybe if you do decide to work for the govt but it is different strokes for different people and do enjoy


    1. Honestly, A & I are on the correct side of the great meritocratic divide. We hail from the Raffles family of schools, government study awards and decent uni grades, blah blah. Which in this country, gives us a mighty fine headstart.

      Perhaps the "hard scrabble ones" you mentioned could fare much better in Oz than in a society like ours. We intend to tough it out. It's way easier to just sit back and relax in our fully-paid 3R flat and cruise along in our former jobs, don't you think?

      But still, the real world can be a bitch, and we aren't expecting Oz to be a bed of roses.

      You might want to check out some of our earlier posts about our stance on having kids. ;) We are realistic, and we don't want to screw ourselves up by playing genetic Russian Roulette. Not to mention nobody can be certain of how well the world situation is going to fare.

      - S

    2. The hard scrabble or the term used in Oz the bogans and the abos are not likely to hit the chance at the top, a decent living maybe but the top not so maybe but the old boys network is really strong.

      I did mention that it is the private sector and not the govt sector.
      To each his own and if you noticed I never mentioned anything in regards to the elite schools but rather the system.

      Have a good weekend ahead.

  2. Your cartoon hits the nail on the head! That is how the SG education system is currently structured. It also only counts one parameter as merit - the ability to do well in standardized exams. That has had the desired results - we have produced a generation who can do well in standardized exams and are incapable of doing much else! So we have to import "foreign talent" to do the creative work in our banks etc

  3. This shows why riches and socialisation skills (politics) are stronger than practical intelligence.

    So now that intel does not matter so much anymore, what does?

    The answer: Power and wealth.
    They get 'pseudorespect'.