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Tensions and Paradoxes in Singapore's Education System

This post is by Pak Tee Ng.

One of the hottest topics in Singapore today is the change in the scoring system of the Primary School Leaving Examination (PSLE), the national examination that determines the type of secondary schools that a student may get into after primary school education. The Prime Minister announced in August of this year that the current PSLE T-score, a score based on how well a child does relative to his or her peers, would be replaced by grades. In the current system, even a single point in the T-score makes a difference in a child's position in a national ranking list for admission to secondary school. This sorts children very clinically and adds pressure on them to strive for a higher score in the PSLE. In the new system, children who achieve scores within a certain band will be given the same grade. They will not be differentiated by the minor differences in their scores. This new system is expected to be implemented in a few years' time.

Some parents and other stakeholders welcomed the move, agreeing that a system based on grades rather T-scores would reduce stress on children and promote holistic education. Others worried that this would lead to a less transparent system and were more interested in how the Ministry of Education (MOE) would be able to differentiate two students with the same grades when ranking and sorting students for secondary schools' admission.

Apart from school admission based on T-scores, there is an ongoing Direct School Admission (DSA) process started in 2004 by the MOE that allows secondary schools to provisionally admit some students with high achievement or talent, prior to the release of their PSLE scores. In announcing the change to the PSLE T-score system, the Prime Minister also announced that the criteria for DSA would be broadened to include qualities like character and leadership. This was supposed to recognize more areas of success and bring about more diversity in secondary schools.

But, even the DSA changes worried some parents, who raised questions, such as: How do we determine good character in the admission process to good schools? Who will make this judgment and can this be done fairly? Should a kind act motivated by external recognition be judged the same as the same act out of compassion for others? How does one tell the difference? Will the DSA changes encourage children (or their parents) to view kindness as a transaction, doing good deeds for the sake of gain?

These are good questions. The root of the issue is not just about fair assessment in an area that is hard to measure. It is about parents competing to get their children into "good" schools. Therefore, education reform regarding examinations and school selection in Singapore is often a double-edge sword, especially during the initial phase of change. On one hand, we send signals to broaden the definition of success. On the other hand, we may have inadvertently set up more areas for competition.

The Singapore story illustrates how education reform is seldom, if ever, merely an education issue. It is deeply entwined with societal culture. The PSLE reform is not going to have an easy solution that satisfies everyone. All alternatives have their benefits and consequences. But, the debate is a process of national soul searching about what education really means to us as a society. Admittedly, there are tensions. These tensions will move the education system to a new state, one that will guide the next generation.

A word for educators: School practitioners will be increasingly called upon to make judgment calls on policy implementation as education becomes more complex. As we manage the tensions and navigate the waters of educational change, it is crucial that we reach deep within ourselves to make these calls according to our professional values and ethos. Policies may point the direction of change, but they have little meaning in themselves unless wisely interpreted and implemented by committed school practitioners. As I participate in the development of principals and teacher leaders in Singapore, I often remind them to keep their teachers' heartbeat strong. It is good for educational leaders to have the skills of a CEO; but, it is critical that they have the heartbeat of a caring teacher, one that puts the learning and holistic development of students at the center of all that they do. We have to build our inner world, so that we may shape our outer world. This is critical, if we want to play our part in developing a culture that is not narrowly focused on testing our children, but on helping them to learn and enjoy learning, whichever school they may be admitted to and whatever educational pathway they choose.

In a world where change is the only constant, the most significant change may be to find those constants that should not change. What, to you, may some of these constants be?

Pak Tee Ng is the associate dean and the head of policy and leadership studies academic group at the National Institute of Education (NIE), Nanyang Technological University (NTU), in Singapore.

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