Commentary: The education system is changing, but does true change remain elusive?

Commentary: The education system is changing, but does true change remain elusive?

With the move to roll out Applied Learning Programmes to all primary schools by 2023, Channel NewsAsia’s Bharati Jagdish discusses whether the love for learning can be sustained in a competitive education system.

SINGAPORE: With all the changes to the education system recently, we should feel optimistic about our children’s future.

Unfortunately, there remains an underlying disquiet in some quarters that exam pressure and competition to get into prestigious schools will remain unabated in spite of the changes.  

Minister for Education (Schools) Ng Chee Meng announced in Parliament on Monday (Mar 5) that by 2023, all primary schools in Singapore will have an Applied Learning Programme (ALP).

Mr Ng described it as "an investment worth making to nurture innovation and creativity".

The initiative is not entirely new. 

Schools have been encouraged to develop ALPs since 2013, and currently, all secondary schools have such a programme.

Since 2017, more than 80 primary schools of the 191 in Singapore have had an ALP.

The idea is to help students apply their learning to the real world, uncover the meaning behind learning and develop a love for it.

“There are no tests or exams. I have emphasised this to MOE. Students learn through experimentation – they try, fail, try, learn from it and try again,” said Mr Ng.

By 2023, all primary schools in Singapore will have an Applied Learning Programme (ALP), Minister for Education (Schools) Ng Chee Meng announced in Parliament on Monday (Mar 5).


Gone are the days of rote learning and we should be happy. But why are many not?

We seem to be all too cognizant of the fact that ultimately, our children will have to sit exams – whether it’s the PSLE or O-levels.

Applied learning may rapidly ignite a love for learning from a young age, but will exams douse that fire just as quickly?

Some might argue that wishing for an education system with no standardised testing whatsoever is probably futile.

How else would a person’s abilities be tested? How else can employers gauge the probable capabilities of a person fresh out of school?


Ultimately, the quality of testing, the factors considered in school admissions, and the variables employers consider in hiring an individual are vital.

Over the years, the way in which exams are set has changed.

Educators here acknowledge that increasingly exams question knowledge application, the ability to make connections, and analysis.

Teaching methods have to continue to evolve to support this.  

But the marking process is equally vital.

File photo of a student taking the 2017 A-Level Chemistry paper. (Photo: Ruyi Wong)

Can the paradigm shift so much so there are no “wrong” answers? Wouldn’t it be better to grade students based on how well they substantiate their answers?

In the area of school admissions, much has changed in at the tertiary level to consider an individual’s aptitude rather than academic scores.

A similar system exists for those in the earlier stages of academic development in the form of the Direct Schools Admission (DSA) scheme which allows students to seek admission to a secondary school based on talents and achievements that may not be apparent in their PSLE results.

From this year, secondary schools admitting students under the DSA scheme will not be able to use general academic ability tests as a criterion. Instead, the focus will be on identifying sporting and artistic talent as well as students’ strength in specific areas such as languages, mathematics or science.

But instead of reducing pressure, the scheme seems to have merely transferred it, with more affluent parents sending their kids for DSA preparation classes in order to ace interviews or auditions.

The education arms race seems to rear its head in spite of efforts to recognise qualities beyond academic prowess. 

primary school students
File photo of students at a primary school.


Several steps have been taken over the years to reduce the emphasis on academic results and by extension, the stress associated with exams.   

Since 2013, MOE has not included the highest and lowest aggregate scores in students’ results slips.

But exam pressure doesn’t seem to have perceptibly reduced.

From 2021, the PSLE will be scored with wider bands and the scores will reflect the student’s individual performance and not his performance relative to his peers.

But the competition to get into prestigious schools might overpower the potential benefits of this.

Ideally, applied learning initiatives, if done well, could boost the love for learning and if exams are aligned with the objectives of such learning, most students would have no issues excelling in exams.

O Level students
File photo of students receiving their O-Level results. 

Also, if admissions processes take into account more measures than simply academic grades, students can flourish in the system through multiple pathways.


However, some argue that in order for the joy of learning to truly take hold, radical changes are needed, among them, scrapping the PSLE altogether.

Member of Parliament and Chair of the Government Parliamentary Committee for Education, Denise Phua’s has been a long-time advocate of this.

In fact, she recently raised it in parliament again, describing PSLE as a "structural thorn in the flesh of the system".

"There are highly respected education systems globally which do not sort students at the age of 12,” she said.

She is not wrong.

Other advocates of scrapping PSLE often say the system is cruel simply because the exam comes when students are just 12.

How can the love of learning flourish if it is marred by the stresses associated with preparing for PSLE?

Taking a major exam later in life is preferable because it allows even late bloomers to develop a sense of self that could help them identify their interests. They would have also developed the maturity to handle the stress associated with major exams.

denise phua (1)
Member of Parliament Denise Phua. (Photo: Xabryna Kek)

However, Mr Ng said this would “transfer the stress on parents and students elsewhere, such as at the P1 registration” and it will “make the O-Level and N-Level exams most stressful – a single exam in the whole career of a child’s life.”

He may not be wrong either.


But as long as PSLE exists, it should not be seen as a judgment of ability or even an accurate gauge of a child’s future success or failure.

Instead, can it be seen as a tool to determine the type of academic support a child will need in the years ahead instead of a “sorting” exercise to judge their capabilities?

MOE has already introduced subject-based banding at Primary 4 as a refinement to the streaming process.

It is designed to allow children to stretch their potential in the subjects that they are strong in while building up fundamentals in the subjects they need more help in.

Can this spirit be extended to children progressing to secondary school?

Advocates of mixed ability classrooms also say that sorting children into classes or schools based on academic ability is unnecessary. Instead, pedagogy can be adapted and enhanced to allow better integration and learning in the classroom.

In that case, MOE needs to show parents and students that every school is well-resourced to manage such learning.

Perhaps then, school admissions should be based on distance instead of scores.

This could come with its own problems. Might this further hamper mixing across socio-economic backgrounds depending on whether you live in a wealthy neighbourhood or otherwise?

Fern Green Primary School students
Students from Fern Green Primary attending a lesson on their first day of school. (Photo: Matin Akmal Mohammad Kamal) 


Also, as long as brand-name schools exist, this ideal may not be entirely achievable. As we’ve seen recently, some parents try to game the system even on distance in order to get their kids into popular schools.

The culture of judgment within the system needs to end, but clearly, it’s not just about the system. It’s about the people in the system.  

Fellow students, parents, and employers, among others need to re-examine the factors they apply to determine a person’s worth.

Do we still ask others which schools they went to?

Do we then form our opinions of them based on that?

Do we consequently, whether consciously or subconsciously, make friends with or hire someone based on that?

Do we ourselves often feel judged in this manner?

To change the face of education, the factors that constitute learning, teaching, assessing need to be aligned, but so do our own perceptions of what constitutes ability and success.

Bharati Jagdish is host of Channel NewsAsia Digital News' hard-hitting On The Record, a weekly interview with thought leaders across Singapore, and The Pulse, Channel NewsAsia’s weekly podcast that discusses the hottest issues of the week.

Source: CNA/sl