Commentary: Junior college or polytechnic after O-Levels – does it matter?

Commentary: Junior college or polytechnic after O-Levels – does it matter?

It may be a daunting decision to make, but the answer is in knowing what suits you best, says June Yong.

O level results
A student from CHIJ St Theresa's Convent receiving her O-Level results. (Photo: MOE)

SINGAPORE: Across the nation, 16-year-olds have been waiting with bated breath to receive their O-Level results, which were just released today.

Most parents and children today spend an unprecedented amount of time preparing for the PSLE. And once they cross the big hurdle, they set their sights on the O-Levels.

READ: O-Level results: 85.2% score at least 5 passes, beating previous year’s record

After that, as some of those receiving their results today would have already been doing – most will begin to weigh the pros and cons of Junior College (JC), polytechnic or the Institute of Technical Education (ITE), while pondering: “What is the best path for me?”

There is a sense that the decision they will soon be making is nothing short of life-changing. Make a rash move and you might slam the door to a dream shut forever or waste some time doing something you may not end up liking or be suited for.

But is it a little too late then?

Should career choice be an ongoing conversation we have with our young teens, rather than at 16? After all they will have to decide their subject combinations at Secondary 3, and having a clearer idea about career options helps.

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I say this merely to suggest that we can look at things more holistically — than to deem these high-stakes examinations as separate issues to worry about.

There is conventional wisdom in applying the “one-thing-at-a-time” school of thought. However, it also makes sense to look at the big picture from time to time, and for each child to mull over questions such as: “What do I enjoy doing?” or “What strengths do I possess?”

file photo of student receiving o-level results in 2018
File photo of students receiving their GCE O-Level results in 2018. (Photo: Facebook/Ministry of Education)

In the time-strapped, high-pressure society we live in today, it can be tough to carve the mental space and time to do so, but it is no less important.


The JC system was first introduced at the end of the 1960s as a means to standardise the pre-University (pre-U) courses offered by secondary schools in Singapore.

The first polytechnic, Singapore Polytechnic, was established in 1954 as an industry-oriented alternative to the more broad-based education that pre-U education offered.

The two different systems were built to serve quite distinct purposes. One prepared students for further studies in university; the other prepared students for the workforce.

The structure, the curriculum and pedagogy and the learning environment are thus quite different.

Some have described JCs as an extension of secondary school life — the uniforms, the similar though more advanced subjects, the lectures, and the exams. Such a rigorous environment may be more suitable for kids who thrive on structure and find traditional subjects manageable or even exciting to learn.

In polytechnic, however, you are treated more independently like you would in a tertiary environment. There are no uniforms, the campus is typically sprawling, there are distinct faculties and schools, and you tackle mostly projects, with some exams for certain subjects.

Life in a polytechnic is a bit more fluid, and because of its less controlled nature, self-management and discipline are key traits for success.

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republic poly
File photo of Singapore's Republic Polytechnic. (Photo: RP)

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The divergent purposes of the two types of institutions have blurred in recent years, as more poly graduates are finding their way into university — whether local or abroad. According to reports, one in three local university entrants in 2015 was a poly graduate.

Michelle Choy, whose second daughter graduated from JC last year and third daughter is in polytechnic, has a good piece of advice: ”If you know what you want to do in life, and there is a polytechnic course for that, go for it.”

Having seen the difference in her children’s experiences in JC and polytechnic, she believes that it is only advisable to go to JC if you are academically inclined and are still unsure of your career choice.

But how many of us knew exactly what we wanted out of life at the age of 16?


When I first entered polytechnic in 1997, I was among a handful of students from my secondary school to choose the route.

I wasn’t entirely sure what I wanted to do for the rest of my life but I remember loving writing since I was a little girl. And when a relative told me about Ngee Ann Polytechnic’s mass communications course, I was hooked.

I must have sounded more certain about my future than I really was, because I got buy-in from my parents.

For me, it was a case of talking to the right person at the right time. That relative armed me with the information I needed to make the best decision I could have made at the time.

Ngee Ann Polytechnic exterior
Ngee Ann Polytechnic. (Photo: Nabihah Hashim / TODAY)

Thankfully, she turned out to be a good source.

Although I struggled to fit in initially (I was one of the rarer introverts in a group of rather outspoken individuals), I soon found a group of firm friends. 

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Every year, we would find ourselves facing different modules and different classmates, but there were always some familiar faces, and we bonded over tackling tough projects and stressing out over presentations.

On hindsight, I think all the project work moulded me into a better team player and also made clear some of my strengths and weaknesses.


Most Singaporeans are pragmatic; they’d advise you to go for the best place you can secure, based on your O-Level results. If you can gain entry into a good JC, why not?

But as a good friend puts it, “In today’s landscape, it’s not so much about whether you land in JC, polytechnic, or ITE, and more of asking, ‘What’s right for you?’”  

There is less hesitance surrounding pursuing a polytechnic education, so instead of worrying about what kind of institution to go for, you can focus on matching your interests to the specific courses or subject combinations available.

ITE College Central (2)
A view of ITE College Central, on Aug 18, 2019. (Photo: Gaya Chandramohan)

In general, people are more accepting of the idea that there are different pathways, and not just one best way.

If I could talk to my 16-year-old self, I’d tell her to set the external expectations and pressures aside and to look within — your decision might become clearer this way.

If you have done your due diligence, stop agonising over it. It’s okay to take some risks.

READ: Commentary: The fear of failure cannot help Singapore reach our best

It’s less about making the grades to get into a branded college and a prestigious university thereafter, and more about the best fit.

Like deciding on a life partner, many wouldn’t blindly settle for the suitor with the best credentials; you would mull over factors like chemistry and traits that are admirable or complementary in order to find a good match.

In life, you can only plan so far. Many who start out developing their career in their field of study end up switching careers as they progress. So it’s hardly ever a direct and linear path forward.


Through my conversations with other parents, it came up that many kids today have no inkling as to what area of study they should explore.

This may be an age-old problem, but it is now compounded by the sheer number of options out there and the rapidly-changing landscape of work.

Perhaps the missing piece in today’s educational landscape is real-world exposure to different jobs in the market. As Choy remarked, “Some kids like desk-bound work; others like to be on the move. Some like to work with people, and others don’t. Everyone is different and you got to try it before you know.”

We’ve been so focused on academic achievement that we are uncertain how to go about letting our kids gain work experience or life skills.

Apart from developing their interests outside of school, they can try their hand out at various odd jobs — from waitressing to tech support, or even tending a relative’s pet store over the holidays. 

o level results file
File photo of students receiving examination results. (Photo: Marcus Mark Ramos)

These experiences will help them grow and mature in character, learn about themselves and also learn to deal with different kinds of people.

They begin to form a mental picture of the possible career paths for themselves.  After snipping away the jobs and experiences they don’t like, the picture of their ideal job begins to take shape.

Perhaps then, it may not matter as much whether they go for JC or polytechnic. As with when they meet with setbacks, like having to retain another year in JC, or not entering a local university after polytechnic.

READ: Commentary: The fear of failure cannot help Singapore reach our best

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Armed with a clear goal and purpose in life, these youths will continue to drive themselves forward.

And maybe like my 16-year-old self, they may meet an older, wiser person who might recognise something in them and help to point them the right way.

June Yong is a mother of three, an educational therapist and owner of Mama Wear Papa Shirt, a blog that discusses parenting and education in Singapore.

Source: CNA/sl