SINGAPORE: Minister of Education Ong Ye Kung recently announced this week in Parliament that the current approach to streaming will be phased out.
From 2024, students entering secondary school would no longer carry the labels of Normal Technical, Normal Academic or Express.
Instead, they will move forward unencumbered by fears of being pigeonholed or labeled a failure, and be free to focus on learning at their own pace in each subject. The traditional stigma associated with these labels will be removed.
Such broad-brush streaming – that assumes that a child who is low performing is unable to perform across all subjects – will be replaced by full subject-based banding, where students will take a combination of subjects at three different levels based on their PSLE scores: General 1, General 2 and General 3 (G1, G2, G3), with the latter being the highest level.
When the new system kicks in, lower secondary school students will be allowed to take more subjects at a higher level – including subjects such as Geography, History and Literature, beyond the four PSLE subjects.
READ: From reducing drop-out rates to slaying a 'sacred cow': How streaming has evolved over the years
At the end of their secondary education, students will sit for a common national examination and receive a certification that reflects their G1/G2/G3 subjects.
Is this the panacea that will help relieve the stress surrounding education that society is hoping for? Or are we dumbing down examinations by catering to the broad middle?
I distinctly recall giving up on Higher Chinese during my ‘O’ levels and didn't spend time revising it at all. My rationale was that I would focus my limited time and energies on the subjects that I already did well in, namely Literature, Geography and English.
I also struggled with Additional Math throughout my third year, and was nearly forced to drop it entirely unless I pull up my socks.
Had this system been in place 20 years ago, I might have suffered less heartache.
Full subject-based banding provides greater flexibility for each child to learn at their own pace, depending on his or her strengths.
It will mostly benefit weaker students as it removes an invisible glass ceiling and allows every child to gain confidence in at least one subject area, instead of trying to buck up in weaker subjects and feeling like a failure all round.
Even for the child who is high-performing, the new approach may also combat the pressure of thinking that you have to ace every subject.
One research paper titled The Principals of Strengths-Based Education published in The Journal of College and Character states:
Strengths-based educational models represent a return to basic educational principles that emphasise the positive aspects of student effort and achievement, as well as human strengths … A strengths perspective assumes that every individual has resources that can be mobilised toward success in many areas of life.
Such a strengths-based approach is more aligned to an individual’s natural way of learning. The confidence and growth gained in one area can have powerful ripple effects on a child’s outlook, motivation, and entire schooling experience.
LOWERING SOCIAL BARRIERS
As part of this new system, form classes will be reorganised and made up of children from different abilities and social classes. This is designed to address social stratification by allowing students from different backgrounds to get together in the same class.
Form classes may be organised around students’ strengths in particular subject areas, project groups or CCAs.
Some parents may raise concerns that mixing Normal and Express students in one class can be disruptive. We may worry that our kids will come under negative peer pressure or be distracted in class.
However, such myths need to come under greater scrutiny. It is simply not true that all low-performing students are rowdy or difficult to handle.
Problematic classroom behaviours exist across the board. A teacher friend of mine observed that many of her weakest students are teachable, and some exhibit strengths in sports or presentation skills.
Furthermore, the students will move to the various classes according to their subject band. Teachers will still be able to teach efficiently and at the right pace.
Seen in this light, full subject-based banding may actually kill a couple of birds with one stone.
Not only does it encourage mingling across social classes, which is something many Singaporeans feel uncomfortable doing unless placed in a situation where you need to work together, it also allows room for different academic strengths to develop and shine.
Lastly, it helps to reduce the stress on parents who want their children to do well in the PSLE and qualify for express.
That said, there may be a smaller percentage of parents who would see this as an impetus for their child to aim higher and distinguish themselves from the crowd – by entering the Integrated Programme that is only offered to the crème de la crème.
LETTING SOME STRESS OUT OF THE SYSTEM
Incidentally, my second child will be in the pioneer batch of non-streamed kids, and I could not help but heave a sigh of relief while absorbing the news.
He may be at a tender age of 8, but already I have observed that his strengths are not going to be in the languages, but likely in math and science.
Instead of artificially propping him up as an academic all-rounder by enforcing tuition and assessment books, I can now embrace the idea that he need not chase a particular cut-off score, but can focus on the areas he is good at.
As parents, we always wonder whether we are doing enough for our children’s education. But what is enough?
The new system will remove some of the stress parents and children bear today, and hopefully fewer of us will feel like we are not doing enough for our young.
With a bit more breathing space all round, the home environment might just become a more pleasant one – one that is balanced with more time for play and bonding, and not just studies.
On the flipside, some of us may wonder: We all went through a rigorous streaming system, so why can’t our children do the same?
GRIT AND RESILIENCE STILL REQUIRED
Times have indeed changed.
In the past, we may have done well in terms of getting the right answers. But the brave new world calls for new skills, such as communication, collaboration, and problem-solving. It is not about getting the right answers, but asking better questions.
Does the new system allow for these skills to be honed and practised? Only time will tell, but introducing diversity in the classroom will surely give way for teamwork and empathy skills to be developed.
Considering MOE’s recent announcements on abolishing the T-score system and removing some tests at certain transitory years, this latest move continues to exemplify the Ministry’s resolve to reduce the emphasis on grades and to create a holistic education.
But does this automatically mean that parents will let up on the chase for grades?
While children will be free from carrying a label at an early age, their emotional resilience against poor grades or failure still needs to be built up brick by brick. And we, parents, teachers or other significant adults are the bricklayers.
A top performer who meets with his first fail grade can suffer in his self-esteem if grades are the only things he has ever been measured against.
A weaker student can fall prey to intense competition and give up, if he lacks parental support and has never heard an adult say, “I believe in you.”
As parents, we need to choose our response.
Streaming or no streaming, we still need to make a conscious choice to let go of our aspirations to see our offspring "succeed” in the narrow sense of the word, and allow them room to carve out and define their own version of success.
This is the message behind the Education Ministry’s latest move: Every child has his own unique strengths and talents, and every child can succeed on his own terms.
It is now up to us to believe that and carry the same message to our children.
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.