From reducing drop-out rates to slaying a 'sacred cow': How streaming has evolved over the years

From reducing drop-out rates to slaying a 'sacred cow': How streaming has evolved over the years

Secondary school students in Singapore
File photo of students in Singapore. (Photo: TODAY)

SINGAPORE: On Tuesday (Mar 5), Education Minister Ong Ye Kung announced the momentous decision to eliminate the current system of streaming in secondary schools.

Instead, all secondary schools will observe Subject-Based Banding (SBB), in which students are able to take different subjects at different levels according to their potential. 

The new system means that students will no longer be filtered into the Express or Normal streams based on how well they do in the Primary School Leaving Examination (PSLE). Instead of taking the N- or O-Levels at the end of their time in secondary school, all students will sit for one common national examination.

As the Government moves to expand SBB - which is already being practised in some schools - by 2024, here's a look at how the current system has evolved since it was first implemented nearly four decades ago: 

WHY STREAMING WAS IMPLEMENTED

Streaming was introduced at the secondary level in 1980 as part of major changes brought about by the Report on the Ministry of Education. 

The report, which was also known as the Goh Report, was submitted by a study team led by then-Deputy Prime Minister Goh Keng Swee. It identified problems in Singapore's education system and proposed solutions for reform. 

According to the report, the education system’s rigid and uniform curriculum failed to cater to differences in the rates of learning among students, further pointing out that “to subject the less able students to the same regime of learning has been the chief defect of our educational system in the past”. 

READ: Government to end current system of secondary school streaming - What you need to know

As a result, the education system suffered from high attrition rates, low levels of literacy and ineffective bilingualism.

Streaming, therefore, was introduced to cater to the different learning paces of students. Students were streamed into the Special, Express or Normal course depending on their PSLE results. Provisions were also made for students to transfer laterally between streams.

The system was a success, with the school drop-out rate declining significantly from about a third of every cohort in the 1970s, to less than 1 per cent currently.

SUBSEQUENT CHANGES

Following a review of primary education and vocational training in 1990, the Ministry of Education (MOE) instituted a new policy to provide all students with the opportunity for at least 10 years of general education.

In 1994, the Normal (Technical) stream was introduced for students who were more inclined towards practical learning than academic studies.

It allowed the 15 to 20 per cent of the cohort that had previously dropped out of formal education after primary school to progress to secondary school and helped them to better prepare for higher-level technical training.

READ: "Their best friends are from different streams" - Why this school did away with traditional form classes

With the change, the Normal course was differentiated into Normal (Academic) and Normal (Technical). Students who did well in the Normal (Technical) stream would be given the opportunity to transfer to the Normal (Academic) stream.

Meanwhile, from 1995, students in the Express stream could take Higher Mother Tongue as a subject. Previously, this was only possible for students in the Special stream, which catered to top PSLE scorers taking both English and Mother Tongue as first languages.

As a result of the diminishing differences between the Special and Express streams, MOE eventually merged the two in 2008.

INTRODUCTION OF SUBJECT-BASED BANDING

Since 2002, MOE has allowed students in the Normal (Academic) stream to take subjects at a different level in upper secondary, with the intention of recognising that students in different streams can have more subject-specific strengths and be given greater flexibility to take subjects at more demanding levels.

In 2006, this was extended to students in the Normal (Technical) stream. 

SBB for secondary schools was first prototyped in 12 schools in 2014. The scheme allowed students posted to the Normal stream to take some subjects at a higher academic level starting from Secondary 1 if they had performed well in the subjects during PSLE.

This was subsequently rolled out to all secondary schools offering the Normal stream in 2018.

This is, however, limited to subjects assessed at the PSLE level such as English, Mother Tongue, Mathematics and Science. 

With the expansion of SBB, it will also apply to Humanities subjects like Geography, History and Literature.

STREAMING: CRITICISM AND PITFALLS

While the system of streaming may have served its purpose in the past, there have been calls in recent years to abolish it, with detractors pointing to the stigma associated with the lower streams.

In 2017, then-Education Minister (Schools) Ng Chee Meng acknowledged during his ministry’s Committee of Supply (COS) debate concerns that streaming could inadvertently discourage some students. 

READ: Scope for specialised secondary schools to offer more subject options amid streaming changes

In 2018, Second Minister for Education Indranee Rajah said that streaming has the effect of “too sharply categorising students at an early stage” and “did not sufficiently allow for the fact that different students may have strengths in different subjects".

More recently, MP for Nee Soon GRC Louis Ng called for MOE to eliminate the practice at this year's COS debates, saying it could prevent social mixing and harden social stratification. 

“I know that streaming is a sacred cow and this practice has existed for many decades. Members will know that I don’t like to cull animals, but it really is time to slay this sacred cow,” said Mr Ng, who is founder of the Animal Concerns Research and Education Society. 

“I am sure streaming was not meant to divide our nation by socioeconomic status, but we now see that streaming does contribute to it," he added. 

The reference to streaming as a sacred cow also surfaced in MP for Jalan Besar GRC Denise Phua’s cut speech during the COS debates. 

Ms Phua, who chairs the Government Parliamentary Committee for Education, pointed out how, in the recent CNA documentary ‘Regardless of Class’, youths from different streams had shared “frankly, sometimes painfully” how they perceived each other due to the labelling.

“Doing away with streaming does not equate to putting everyone in the same class for every subject, ignoring the need for each to learn at their own pace and method,” she said. “Far from it.

“One good solution is subject based banding, and MOE has good results to show from it.”

Source: CNA/lc(hs)

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