Commentary: Life Beyond Grades a worthy cause but be careful not to trivialise failure

Commentary: Life Beyond Grades a worthy cause but be careful not to trivialise failure

Let’s be honest with ourselves; the reality is that our three-digit Primary School Leaving Examination (PSLE) score opens some doors and shuts others, says a mother of three.

Life Beyond Grades - screengrab composite
A composite screengrab of the Life Beyond Grades movement. (Source: Facebook/Life Beyond Grades)

SINGAPORE: The Life Beyond Grades campaign serves as a timely reminder to many parents not to pursue grades relentlessly to the detriment of our children’s health.

It is a worthy effort, as the education system moves towards imbuing creativity thinking and a lifelong culture of learning, and away from the focus on grades.

At the same time, it has been criticised as a tad frivolous, particularly to families who are banking on their children’s academic success to lift them out of dire straits.

While we don’t want to chase grades at all costs, the reality is that grades do matter, as long as employers look at educational qualifications as a signal and shorthand for hiring, and grades provide the only standardised way of sorting people. 

Idealism needs to make room for the pragmatic. For many of us, our PSLE scores actually paved the way for our growth in both the academic world and the real one.

This three-digit score opens some doors and shuts others.

Thus, I worry that the campaign may inadvertently send the wrong message to children that they don’t have to work hard for good grades as they can still chase their dreams and fulfill them.

READ: With less focus on grades, is PSLE still a necessary checkpoint? A commentary


Times have changed as compared with 25 to 30 years ago.

There are more choices and pathways, from IB and IP to Normal and NT. These are positive changes, as the system works to ensure that no child is left behind. However, in reality, the wide range of options can be mind-boggling for a 12-year-old and his parents. 

The practical thing to do then is to understand our children’s strengths and inclinations, look at their results, and choose the path that may suit them best.

But without good results, the options shrink.

While coming home with a red report card or going into the NT stream may not be the end of the world, we need to be honest with ourselves and our offspring.

When you start at the lower rung, the odds are stacked up against you, and it takes a greater amount of effort, self-discipline, and resilience to rise above this mountain.

Students attending a class at a primary school
Students attending a class at a primary school. (File photo: TODAY)

It makes for an inspiring news story at the end of the day, but can you imagine the process of getting there? Most would give up and resign themselves to a life of hardship.

READ: The education system is changing, but does true change remain elusive? A commentary


I enjoyed reading the social media stories of ordinary people who carved their own version of success. The common thread behind each story is resilience, tenacity and hard work.

It is also likely that someone along the way gave these individuals a helping hand, be it in the form of giving them their first job, or introducing them to people who would, in other words – access.

For people in the lower-income group, it can be tough to gain access, to know the right doors to knock on, and to ask for help.

Indeed, grades, like the income bracket your family comes from, are not a be-all-end-all. There are other ways to level up, and one way is to nurture the unique personalities and talents within our children.

Instead of holding on to our ideals of what our children should be, we should investigate and find out how they're naturally wired – an endeavour that requires parents to have a sense of perspective.

If they’re not academically inclined, their strengths may lie in another domain. For some, it could be in innovating and solving problems; for others, hands-on work.

I once spoke with head chef Koh Han Jie, who graduated with a National ITE Certificate (Nitec) in Western Culinary Arts. He entered the course by chance, but discovered his passion during the course when he did a six-month stint at Pierside restaurant. He eventually went on to win the highly-coveted Young Talents Escoffier 2018.

Koh Han Jie, winner of the internship selection cook off
Koh Han Jie also won a competition for an internship at Gordon Ramsey's Bread Street Kitchen in 2014. (Photo: Facebook/Koh Han Jie)

While others applaud his cool-headedness amidst such nerve-wrecking competitions, he credits his mother for his success, saying that she did not give up on him, and would show up at his competitions to support him.

Koh’s story shows if parents take time to nurture and affirm our children’s strengths and passions, it can be a powerful catalyst for success – regardless of grades.

READ: For greater social mobility, should the role of privilege in our education system be reassessed? A commentary


The Life Beyond Grades movement is right in that grades may be a great enabler but head knowledge can only take us so far. Employers today are saying that soft skills such as innovation, communication, and resilience are essential. These innately human qualities will be increasingly in demand in the age of automation.

The movement also helps shine a spotlight on the fact that in a society that is less accepting of failure, children and adults alike learn to fear and shun it. It also means we shy away from challenges, instead of seeing them as crucial in one’s journey of growth.

As Koh’s story reveals, our children need our support, particularly in times of failure. Admittedly, it is hard to embrace our children's failures wholeheartedly, but we can all show our young some compassion whenever they falter.

Herein lies the real story behind the success tales of those who did well in life despite getting bad grades – hard work, a positive attitude, and someone who did not give up on them.

Family Singapore
A family walking in Singapore. (Photo: Gaya Chandramohan)

Not every individual will find it easy to accept a setback and pick themselves up. But each time they conquer a seemingly unconquerable mountain, their resilience muscle grows stronger.

As parents, we can empower our children to have a growth mindset, and to not fear failure. After all, is this not the great paradox in education – that we need both success and failure to be a lifelong learner?

READ: Combating the culture of comparison with PSLE results, a commentary


So what do we tell our children about PSLE? That grades are not everything, like what the Life Beyond Grades movement is saying?

There is definitely more to life than grades, but we should not underestimate the difficulty of scaling that mountain after a fall. Grades are definitely important, and we should do our best with our talents and abilities. 

While success cannot be boiled down to any one factor – whether grades, family resources, or personality traits – luck does favour the one who tries and perseveres. 

But for every single success story, there are probably dozens of others with unfortunate endings.

Let's help our kids put grades in perspective. Our children can still succeed in spite of poor grades but it is going to take a lot more effort.

They need to understand that the process of clawing back from setbacks and failures is not an easy one, and the tears and sweat cannot be neatly encapsulated into one insta-worthy shot. 

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