SINGAPORE: Streaming in secondary schools – where students enter the Express, Normal (Academic) and Normal (Technical) streams based on their PSLE results – has been an integral part of the school system for many years.
And after years of teaching with this as the norm, some secondary school teachers Channel NewsAsia spoke to are optimistic about the planned move to replace streaming in schools with full subject-based banding (SBB) by 2024, pointing to how they have seen examples of stigmatisation and a self-limiting mindset among students from the lower streams, as a likely result of the current system.
Education Minister Ong Ye Kung had first announced on Mar 5 during his ministry’s Committee of Supply debate that streaming would be replaced by full SBB, where students take subjects at different levels according to their abilities.
In his speech, Mr Ong had pointed out that entering a stream that is considered “lower” can carry a “certain stigma” that becomes “self-fulfilling and self-limiting”. “Students can develop a mindset where they tell themselves, ‘I am only a Normal stream student, so this is as good as I can be’.”
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Secondary school teachers Channel NewsAsia spoke to agreed that this self-limiting mindset is evident in some of the students they teach, pointing out that students can feel defined by the stream they are in.
“The Normal (Technical) students always use the excuse ‘I’m not an Express student’ when they have made mistakes or failed,” said an art teacher with about 5 years of experience. “The expectation is that Express students are better both in academics and character, and they start to internalise the idea that they are not good enough, and never will be.”
“It becomes an entire class with a fixed mindset because of the peer influences reinforcing these statements.”
Ms Phua Shih Wen, an English teacher with Jurong Secondary who has about 7 years of teaching experience, pointed out that the stigma is also present in more subtle forms.
“I had a friend who took a group of Normal (Technical) students out during a camp, and she asked them about how they feel being in the Normal (Technical) stream,” she said. “Many of them cried.”
“I think the stigma is there, and they feel it, but they don’t usually verbalise it,” she added. “So with this new system kicking in, I hope students will feel less labelled.”
CAN THE NEW SYSTEM REALLY ADDRESS THIS?
However, while they believe stigmatisation and labelling will likely be reduced with the move, some teachers also pointed out that it is not possible to completely eradicate it.
Kavitha Meyyappan, a former English teacher, pointed out that even with SBB, it cropped up within the classes she used to teach.
“In my Normal (Technical) class, I had SBB students doing English at the Normal (Academic) level, and they liked to call themselves the ‘better English people’,” she said, also pointing to students who take three of their four core subjects at a higher level, but are placed in a Normal (Technical) class.
“When this happens, the student tends to think they are better (than their classmates), and would hang out more with the Normal (Academic) students,” she said.
READ: ‘Their best friends are from different streams’: Why this school did away with traditional form classes
Jurong Secondary’s Ms Phua said the move to allow students to take different subjects at different levels would make a difference and blur the lines between the different streams.
But she pointed out that the stigma will still remain, particularly for students who take all their subjects at the G1 level.
“It’s clearly stated that G1 is mapped to the Normal (Technical) level,” she said. “So somehow I think ...in conversations or during gatherings, they will still be asked if they’re taking subjects at G1 or G2 level … I don’t think these comparisons can be fully eradicated.”
MORE THOUGHT HAS TO GO INTO LESSON PLANNING
Teachers also raised concerns about their workload increasing, with one English teacher pointing out that “a lot more thought and planning would be needed” for lessons.
“We can’t just walk into a classroom with a ‘one-size-fits-all’ mentality,” said the teacher.
One Humanities teacher with four years of experience added that it would be difficult to manage a class with differing abilities, and the possibility of creating differentiated learning activities means that more time would be spent on lesson planning.
“I’m concerned about the increasing workload, and how teachers will cope,” said the teacher, pointing specifically to the transition period where incoming Secondary 1 students could be following a different system from the rest of the school.
“Structurally, the timetabling might also be a nightmare,” added the teacher.
Another issue raised by Ms Kavitha was that teachers could be put under pressure to make students drop their higher-level subjects if they struggle to cope.
“There are Normal (Technical) students doing a subject at the Normal (Academic) level, and schools are wondering if these students can give them the passes,” she said. “Let’s say these students contribute to my Normal (Academic) cohort’s results, so if they fail, my percentage of passes will decrease.”
“So then we are put under pressure to make sure the students who cannot pass go back to the Normal (Technical) stream where they can get an 'A', and we are pressurised to make sure the students are okay with it,” she said.
“You can have very hardworking students, but if they’re not as bright sometimes … this could be an issue.”
OVERALL, MOVE WILL BOOST STUDENTS’ CONFIDENCE
Nonetheless, the teachers were largely positive about the change.
“I’m very excited for better integration between different types of students,” said the art teacher with five years’ experience. “The Normal (Technical) stream generally has more students under the Financial Assistance Scheme and more unfortunate family circumstances.
“It’s a good way to be comfortable with different kinds of people, work with them and develop a better sense of empathy.”
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Teachers with experience teaching SBB classes also pointed out that it has benefitted many students.
“I have Normal (Academic) students taking Express-level subjects, and they come up tops, doing better than their Express counterparts,” said the English teacher with 4 years of experience, who is also a level coordinator for SBB. “They’re often surprised at their own achievements, and when they do realise their potential and that effort pays off, they’re usually more driven.”
“I think every student needs the opportunity to realise and know they can work on something and be good at it.”
“Most students feel good about taking the subject at a higher level, and that helps to boost their self-confidence, as they learn and interact with students in their SBB classes,” added Koh Mei Chin, a senior teacher in Mathematics at Paya Lebar Methodist Girls’ School.
Mrs Koh, who has been teaching for 25 years and a Mathematics SBB mentor for two years, pointed to the experience of one student in the Normal (Academic) stream, but takes Chinese and Mathematics at the Express level. “She is confident in this subject and she can be seen teaching and helping her friends in her form class and CCA (co-curricular activity) in Math,” she said.
Ms Phua, who teaches Normal (Technical) students English at the Normal (Academic) level, also lauded the flexibility offered to students - where they can choose to drop to a lower level if they think they cannot cope.
“It gives students the opportunity to just try it out first,” she said. “And most of them … because they have already gotten used to the rigour of taking the subject at a higher level … it’s usually a breeze for them (when they drop it).”