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Mindset change needed on how society views exams: Ong Ye Kung

Mindset change needed on how society views exams: Ong Ye Kung

Education Minister Ong Ye Kung speaks to parents and students on a special episode of Channel 5's Talking Point filmed on Aug 23, 2019. (Photo: Hanidah Amin)

SINGAPORE: Examination grades should be not be the sole means of defining a person - and societal mindsets need to shift to reflect this, said Education Minister Ong Ye Kung on Friday (Aug 23).

He was speaking at a forum with parents and students that was filmed for Talking Point, with hosts Steven Chia and Diana Ser moderating the discussion.

The forum touched on the greatest source of educational stress for students, and the impact of subject-based banding, following several announcements from the Ministry of Education (MOE).

These include having fewer exams and assessments in schools starting this year. 

Primary 1 and 2 students will no longer have weighted assessments and examinations, while Primary 3, Primary 5, Secondary 1 and Secondary 3 students will no longer have mid-year exams.

The Government also announced in March that subject-based banding will replace streaming in secondary schools, and a common national exam will replace the O-Levels and N-Levels.

Subject-based banding allows students to take subjects at a higher or lower level, based on their strengths.

READ: Current approach to streaming in secondary schools to be phased out by 2024

“It is a societal mindset,” said Mr Ong, responding to a question on where the biggest source of stress came from. 

“Because we value meritocracy so much … but I think we have reached a stage where we might be overdoing it, and I think it is time to unwind without losing the fundamental principles of meritocracy.”

With that in mind, he pointed out that MOE is gradually making adjustments such as revamping the Primary School Leaving Examination (PSLE) scoring system, cutting the number of exams and phasing out streaming in secondary schools.

“That means I don’t boil you down to one number, I try my best to judge and evaluate the talent of this child and give admission places to the child at secondary school through Direct School Admission (DSA), as well as poly, ITE and university,” he said.

READ: Fewer exams, assessments in schools to reduce emphasis on academic results: MOE

When Mr Chia pointed out that some employers still hire based on grades, Mr Ong said: “Every time I spot any ministry, any private sector company that still hires based on minimum B3 in Math, minimum five O-Levels, I always tell them – can you remove that? Why do you want that?”

He added that it was “reasonable to ask for qualifications”, but not “for every grade" unless the job requires particular subject knowledge.


Before Mr Ong took part in the discussions, the parents and students were already engaged in a lively discussion on whether having fewer exams equate to less stress.

A poll conducted showed divided opinions: 54 per cent of parents and children said yes, while 48 per cent disagreed.

“School should be a place to not really stress, to have fun, to make friends, to learn something, rather than just go there and – I’m so stressed about – exam is coming,” said actor and presenter Ben Yeo, 40.

However, some parents felt that exams were necessary to instil character values in children.

“If you don’t have exams, you need some other way to teach children discipline and resilience,” said principal founder of Learning Journey Grace Tan, 38.

The children also admitted that there was value to having exams.

“It helps me to know which subject I need to work on more to improve,” said Vera, 10.

“If there’s more exams, it’s easier to balance out if you do very average for one exam,” said Kyana Chainani, 13.

File photo of students at a primary school. New Primary 1 students at St Hilda's Primary School participating in class on the first day of school. (TODAY file photo)

In response, Mr Ong said reducing stress was not the aim behind the decision to do away with some exams.

“For every exam we remove, we have three weeks of freed up curriculum time, which is very useful for teachers to then teach better and for students learn better,” said Mr Ong.


During the programme, parents were also polled on whether subject-based banding would increase social mixing. This time, it was an even 50-50 split.

Some parents cautioned that social mixing would not come about automatically, and that schools would have a part to play too.

“You could have a situation where they’re even more split because there is nobody to facilitate the understanding, the inclusion. So I think the teachers really have to play a central role in helping the students and setting the culture and the tone,” said writer June Yong, 39.

However, manager Lu Jiahui, 44, who went through subject-based banding during her time in school, found it to be a good experience: “I got to mix with lots of other people in the same cohort, so the social mixing was very real.”

Education Minister Ong Ye Kung, Ms Diana Ser and Mr Steven Chia speaking to parents and students at the special episode of Talking Point on Aug 23, 2019. (Photo: Hanidah Amin)

This is exactly the point of the policy, said Mr Ong.

“You move from class to class, and you’re not in the same class because you belong to a certain stream or certain course and I can only study at a lower or less difficult level," he said.


In the final minutes of the show, Mr Ong invited the parents to reflect on what yardstick they would use to measure their success as parents.

Most of the parents pointed to qualities other than academic success.

“How I gauge would be – will they be living their dreams or will they be living our dreams?” asked entrepreneur Khalid Awang, 51.

Mr Yeo said: “I just hope that he can come and tell me that I had a wonderful childhood. That’s all.”

Talking Point’s Special Forum with Education Minister Ong Ye Kung airs Thursday (Aug 29), 9.30pm on Channel 5.

Source: CNA/cc


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