The Big Read: As subject-based banding takes root, labels on students are fast shedding
Principals, teachers and students say they are optimistic about the attempt to remove labels and the stigma associated with different streams, but some challenges regarding differentiated teaching and integration remain.
SINGAPORE: When Jocelyn Chia scored an aggregate of 181 for her Primary School Leaving Examination (PSLE), she left the school hall, result slip in hand, feeling disappointed.
The annual national examination taken by students at the end of their primary school education determines the stream and secondary school they move on to.
“I was aiming for the Express stream and I had expected to do better,” said the 16-year-old of her PSLE results four years ago.
However, within a year after starting her secondary school education, Jocelyn found herself taking up two subjects — mother tongue and mathematics — at the Express level.
The opportunity to do these subjects at a higher level despite being streamed into the Normal (Academic) course has allowed her to feel better about herself.
“I don’t feel so bad being in N(A) anymore because I am still taking Express subjects,” said Jocelyn, who is currently a Secondary 4 N(A) stream student at Clementi Town Secondary School.
Since 2014, the opportunity for Normal stream students like Jocelyn to take certain subjects at higher levels has become a reality - starting as a pilot in a dozen secondary schools, before being rolled out to all secondary schools across the island two years ago.
As of this year, the subjects offered will be extended to the humanities at 25 pilot schools. This means that Sec 2 N(A) students in these schools who have performed well in literature, history or geography in Sec 1 may take these subjects at an Express level.
For many previous cohorts, their memory of secondary school would have been one of being streamed into either Express, N(A) or Normal (Technical), and then remaining in their respective streams throughout their secondary school years.
While the initial intent of streaming was to reduce dropout rates by ensuring that students could keep up with their lessons, it has also resulted in stereotypes attached to students depending on the streams they are in.
Express students, for instance, are viewed as being more studious, while those in N(A) or N(T) are assumed to be less academically capable or not as well-disciplined.
However, amid a long-running national debate on the merits or otherwise of the streaming system, the education scene has seen a shift over the past decade, with various changes introduced to give students more flexibility in what they wish to learn.
These include the introduction of subject-based banding, which lets students such as Jocelyn to take a subject at a more demanding level even though they may be from a “lower” stream.
For these students, the initiatives have not only boosted their confidence and helped them shed the negative labels associated with their streams, they have also opened up more educational pathways.
FROM STREAMING TO SUBJECT-BASED BANDING
In 2014, subject-based banding was introduced in 12 secondary schools here to allow N(A) and N(T) students in lower secondary to take English, mother tongue, mathematics and science at a more rigorous standard.
Following the healthy take-up rate of subjects at more demanding levels in these schools — about half of N(A) students took up Express stream subjects — subject-based banding was introduced to all secondary schools in Singapore in 2018.
With the option extended to humanities, the Ministry of Education (MOE) said that about two-thirds of this year’s eligible Sec 2 N(A) students took up the offer to study humanities at the Express level. This represents about 10 per cent of this year’s cohort of Sec 2 N(A) students in the pilot schools.
The figure excludes 4 per cent of the N(A) cohort in these schools who laterally transferred to the Express course.
The latest changes are part of the transition towards full subject-based banding, which will be implemented across secondary schools by 2024, when the decades-old streaming system will be scrapped.
In full subject-based banding, subjects will be taught at three levels — General 1 (G1), G2 and G3. The three levels will roughly correspond to today’s N(T), N(A) and Express streams respectively.
Students can take a range of G1, G2 and G3 subjects based on their abilities.
They will then sit for a common examination in Sec 4 and graduate with a common secondary school certificate that is co-branded by Singapore and Cambridge. This will kick in for Sec 4 students from 2027.
The other aspect of full subject-based banding is mixed-stream form classes, where students are drawn from a mix of Express, N(A) and N(T) streams.
This is a departure from the current format of having students of the same streams in the same form class.
Currently, 4,000 Sec 1 students are part of mixed-stream form classes that are being piloted in 15 secondary schools.
Another 13 schools will introduce mixed-stream form classes by 2021, with the rest of the secondary schools here following suit in 2024.
The move towards full subject-based banding is part of the Government’s efforts to overcome some drawbacks of school streaming, such as pinning negative labels on students.
Education Minister Ong Ye Kung made this point during his ministry’s Committee of Supply debate in March last year, when he acknowledged that entering a stream such as N(A) or N(T) can “carry a certain stigma that becomes fulfilling or 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',” he said.
Mr Ong noted that while some students are strong in every subject, most have uneven strengths. Subject-based banding will allow students to take subjects based on their capabilities and encourage them to find their strengths. This will, in turn, minimise the downsides of labelling, he said.
HOLDING THEIR OWN AGAINST EXPRESS STREAM PEERS
Secondary students taking subjects at a higher level we spoke to said that subject-based banding has given them the belief that they can hold their own against their peers from more academically demanding streams.
One of them is Pei Hwa Secondary School student Maldaa Abdul Aziz. Despite topping her N(A) class for history in Sec 1, she was initially hesitant to take up the subject at an Express level in Sec 2 when offered to do so by her school.
“I’m the only one (from N(A) stream) to take history at an Express level, in a class of 40, so there is a lot of pressure. I was also concerned that I could not keep up,” said the 14-year-old.
Her concerns, said Maldaa, were compounded by comments from her family members who said that Express stream students “have higher IQ then the rest” and that they will “look down” on those from other streams.
But after three weeks of taking history lessons at the Express level, Maldaa said with a sense of pride that she is “better” than her classmates at the subject, and this has given her the confidence to take on more subjects at a higher level.
Maldaa’s uplifting experience is not uncommon. Exam results from the first two batches of students who took part in subject-based banding showed that they can hold their own against their Express stream peers.
In 2018, 25 per cent of Sec 4 N(A) students who took O-level English scored A1 or A2, compared to 24 per cent for Express students.
For O-level maths, 26 per cent of N(A) students got A1 or A2, compared to 50 per cent for Express students.
For O-level combined science, it was 33 per cent for N(A), compared to 34 per cent for Express students.
REMOVING THE SHACKLES OF STREAMING
The students’ strong showing in the national examinations aside, subject-based banding has also helped to debunk stereotypes associated with individual streams.
Aldrick Au Khin Hon, a Sec 3 student from Evergreen Secondary School, said that while his parents were not disappointed that he got into the N(T) stream after PSLE, some of his friends’ parents felt let down by their children.
However, having the opportunity to take subjects at a higher level in secondary school helped these friends to prove to their parents that they were academically capable too.
“That’s why I think subject-based banding is a quite a good thing,” said Aldrick, 15, who takes English and science at a N(A) level. “People won’t judge you for being a N(T) student. They won’t keep looking down on you.”
“They will be surprised that I can take Normal (Academic) subjects, rather than say I’m from N(T) and a troublemaker,” he added, alluding to the perception among some quarters that N(T) students are unmotivated and ill-disciplined.
Ms Claudia Toh, who is teaching mathematics to a class of Sec 1 N(A) and N(T) students this year, said that she consciously avoids checking out the streams of her students.
“I haven’t actually seen the names of the students that are from N(T). I feel like if I do that, I would go in with the prejudice that maybe this person needs more help,” said the teacher from Greendale Secondary School.
When asked if it may be better for her to know so she that would be more aware of her students’ capabilities, Ms Toh pointed out that doing so would mean that she is already assuming that a child will perform poorly, even though he or she had already met the minimum requirement to be in the class.
SPILLOVER EFFECT ACROSS OTHER SUBJECTS
In his speech during the Ministry of Education’s (MOE) Committee of Supply debate last year, Mr Ong said about half of the N(A) students from 12 secondary schools, where subject-based banding has been adopted since 2014, had taken up subjects at an Express level.
A quarter of N(A) students in these schools took up one Express level subject either in English, mathematics or science, while 11 per cent took two subjects, and over 10 per cent took three subjects or were transferred to the Express stream.
The numbers were similar for N(T) students taking up N(A) subjects, Mr Ong added.
In response to queries, MOE said that since subject-based banding was introduced in 2018, about 60 per cent of Sec 1 N(T) students and 40 per cent of Sec 1 N(A) students took up subjects at a higher level.
Of these, about 6 per cent proceeded to take up more subjects at a demanding level in Sec 2. This does not include those who are laterally transferred to a more academically demanding course.
MOE added that schools look at each student’s abilities carefully before offering them the opportunity to take up higher level subjects. They are also mindful that students need time to adjust to the demands of these subjects, the ministry added.
As a result, only a small number of students stopped taking up one or more subjects at a more demanding level when they progress to Sec 2, said MOE.
Among the secondary school students interviewed, some said they were motivated to study harder and take on more subjects at a higher level after being offered at least one.
Maple Koh Xin Yi, a Sec 4 student from the N(A) stream at Christchurch Secondary School, said that having the opportunity to do English at an Express level gave her the confidence to do better in other subjects as well.
Maple said that she pushed herself in Sec 1 so that she could take up at least one subject at a higher level to increase her chances of entering the Polytechnic Foundation Programme, a one-year programme to prepare N(A) students for entry into polytechnic diploma courses.
She was eventually given the opportunity to take up English at an Express level in Sec 2. This made her work harder to take up her favourite subject, maths, at a higher level as well, said Maple.
Although she ultimately did not qualify to take maths at an Express level, she had seen an improvement in her scores for the subject, which went from “barely passing” in Sec 1 to about 70 out of 100 for her final-year examinations in Sec 3.
Mr Bernard Kang, 43, the year head for the Sec 1 cohort at Pei Hwa Secondary School, said that since the school piloted subject-based banding in 2014, it has seen an increase in the number of students eligible for transfer from N(T) to N(A), or from N(A) to Express.
“Before 2013, we did not have any (transfers), but in 2014 we had a small handful and it has been consistent since then.”
He added that students who were not taking any subjects at a more demanding level were driven to work harder, since they knew that they had the opportunity to do so if they performed well.
Riverside Secondary School said it has “a healthy number” of students who qualify to do the more demanding subjects annually.
The school’s principal, Madam Shanti Devi Thambusamy, 55, added that students who took an additional subject under the subject-based banding in their subsequent years would have performed well across their subjects, and demonstrated proficiency in managing their academic workload.
“Conversely, a student who drops a subject (under the subject-based banding) might have found the added academic load challenging and opts to pursue a more manageable one,” she said, adding that the number of such pupils was “quite negligible”.
MORE POST-SECONDARY OPTIONS
Students interviewed also said they were encouraged to take up subjects at a higher level as this would open up more opportunities for them in post-secondary education.
Maple from Christchurch Secondary School, for instance, reiterated that her decision to accept the offer to do English at an Express level was prompted by her desire to qualify for the Polytechnic Foundation Programme.
Qualifying for the programme will allow her to skip Sec 5, the year where N(A) students typically sit for their O-Level examinations.
Students taking Express course subjects may also sit for the O-Level examination for those particular subjects at Sec 4, the same year they sit for their N-Level examinations. Their scores in their O-Level examination subjects can then be converted into points, which can determine the course or pathway that they take after leaving secondary school.
Likewise, N(T) students taking N(A) level subjects for their N-Level examinations may convert their grades to points for entry into their preferred Institute of Technical Education (ITE) course.
MANAGING CLASS DYNAMICS
The benefits of subject-based banding are clear for eligible Normal stream students taking on subjects at a higher level. But what about their classmates from the Express stream?
Pei Hwa Secondary School’s teacher, Ms Lee Sixian, noted that having students from the Normal stream in their classes would instill humility in Express students.
READ: ‘Their best friends are from different streams’: Why this school did away with traditional form classes
“When you put N(A) and Express students in the same class, Express students realise they are only in that stream because their average marks may be higher than a particular student ... When they realise someone can be stronger than them in a subject like English, it opens up the eyes of these students who think they are better at everything. They realise there are people in other streams who have strengths and weaknesses in different things,” said the 27-year-old who teaches geography and English.
Still, some educators felt that teaching students from different streams within the same class also means that they have to put in more effort in ensuring that everybody can keep up with the pace of the class.
They spoke of the need for “differentiated teaching” to suit the different pace and abilities of students in a class.
This could mean more guiding questions during class time or in worksheets to help students along. Other techniques employed by teachers involve increasing group work in classes so that students who are faster can help the others along.
Nevertheless, the educators were also quick to note that tailoring a lesson to cater to different abilities in a class is an on-going effort that has been underway in schools here even before subject-based banding kicked in, given that each class always has students with mixed abilities.
However, an English teacher who only gave her name as Ms Jennifer as she was not authorised to speak to the media said there was “no difference” in how she planned her classes since her school adopted subject-based banding. The N(A) students in her Express stream English class made up only a small number, and could keep up with the pace, she said.
Similarly, Ms Cheung Ka Yan, 33, from Greendale Secondary School said that students from the N(A) stream who were taking Express-level Chinese in her Sec 4 class had an interest in the language and were confident in their abilities.
For some teachers, however, one problem lies in managing the class dynamics.
An English teacher who declined to be named as she was not authorised to speak with the media said it was challenging to teach a class of mixed-stream students.
The teacher, who has been teaching English to mixed-stream classes at N(A) level for the last two years, said that classes could be hampered by the way students from the different streams interacted with each other.
She said: “When you go in as a subject teacher, you don’t have much time to do bonding activities with the class and you have to get on with lessons. The students are very cliquish and difficult to break, so I have to do a lot of cooperative activities to make the students of different streams mingle.”
Likewise, Maldaa’s history teacher, Ms Ranice Tan Pan Ying from Pei Hwa Secondary, was less concerned about the girl keeping up with the lessons, since her previous examination results had already shown that she could likely keep pace with the Express class.
Instead, Ms Tan, 28, was more worried that as the only N(A) student in the class, Maldaa would have trouble integrating with the class.
As such, Ms Tan made it a point to sit Maldaa alongside other students whom she knew from her co-curricular activity, and checked in with her regularly in the first few weeks of class to make sure Maldaa was settling in.
Nevertheless, some students said that despite efforts by their teachers, there remains a barrier between those from Normal and Express streams studying in the same class.
Nicholas Aishwar Robert Michael, a Sec 3 Express student at Christchurch Secondary School, had three N(A) students joining his English class last year. He said that some of his Express classmates felt “superior” and avoided mixing with the N(A) students.
However, the 16-year-old added that having N(A) students sit in with Express students for lessons will help correct the misperception.
MOVING AWAY FROM LABELS
Principals and teachers alike say they are optimistic about the attempt to remove labels and the stigma associated with different streams.
With form classes set to have students from different streams as well, the schools piloting full subject-based banding are confident that it will boost social mixing among those from various educational backgrounds.
READ: Phasing out streaming in schools: Stigma, labelling may be reduced, but not completely eradicated, say teachers
Evergreen Secondary School principal Vincent Toh, for instance, said that N(T) students, in particular, usually “clustered” together.
While they were streamed to ensure that learning takes place at the correct pace, Mr Toh, 46, said that subject-based banding had allowed them, as well as those from N(A), to “shine” after performing better than their peers from other streams in some subjects.
However, Associate Professor Jason Tan Eng Thye, from the policy, curriculum and leadership department at the National Institute of Education, noted that should societal mindset and attitudes remain unchanged, subject-based banding could still result in stigma on students based on the bands they take.
While the move to sort out students according to bands of G1, G2 and G3 is not “as rigid as streaming”, Assoc Prof Tan said that labelling of students could still take place.
“Our society, unfortunately, still attaches more prestige to what they perceive as more academically demanding courses or programmes,” said Assoc Prof Tan.
“It remains an uphill battle to change societal attitudes in that respect, so that taking less academically demanding bands aren’t seen as inferior,” he added.
This is underscored by the public’s mindset that academic achievement in secondary schools here would keenly affect one’s range of post-secondary school options.
READ: From reducing drop-out rates to slaying a 'sacred cow': How streaming has evolved over the years
“For a long time now, the vast majority of our university students have been from the Express stream,” Assoc Prof Tan said. “So one of the key factors at play is the public’s thinking about the relative desirability of the three streams because to a large extent, our society still views university as being more prestigious than polytechnic, which is, in turn, more prestigious than ITE.”
Ms Jennifer, however, is more optimistic.
The English teacher believes that society is gradually grasping the intent of subject-based banding, and that the current generation of young parents may be less quick to label students according to their academic abilities
Under the new system where students take a combination of G1, G2 and G3 subjects, it will also be harder to stigmatise a child, she said.
“People will no longer have a handle to label kids because every child has a unique suite of G1, G2 and G3 bands over many subjects,” she added.
However, in order to eradicate labelling, subject-based banding must be accompanied with other measures rolled out by MOE — such as the removal of mid-year examinations for Sec 1 and Sec 3 students.
Taken together, these moves emphasise the building of values among students, instead of just memorising facts and regurgitating them during exams.