Friday, September 14, 2012

Primary Colours Part 2: The PSLE Dilemma

There is an old joke about two hunters who are charged at by a bear. One reacts by putting on his running shoes. "What are you doing?" asks the other. "You'll never out-run a bear!" The other responds: "I know. I just need to out- run you."

That, I think, describes how most feel about PSLE - the concern is less about whether our children are receiving a good education, but more about whether they will out-do other kids. The reaction of parents to the recent announcement on changes to the PSLE English syllabus bears this out. The ST reported one parent welcoming the change because it will give her daughter "a competitive advantage", while another was concerned that his son "will lose out". The issue was not about whether the changes would give a better grounding in English - it was all about how their child’s PSLE scores will be affected relative to others’.

MOE puts in considerable effort and resources to ensure that every school in Singapore is able to give its students a good education. And its recent move to remove banding, de-emphasise exams and promote non-academic aspects of a child’s development is laudable. However, many believe that nothing will change until we change PSLE.

But PSLE by itself is not the real issue. It is irrelevant to career choices, job prospects or polytechnic/university admissions. It serves no purpose other than to determine which secondary school you go to. But the secondary school you go to matters a great deal. It is not just about whether the school has good facilities or teachers. Other factors are important as well. These include peer influence, tradition and environmental factors. Going to a good school may not guarantee success, but it can make a difference for the child to be in a setting where fellow students are motivated and have the drive to excel.

The reality therefore is that so long as a child's PSLE scores determines which secondary school he goes to, and so long as places in “better” schools are limited, two things are inevitable - (1) there will be competition - and therefore stress – to get into those schools (2) parents will do what they can to help their kids out-score their peers. To most, that means tuition.

Why do parents do this? Because we all want the same things for our children - to succeed in life and to be happy. We do not consider these to be mutually exclusive pursuits. Indeed, we believe that the more successful our child, the more likely he will be happy. But we have no crystal ball or magic wand, and cannot know for sure what we should or should not do. All we can do is to give our child opportunities. If that means sending him to a “better” school, we will aim for that. And if that entails sending him to tuition (or abacus or Kumon, etc), we will do it. If we have to take no pay leave six months before exams, so be it. If it means cooking special food or giving herbal concoctions to boost energy, bring out the recipe book. What makes parents most insecure is the thought of their child not succeeding because of something they did not do. So, some of us will end up over-doing and over-compensating. Nothing the MOE does or says will change that.

I am all for slaying the PSLE sacred cow. But we need to first agree on an alternative way of deciding who goes to which secondary school, other than by way of a common exam. What are the options?

Option 1: Leave it entirely to the discretion of the secondary school principals? I can already hear complaints of unfair or preferential treatment, based on wealth or connections.

Option 2: Making all secondary schools identical to remove any perception of privilege or superiority? Or assigning places by ballot? Most will object to this and it does not make sense.

Option 3: Change the testing at PSLE such that it more accurately measures talent, instead of hard work? But that is easier said than done, the parents’ insecurities will remain and tuition centres will still say they can make a difference. More importantly, why down play hard work? It is a virtue worth inculcating and rewarding. It is something we have to do all our lives. As a lawyer, I have found that there is no substitute for preparation – and that involves spending hours poring over documents, making sure you know your facts and the law, and being able to answer questions the Court throws at you. Exams are no different.

Option 4: Give parents the choice to opt out of the PSLE altogether? We can have more "through-train" schools, where students gain entry to affiliated secondary schools without a common exam. Those who wish to compete for a place in the “better” secondary schools can sit for the PSLE. We could also allow private, independent primary schools to be set up, with graduates eligible to go to private or international secondary schools. But there will be no MOE funding and therefore higher fees, and this option may not be available to all.

So, different solutions lend themselves to different issues. I would prefer a system that gives parents more choices. We are not likely to find absolute consensus on any system as we have different circumstances, different aspirations and different expectations of Government. More importantly, the role of education today must be to prepare the child for opportunities (and challenges) the world, and not just Singapore, will offer. It is unrealistic to expect that a single, universal model can achieve this. We need to move away from a one-size fits all model, and let parents decide the trade-offs they want to make for their children.

The Government should think about loosening its grip on education, so that Singaporeans can choose for themselves what they want for their own children. Perhaps, this will be explored in our National Conversation.


  1. This is a thoughtful piece although I do not agree with the last two paragraphs. A system that gives more choices? Government loosening its grip on education? There is one sector where this is already happening - pre-school, and see what good that does!

    In my opinion, the real issue is a playing field that is increasingly tilted towards the "haves" (have money, have connections, have benefit of sophisticated family, etc). Those who have will continue to gain access to better primary schools, better tuition, better portfolio of CCAs, better programmes, etc. And then the same lot will corner the plum places in the better secondary schools and eventually better degrees, better scholarships and so on.

    Whether this is a virtuous or vicious cycle is open to debate.

    On the one hand, it systematically and ruthlessly promotes the talented over the less well-endowed. These in turn become the future leaders of our nation and captains of our industry. Its Darwinian efficiency is what got Singapore to where it is today.

    On the other hand, one wonders if a persistent and growing inequality that is ingrained into that most basic right of a child - a decent education - is a Faustian pact that rewards the nation today at the cost of social instability tomorrow.

    There are no easy answers. But broadly it boils down to a choice between elitism and egalitarianism. Each has its pros and cons. Policy makers need to articulate these and then clearly explain why it plumbs for a particular position. Which is why I feel strongly the Government cannot withdraw from way or the other, its guiding hand will be required to steer the course of our nation's future.

  2. hi Hri,

    PSLE is not the issue, and scrapping PSLE is definitely not the solution.

    MOE has made PSLE the way to rank every single 12-year old in Singapore from the "smartest" to the "weakest", and this IS the problem.

    Make PSLE a means to simply judge whether the kid has attained the necessary academic knowledge of a 12-year old. If so, then the kid qualifies to go to Secondary school. If not, then the kid may need a bit more time to retake PSLE and then go to Secondary school. In the meantime, the kid can choose to develop other non-academic aspects and not be fearful of being a 12-year old.

    1. Hi Hri,

      A very good suggestion to scrap PSLE.

      South Korea scraped primary school exams many years ago. This did not slow down South Koreans from running world class companies that produce the latest electronics and smart phones.

      To thrive in the new world economy, Singapore needs more than just quantitative yard stick. There should be a development path for a qualitative yard stick. We won't achieve it over night, what's important is to start the journey.

      The "kiasu" "Kiasee" mentality is because there was no second chance for Singaporeans in the past. Now there are more choices but not in every area.

      Entry qualifications for universities and HR hiring policies should be widen to give higher weighting on qualitative versus quantitative standards. Civil service should take the lead.

  3. I think the future schools should be like Khan Academy - child directed and self-paced.

    You have schools that have similar facilities where semi-private-public mentors/teachers coach kids.

    The teaching material is the same for all - from Bill Gates's kids to the Taxi Driver's son.

    Having such a program removes school "brands" - encourages kids to take free classes from MIT/Harvard/Standford.

    We do not need to lose another cohort to PSLE; Let's start using what Bill Gates is giving to his children.

    The Khan Academy in a few short years has developed something that is clearly heads and shoulders above anything the Ministry of Education is even talking about!

  4. I appreciate the effort and sentiment evident from amount of thought put into educational issues. Something which I felt was desperately lacking. However, I would disagree on 2 ideas brought up in your article; the abolishment of PSLE and the establishment of privatised schools.

    Your argument that the PSLE leads to competition and should therefore be abolished is problematic. Because, whichever mechanism is designed for Secondary school admission, will ultimately create a stressful competitive environment. This merely shifts the problem from one arena of education to the other. Besides, the problem is not really with the academic competition created by PSLE. Rather, I believe the problem is with the type of questions that SEAB sets for the PSLE; something which you briefly alluded to in option 3, but dismissed too quickly. Any educator worth his salt, would conclude after a close scrutiny of the questions and way these questions are marked during the PSLE that it does not really measure a child's understanding, but rather his ability to regurgitate copious amounts of information/formula/facts/algorithms.

    I would surmise that the poor quality of questions and the manner in which they are marked, is root cause of stress for parents. When SEAB sets poor questions where the majority of the answers can be regurgitated, it leads to schools and tuition centers teaching to the test and forcing kids towards rote-learning. Following this trend overtime, PSLE's ability to discriminate children's academic ability vastly diminishes as the more people catch on to the need to "work hard" on rote-learning. This results in a kind of educational inflation which has led to 'brand' secondary schools slowly raising the bar for entry over the years. Consequently, parents adopt a zero-tolerance attitude towards mistakes in their children, creating the pressure to do well and thus tuition. Some pressures within the education system would be alleviated if assessment undergoes a radical change. If SEAB were to change assessments towards assessing pupils understanding rather than memory work, things would be so different. To illustrate, let me use English assessment: Imagine if for English assessments, SEAB requires pupils to write a response to a poem, design a website teaching specific grammar components to lower primary pupils, write a real narrative story (not those nauseating predictable stories available in Popular), retell a fairy tale from a different perspective, etc... These kinds of questions will force schools to relook at the way they teach, as questions become less about how much pupils have committed to memory, but rather, how they apply their understanding. In this way, the assessment is more discriminating, which allows secondary schools to have a clearer understanding of the kind of pupils they are receiving; parents cant send kids to tuition as many tuition centers would lack the capacity to predict such questions and teach to the test and ultimately our children will learn English the way it should be taught.

  5. Secondly, I'm strongly opposed to option 4; creating private primary schools. As I believe this would lead to a situation where private schools would "leech" the best teachers out of government schools and ultimately, we as a nation, would be poorer for it. Its a well know fact that the teachers in our independent secondary schools receive a better pay packet and benefits than public schools, which as a result, has attracted many good public school teachers to join them. Thankfully, government schools still have the redeeming benefit of greater professional mobility, thus its still able to retain a good portion of its good teachers.

    Privatizing primary school education also has a knock on effect on Secondary and JC admission and it might even increase the growing social divide among the haves and have-nots. If we had private primary schools, even more people would feel pressured to have their kids admitted into private schools as it would be perceived that these schools give a better chance at further education later on in life. (Something which is happening in the American and UK educational system.) It would also create a greater social divide, as those families who are in the lower income bracket would never be able to afford the fees to gain entry into private schools, thus exacerbating the problem.