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.