Saturday, November 24, 2012

To name or not to name? (That is not the question)

MOE’s decision not to publish the names of top PSLE students and schools was deemed sufficiently important to warrant mention on the front page of the Strait Times. These days, it seems anything to do with PSLE does.

I must admit that the news did not overwhelm me. The move is obviously intended to downplay the importance PSLE. But will it ease the pressure? I doubt it. Parents, principals and teachers will still consider the PSLE to be a critical, high stakes exam. That will continue to dictate how they approach it, including the pressure they will place on our children to perform and the steps they will take (tuition) to ensure success.

The MOE has said that it will look at PSLE as part of a holistic review of the education system, and that this will take time. This is reasonable. We should avoid making hasty decisions and not lose sight of the larger picture. The real question is what is in the minds of our planners and what do they perceive the issues to be? Discouraging press reports of top performers gives very little insight on what is on the table.

Yes, every school is a good school - but some schools are better. It is not about facilities – MOE equips all schools with good facilities. It is about the school culture, tradition, teachers and peers. You will not convince anyone that it does not matter which secondary school a child goes to. While going to a particular school does not guarantee success, every parent wants to give their child the best opportunities possible. That means sending them to a school with the right environment and culture, which challenges students to work harder and do better. Schools with good track records will always attract more applicants.

So long as PSLE determines which school a child goes to, there will always be stiff competition, and therefore stress. This is unavoidable, and not always a bad thing. Our children should learn that getting what they want does not come easily and sometimes, things do not go according to plan. But if they do well, there is nothing wrong with letting the rest of us know about it. Perhaps others will learn and draw inspiration.

The question should therefore be about substance, not form. If it keeps PSLE, MOE should focus on ensuring a system of proper assessment and fair competition for places. There are some things they can do. For example:

(a) Ensure that teachers teach the syllabus properly and thoroughly, so that students are not forced to look to tuition to fill in the gaps. This unbalances the playing field;

(b) Have a robust system which properly assesses principals and teachers, and remove poor performers without delay;

(c) Look seriously into DPM Tharman’s point about how we draw such fine lines in our PSLE scoring system. I remain unconvinced that T-scores properly measure the ability of a student; and

(d) Get rid of direct school admissions for students in the GEP. If they are truly gifted, they can compete with everyone else at the PSLE.

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