Tuesday, 29 December 2015

Secondary 1 postings: Harder to switch schools

Secondary schools told by MOE not to take in pupils whose PSLE scores don't meet cut-off
By Pearl Lee and Amelia Teng, The Straits Times, 29 Dec 2015

Pupils going on to Secondary 1 next year who hope to transfer to another school are facing a harder time owing to a new directive from the Ministry of Education (MOE).

The Straits Times understands that last month, MOE told all secondary schools not to take in transfer pupils whose Primary School Leaving Examination (PSLE) scores did not meet their cut-off points during the school transfer season.

Before this, schools with vacancies after the Secondary 1 posting exercise could accept students with lower scores who appeal.

The Ministry of Education told all secondary schools not to take in transfer pupils whose PSLE scores did not meet their cut-off points during the school transfer season.
Posted by The Straits Times on Monday, December 28, 2015

Each year, MOE places Primary 6 pupils in secondary schools based on their scores, school choices and the vacancies in a school. The PSLE score of the child who takes up the last spot in a school becomes the school's cut-off point.

Children were notified about their schools last Tuesday. Those who wanted to transfer schools on the grounds of special needs had to approach their desired school by last Wednesday, while the rest can submit appeal forms before their preferred schools' closing dates.

When contacted, MOE confirmed the directive yesterday. It said students are posted to schools based on "objective and transparent measures of academic merit" and appeals afterwards "should be aligned to these same principles, to be fair to the other students".

School leaders told The Straits Times the change is meant to reduce the flow of students between schools after the posting period.

The Straits Times understands that popular schools with cut-off points of more than 240 can receive over 100 appeals, mostly from students who do not meet the cut-off scores. On the other hand, schools with cut-off points of below 200 for the Express stream may lose up to half of their Express students owing to transfers. These movements may leave some schools with just three classes each year spread across three academic streams, while popular schools tend to fill all their spots and can have about 10 classes each year, school officials say.

A secondary school principal, who declined to be named, said: "It's like a food chain. Students who get into mid-tier schools aspire towards Integrated Programme schools, while those in schools with low cut-offs want to get into better neighbourhood or mid-tier schools.

"The change is a way of getting everyone settled into schools earlier and encouraging students to be satisfied with the schools they are posted to. Students need to know that whichever school they are posted to, it's a fresh start. Every school seeks to provide a whole range of opportunities for them."

Some schools, such as St Joseph's Institution and Crescent Girls' School, stated the new directive in their appeal documents. But as MOE did not make public the rule, many parents learnt of it via online forums or when they called schools.

Housewife Anne Tan, 50, whose son missed the cut-off score for National Junior College by two points, found out about the new rule after calling the school to ask about the chances of success for his appeal.

She said: "MOE should have pre-empted parents so we would have been more selective with our school choices. It's a waste of time going to the school to submit documents, and it's unfortunate because our children's hopes are affected."

Solution sales manager Mohammad Faiz, 41, whose son appealed to two popular schools, found out about the change via online forums: "Parents in a similar dilemma like mine were calling schools all over the place. But the rule is fair as spaces are allocated based on merit."

No Sec 1 students in 2016 for 7 secondary schools due to 'insufficient demand': MOE
By Lee Min Kok, The Straits Times, 23 Dec 2015

Seven secondary schools were not posted any Secondary 1 students for the upcoming year as there was insufficient demand in their respective areas to open classes, the Ministry of Education (MOE) said in a statement on Wednesday (Dec 23).

The seven schools are Balestier Hill Secondary, Henderson Secondary, MacPherson Secondary, North View Secondary, Pioneer Secondary, Siglap Secondary and Si Ling Secondary.

MOE attributed this to the trend of falling cohort sizes of secondary school-going children, which has resulted in fewer students being posted to some secondary schools this year.

It added that it was looking at the possible need to merge a number of low enrolment schools with another school as it may be challenging for them to offer a wide range of educational programmes and co-curricular activities.

More details will be provided in early 2016.

With the 2015 Secondary One Posting Exercise completed on Tuesday (Dec 22), MOE said around 38,600 students have been successfully posted to secondary schools based on their merit and choice.

Classes are due to begin on Jan 4, 2016.

Mixed signals on cut-off points and school admissions
By Amelia Teng, The Straits Times, 8 Feb 2016

First, it was reported that secondary schools were told to no longer entertain any appeals from Primary 6 hopefuls who fail to meet their cut-off point - taking a strict stance against an old practice by principals of exercising some amount of discretion in deciding such admissions. Then, it was revealed last month that junior colleges were told the same thing.

But in the midst of talk of holistic education and scrapping the PSLE T-scores, of discouraging parents from sending children for tuition to chase that last mark, of giving universities and polytechnics even more room to decide on whom to admit - the Education Ministry's (MOE) stance on strictly adhering to cut-off points seems to go against the new direction of learning.

So why now?

Educators believe that the MOE's directive is most likely meant to reduce the flow of students seeking places in more popular schools after the posting period.

Secondary schools, for instance, could each receive 80 to 100 appeals every year.

This annual "churning", coupled with falling cohort sizes, contributes to the declining enrolment in less sought-after schools - leaving them with as few as three new Secondary 1 classes even as popular schools fill about 10 classes each year.

This year, eight secondary schools were merged into four because of low enrolment and falling demand. Another seven did not have a single Secondary 1 class this year because of dwindling numbers.

While it may be seen as a natural weeding-out process, the closure or merger of schools at the lower end is unfortunate as some of them are more equipped to handle students from difficult backgrounds.


Still, the move is puzzling - it comes at a time when parents and students have been told to relook their priorities in education.

From scrapping school ranking and banding to not naming top exam scorers or revealing the highest and lowest PSLE scores, the message is strong and clear: Stop focusing solely on academic results.

Some people have applauded the MOE's decision to tighten the appeal requirements, saying that it means a completely objective system.

But affiliation favour, which can give PSLE pupils a huge 20 to 30 points advantage in entering a secondary school, should also be scrapped then.

As parents against the change have pointed out, there is now very little or no room for second chances. Even as students are told to stop chasing that last mark and instead pursue their interests in sports and arts and develop character, the bottom line is that their entry into a school is determined by a single digit.

While many students chase after popular schools believing that it gives them a further head start in academics, there are others who are chasing their passions. A student may be a talented musician or a budding athlete hoping to join a school because it has a co-curricular activity or programme not easily found elsewhere.

One parent told me how his son had successfully appealed to get into a secondary school whose cut-off point he missed by two points but which offered a sport that he had been involved in since he was young.

A few days into the new school year, his place was suddenly withdrawn, and no more appeals were considered.

He ended up at his original posting. The cut-off point for both schools was in the 240+ band.

He, like many other students, had also applied through the Direct School Admission (DSA) route earlier but did not get through.

Less than 10 per cent of each cohort is accepted through the DSA, which allows schools to admit students before the PSLE using other criteria such as sports or arts talent.

Some flexibility in the appeal process provides a middle route - for students not skilled enough for the DSA but who are still good in their co-curricular activities and interests, and just missed a place through their academic scores.

There must be more room for second chances and aspirations.


Two weeks ago, Acting Education Minister Ong Ye Kung made a call in Parliament for the Government to look beyond figures, and to rely on judgments and discretion, when merited. "What we need is a clear focus on what truly matters - the worth of an individual, the standing of institutions, people and country, which can only be captured in part by numbers," he said.

He was not talking about the issue of school admissions but of governance which may have to keep up with a complex world.

Yet his words are equally applicable to the field of schools, where scores and rankings are prevalent.

The MOE has in the last decade stressed that education is more than about numbers and grades but also about learning skills for the changing workforce, and recognising a wider definition of success.

On its own webpage, it states: "Besides judging our students' performance through examinations, we are also looking at other and broader measures of how well they do in education."

A single point or two should not be all that defines a student.

Fairly diverse group gains direct school admission, about 60% live in HDB flats: MOE

By Amelia Teng, The Straits Times, 23 Feb 2016

The profile of students who get into secondary schools through direct school admission (DSA) remains "fairly diverse", the Ministry of Education (MOE) has said in response to growing concern that children with richer parents can be groomed to enter top schools via the scheme.

About 60 per cent of students who secured places in secondary schools through DSA over the last five years live in HDB flats, an MOE spokesman told The Straits Times. In comparison, as of last year, 81 per cent of Singaporeans reside in HDB flats.

Of the 126 secondary schools that accepted a total of 2,700 students last year, 18 are Integrated Programme (IP) schools, which admit more DSA students.

Last month, Jalan Besar GRC MP Denise Phua, who heads the Government Parliamentary Committee for Education, said it is an "open secret" that the DSA benefits children who have more resources from a young age.

MOE declined to provide details on the proportion of DSA students in IP schools who reside in flats. It also does not track the household income of DSA students.

The DSA route, which started in 2004, lets schools admit pupils before they take the Primary School Leaving Examination based not just on their academic ability, but also talent in sports and the arts. Many pupils hope to join IP schools, which let them progress to junior college without taking the O levels.

IP schools contacted such as Anglo-Chinese School (Independent) declined to share the socio- economic make-up of their DSA students.

A spokesman for Raffles Girls' School said it does not track the socio-economic status of its students, and that "all students are given the same opportunities".

Ms Phua said the DSA tries to "expand the criteria by which students are admitted beyond the high- stakes exam cut-off points".

But "popular schools now not only have access to students who are academically strong; they can now attract those who are top in the arts and sports, further entrenching their positions of superiority", she told The Straits Times.

"There are ways by which some skills in the arts and sports can be nurtured from a young age if resources were available. Some are known to pay coaches who claim to be DSA-savvy," she added.

But Mrs Jacqueline Chua, a former Raffles Institution teacher who was on the school's DSA selection panel for nearly 10 years until 2014, said its DSA students were from a mix of backgrounds. "Some were on financial assistance. They were talent-spotted at competitions and recommended by primary school teachers," said Mrs Chua, who now runs Paideia Learning Academy, an enrichment centre.

A Primary 5 pupil from a top girls' school said many of her schoolmates are building portfolios, with some paying hourly fees of up to $300 for classes. "Some have sports training outside on top of CCAs (co-curricular activities), and others get Grade 8 music certificates," she said. "It's harder to get into competitive CCAs in school."

Ms Kelly Kishor, a private coach who started training a handful of Primary 6 children for DSA entry tests in 2008, said she sees 15 to 30 pupils each year now. But these sessions are not enough, she said, noting that schools look out for factors like character and leadership traits.

Madam Serene Seah, 28, whose son in Primary 6 hopes to make use of the DSA through volleyball, said she did not consider IP schools as her son would not cope well there.

"DSA helps students who are not so good at studying. At least they have something else they are good at," said the mother of two, who owns a printer supplier firm.

"If children can cope well with the stress level in IP schools, it's okay," she said. "But if the kid lags behind, it can do more harm than good."

About the DSA scheme

By Amelia Teng, The Straits Times, 23 Feb 2016

The direct school admission (DSA) scheme began in 2004 with just seven secondary schools that took in some 860 students.

Last year, about 2,700 students entered 126 secondary schools this way, out of more than 15,000 applications.

At the junior college level, 21 schools received more than 3,500 DSA applications and about 500 students were successful.

The Ministry of Education (MOE) could not provide the latest breakdown of students admitted in the different categories.

Based on a parliamentary reply in 2013, about 15 per cent of DSA students in that year got into schools based on their strengths in the arts, and 35 per cent through sports.

MOE declined to give the percentage of students who enter schools under the academic category in direct admissions.

Integrated Programme schools, which let students progress to junior college without taking the O levels, have more autonomy in admitting pupils based on their own criteria, and can take in all via DSA. But, in practice, they accept at most 50 per cent.

Specialised independent schools such as the NUS High School of Mathematics and Science, School of Science and Technology, and School of the Arts take in almost all their students through DSA.

The cap on the proportion of the student intake through DSA is 20 per cent for independent schools, 10 per cent for autonomous schools and 5 per cent for fully government-funded schools.

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