Friday, 15 July 2016

New PSLE scoring system and changes to Secondary 1 Posting from 2021







New PSLE scoring system to have 8 grade bands
Aim to get pupils to focus on own learning as they will not be graded relative to their peers
By Sandra Davie, Senior Education Correspondent, The Straits Times, 14 Jul 2016

In a move to dial down the competition over the Primary School Leaving Examination and encourage pupils to go beyond book smarts, the new PSLE grading will no longer be based on how they perform relative to their peers.

Instead, the new scoring system, which will come into effect in 2021, is aimed at encouraging pupils to focus on their own learning, instead of the competition.

Their marks will be converted into grade bands 1 to 8 and their PSLE score will be the sum of their grades in all the subjects, with 4 being the best score.

The Ministry of Education, in its press statement, said: "Students will no longer be as finely differentiated, as there will only be 29 possible PSLE scores, compared with more than 200 T-score aggregates under the current system."

Achievement Level (AL) 1 is pitched close to the A star grade in the current system, for those scoring 90 and above. AL 2, 3 and 4 have a five-point difference, while bands will widen from AL 5 onwards.

MOE said the new system will still give parents and educators a gauge of a pupil's progress at the end of primary school so that they can be matched to suitable academic programmes in secondary school.

It also said that if there are too few grade levels, there would be more pupils with the same PSLE score, which would lead to more balloting for Secondary 1 posting.

The secondary school streams will remain - pupils with a PSLE score of 4 to 20 will qualify for the Express stream.

Posting will continue to be based on academic merit first. But under the new system, the choice order in which a student lists the secondary schools will now matter more, as a tie-breaker.

Currently, when two students are tied for a place in a school, computerised balloting is used to award the place, regardless of where they listed the school in their order of choices.

Under the new system, the student who lists the school higher in his choice list will have priority.



Acting Minister for Education (Schools) Ng Chee Meng told the media that the new system of eight ALs afforded enough differentiation to match students to the school that suits them, but it was not so broad that there would have to be too much balloting. It is estimated that fewer than one in 10 places will be subject to balloting.

In response to parents who wished MOE had been bolder in its changes, Mr Ng said Singapore already has a strong and robust education system that has been developed over the last 50 years.

"Some things are best evolved and not revolutionalised," he said.













PSLE changes: 8 Achievement Levels offer a good balance, says MOE
Pupils will not be pressured into chasing marks, but scores can still sort them for secondary school posting
By Amelia Teng, The Straits Times, 14 Jul 2016

On the one hand, pupils should not be pressured into chasing that final mark in the Primary School Leaving Examination (PSLE). At the same time, scores should still be able to sort them meaningfully for secondary school posting, to cut down on computer balloting.

That is why there will be eight scoring bands from 2021 onwards, explained the Ministry of Education (MOE), calling it a "good balance".

"While there may not be any difference between a student who scores 65 and another who scores 66 in a subject, there is a difference between one who scores 65 and another who scores 75," the MOE said.

"If there are too few ALs, there will be more students with the same PSLE score, which will lead to more balloting in Secondary 1 posting. This would cause more anxiety for parents and students."



From 2021, pupils will be placed into eight Achievement Levels (ALs) for each subject. Those who get 90 marks and above for a subject will earn an AL1; 85 to 89 is AL2; and 80 to 84 is AL3 and so on. The bands get wider at the bottom - AL5 is a score of 65 to 74, for instance.



Some parents whom The Straits Times spoke to asked why the top scoring bands were placed so close together. Instead of chasing the last mark, pupils may be pushed to chase "the next five marks".

Others felt that the wider bands at the bottom could be demoralising for pupils with lower scores. For instance, five extra marks at the upper bands could see an improved PSLE score, but it could take as much as 20 marks at the lower bands.

Ms Kathleen Goy, 35, a marketing manager who has a six-year-old daughter, said: "For some pupils, every additional mark takes a lot of effort and yet, they will still end up within the same band."

MOE explained that the upper ranges are narrower as majority of pupils do well for PSLE. On average, about half the cohort will score AL4 or better. Finer bands at the top will help to differentiate students at these levels, while the middle to lower bands are "sufficient to give a good indication of a student's progress and further diffrentiation is less educationally meaningful."

One critical aspect of the changes welcomed by many parents is how a pupil's score will no longer be "transformed" relative to how his peers did. Instead, his actual score will be used. This is more transparent and easier to understand, said parents, a point highlighted by principals as well.











Tweaking scoring system unlikely to have much impact unless mindsets change too
By Sandra Davie, Senior Education Correspondent, The Straits Times, 14 Jul 2016

It has been a long wait, but the Ministry of Education(MOE) finally revealed the details of the new Primary School Leaving Examination (PSLE) scoring system yesterday.

Many parents with pre-schoolers were relieved about the phasing out of the PSLE T-score, where each pupil is compared with his peers.

Under the new system from 2021, the score given to each pupil will be based on how well he has done in the subject, independent of how others fare.

Many parents agreed that the T-score, which ranks a pupil's performance in relation to his peers, ratchets up the competition.They hope the new system will create some space for pupils to pursue other activities that arm them with the skills needed to thrive in a volatile, uncertain future.

But will the new system effect change? Will parents stop pushing their children to chase that last mark and, instead of sending them for tuition, encourage them to pursue sports or the arts, nurturing in them creativity and people skills that are becoming essential for work?

Unfortunately, this does not seem likely-at least in the initial years.



Several parents with children in Primary 1 and kindergarten already admit that their target now will be a PSLE score of 4. This means the child will have to score at least 90 marks- in all four subjects.

Those hoping to enrol their children in Raffles Institution or Hwa Chong feel that the new system affects their chances. Since a wider pool of pupils will be able to meet the entry score, they may be reduced to keeping their fingers crossed at computerised balloting.

Said one parent who did not want to be named: ''So, for me and my son, the stress and competition will not be reduced. And to think that now we have to take our chance at a lottery - that just increases my anxiety.''

A few parents voiced concerns over the fact that, under the new system, it will not be possible for a pupil to''make up'' for a weak subject by doing very well in the other three subjects. Under the current T-score system, a pupil can still get a good T-score with three very high A stars and one B.

On the flip side were several parents who felt MOE has not been bold enough with the changes. They think the Grade 1 band is pitched at too high a level at 90 marks.

A typical comment came from mother-of-two Desiree Teo. ''Surely, if you want to reduce the stress and want pupils to pay attention to developing other skills, an 80 or 85 will do. Why set the bar so high at 90?'' she asked.

Several parents also voiced concerns over the move to make choice count for more.

When two pupils are tied for a place in a school, the one who listed the school as his first choice will have priority over the other who listed it as his second choice.

Parents are worried that it will be difficult to choose, given that schools do not publicise their distinctive strengths well.

But it is important to keep in mind that the changes in the PSLE scoring system are just one part. Another big piece of the change, which is still a work in progress, is helping every secondary school to build distinctive strengths.

With several good schools to choose from, in the years to come, pupils will hopefully pick the best school to nurture their interests and talents, and not just the top-performing school in the O or A levels.

MOE should show parent show it is committed to making every school a good school.

It should be transparent about its spending on the lesser-known neighbourhood schools and ensure they are given the resources, including talented principals and teachers, to build distinctive programmes.

This will go some way towards correcting the perception that it spends more on ''elite'' schools and allocates better teachers to them.

The move to send some well-regarded principals to neighbourhood schools is a good one. This should be publicised more. But fixing the education system is a long-haul process.

Hopefully, with time, parents will cometo realise that they need to have a broader view of education.

As then Education Minister Heng Swee Keat warned last year, to continue on a path with a narrow focus on grades and examinations could lead the country into ''a spiralling paper chase and expanding tuition industry''.

It would churn out studentswho excel in exams, but are ill-equipped to take on jobs of the future. Neither will they find fulfilment in what they do.

The alternative requires parents to give up their obsession with grades,recognise their children's strengths and build on them.

Teachers and employers have to make a shift too. Teachers should strive for all-round development of their students, and employers - including the Government- have to hire or promote based on skills and not paper qualifications.

Hopefully, Singaporean parents, being a practical lot, will see the wisdom in taking the second path.
















PSLE changes: Choice of school and balloting may play bigger role
Computerised balloting will be third tie-breaker, after citizenship status and school choice order
By Calvin Yang, The Straits Times, 14 Jul 2016

More pupils sitting the revamped Primary School Leaving Examination (PSLE) may have to undergo balloting to sort them into secondary schools under the new scoring and posting system.

With wider scoring bands replacing the current T-score system in 2021, more pupils taking the national exam are likely to come away with the same scores.

This could lead to more computerised balloting if many select the same secondary school.

Education experts noted that balloting may be more prevalent. Dr Timothy Chan, director of SIM Global Education's academic division, added that even with balloting coming in as a last resort to sort pupils into schools, "a couple of extremely popular schools may still be oversubscribed".

However, the Ministry of Education (MOE) anticipates that balloting will affect only a small group of pupils as it would take place only after two earlier tie-breakers have been used. Under the new system, computerised balloting will be the third tie-breaker, after citizenship status and school choice order.

Based on past cohorts' performance and choice patterns, about one in 10 pupils would have to undergo balloting, according to MOE.

Posting will continue to be based on academic merit first.

When pupils are tied for a place in a school, citizenship status remains the first tie-breaker.

The choice of the six secondary schools, however, will now count for more, as choice order will be introduced as the second tie-breaker.

Currently, when two or more pupils are tied for a place in a school, a computerised ballot will be used to determine the posting, even if one pupil had indicated the school as his first choice and the other had placed it lower in his list.

But under the new system, if there is a tie, the one who places a school higher in his choice list will have priority.

Housewife Karen Wong, 37, who has a five-year-old son, said choice will matter more as many pupils would end up with similar PSLE scores. "The wrong choices might even close the doors to a relatively good school my child could have got into," she added.

Ms Cha Pei Pei, vice-principal of an enrichment school, added that parents may need to manage their expectations. "The reality is that not everyone can enter an elite school," said the 37-year-old, who has a five-year-old daughter.

Using choice order as a tie-breaker may encourage parents to place greater consideration on factors such as a school's culture, its distance from home and the unique programmes and co-curricular activities that it offers.

Secondary schools here now include distinctive programmes to nurture interests beyond books. By next year, all secondary schools will have an Applied Learning Programme and a Learning for Life Programme.

The first helps students see the relevance of what they learn, for instance, in science and technology or business and entrepreneurship. The other helps develop character and skills such as teamwork through school expeditions, sports or the arts.

Education experts such as National University of Singapore lecturer Kelvin Seah said the new posting system will likely push pupils, and their parents, to consider the schools' niche programmes and whether these match their interests or talents.

"It encourages parents to think hard about how they rank their child's preferences and to make deliberated choices," he added.

"The costs of making a hasty and thoughtless decision is now much greater."












PSLE changes: Parents worry kids' weaker subjects will pull down results
By Yuen Sin, The Straits Times, 14 Jul 2016

Some parents are worried that their children will pay a bigger price for being weak in one subject, even though they excel at others, under the revamped Primary School Leaving Examination (PSLE) scoring system.

Under the current system, every mark matters. So higher T-scores in English, maths and science can make up for a lower score in Chinese, for instance.

But from 2021, scoring either 90 or 100 for a subject matters little, since the pupil still gets the same Achievement Level (AL) 1 score.

"It may be unfair. Doing extra well in a subject is not reflected in their PSLE score for those in the top tier," said civil servant Eric Goh, 38, whose six-year-old will be joining CHIJ St Nicholas Girls' School next year.

Banker Serena Lam, 39, whose six-year-old daughter will be joining Yu Neng Primary next year, added: "Pupils may face more pressure because they can't use their stronger subjects to balance their weaker subjects. If I wish to get my child into a more competitive school, then I would try to get her to pay more attention to her weaker subjects."

Some parents said they will be more ready to consider tuition for their children's weaker subjects.

At its media briefing yesterday, the Education Ministry said that while the new scoring system will still allow good grades to "pull up" weaker ones, the impact will be smaller than under the current system.

Housewife Betty Kang, 35, who has a six-year-old daughter, said that regardless of the system, it is still important for pupils to work on their weaker subjects. "At the primary level, all the subjects are important for general knowledge, not just to gain admission to secondary school. Allowing kids to slack off in one subject simply because they are 'not good' at it is making excuses for them," she said.

Freelance writer Frances Tan, 39, who has a six-year-old daughter, agreed. "Ideally a pupil should strive to do well in all of (the subjects)."

Ms Esther Tan, 30, a Chinese teacher at Pioneer Primary School, said the new scoring system will ensure that pupils' skill levels in subjects are well matched to their new schools. "The ALs are meant to reflect pupils' levels and match them to the correct school, so that the schools know their learning gaps and can start moving them up."









Stress levels unlikely to fall - and may even rise
By Aaron Low, Deputy Business Editor, The Straits Times, 14 Jul 2016

The Education Ministry made a few significant changes to the Primary School Leaving Examination (PSLE) yesterday.

My daughter will be in the last batch taking the PSLE under the current system. My two younger sons will be under the new regime, from 2021, so they will be directly affected.

Here's my take on the bad and the good of the changes in store.

First, stress levels are not likely to fall with these changes. In fact, they might get even worse.

Currently, if a school has a cut-off at 255, it means that your child will not be able to get in if he gets 254. It is an unfair system: It's just one point but it's the one point that makes all the difference.

Moving to a wider band means that once students make a certain cut, they are grouped as roughly to be of the same ability. This is a fairer system.

But it also means that stress levels will remain high.

To get into the top band, your child will need to score nine out of 10, or a near perfect score. The margin for error is razor thin and parents will continue to hot-house their children in PSLE "preparation camps".

Second, there is greater emphasis on becoming a more well-rounded student. This is, of course, to be encouraged.

But for "banana" kids like mine who can barely put two Chinese sentences together at home, the struggle to get through Chinese has become that much harder. It's not enough to "get by" with a decent grade; the onus now is to get a good score for Chinese or risk undoing the hard work put into other subjects.

A child may score A1s for two subjects and A2 for his third, but if he gets A5 for Chinese, his final score will be nine, which alters the picture dramatically.

So what's a parent of three like me to do about these changes?

Nothing, actually. My wife and I have decided to steer clear of the rat race to the top. Our daughter was eligible to go to the top girls' school here, but we chose a Catholic school because we feel it's important for her to get religious values in her education as well.

We have also decided that we will not have tuition. Of course, this may all change when she is in Primary 6. I can't guarantee that I will not morph into a crazy, kiasu parent if she starts doing badly in her exams.

But the principle remains: I want my children to be happy and to let them lead when it comes to their education.









Parents still anxious about PSLE changes
One major concern is that children who aim for top schools may be at risk of not getting in
By Amelia Teng, The Straits Times, 15 Jul 2016

The calibre of students being admitted to top secondary schools should be more even under the new PSLE grading system, said experts, and this could "level out" how these schools are perceived.

But until this "levelling out" happens, parents said they will face a bigger dilemma in choosing whether to risk aiming for a top secondary school, or go with a safer bet by picking a less popular one.

This has emerged as one of the main concerns among parents after the Education Ministry on Wednesday announced changes to PSLE grading that will kick in from 2021.

The move is part of a larger shift away from an overemphasis on academic results.

The current T-score system will be replaced by scoring bands known as Achievement Levels (AL). There will be eight bands, and the PSLE score for the Secondary 1 posting will be the sum of the ALs of four subjects. The highest score will be 4, and the lowest, 32.

The expectation is that more pupils will qualify for popular schools, and there could be more computer balloting to decide who gets a place. MOE estimates that only one in 10 will have to ballot.

Also, a pupil who lists a school as his top choice gets priority over another who places it lower - if their scores are the same.

Some parents believe this means putting a very popular school as the No. 1 choice for the child carries a bigger risk from 2021. The child could lose out on the luck of the draw and end up at a school third or fourth on his list.

A few parents are even asking for the secondary school posting exercise to be broken down into "phases", so they know how many places are left in a school after, for example, the four-pointers are allocated spots, before making their choices.

Jalan Besar GRC MP Denise Phua, who heads the Government Parliamentary Committee for Education, said the changes were a step in the right direction but added that there may be a need to fine-tune the system if more balloting is needed for popular schools.

Sociologist Paulin Straughan said it may take more than five years for the "funnel effect" - where most parents aim for a few specific schools - to end. This will be especially true for schools with more established names.

Education policy expert Jason Tan said the new system can be quite "confusing" for parents, as more secondary schools will have similar qualifying scores.

"There's a lot more pressure on them to think deeper about school choice," he said.

MOE has said it wants parents to pick schools that best serve their children's interests and strengths.

And this is a good thing.

"Instead of prematurely ruling out schools, it's better for pupils to be matched to schools that are actually just as good, where they can also grow just as much," said Associate Professor Tan, who is from the National Institute of Education.

Sales manager Grace Yong, 35, who has a son in Primary 1, said the new system will encourage her to look beyond entry scores and at the programmes being offered by schools. "We will need more time to make a thorough decision," she said.

MOE said it will be providing more information on what schools offer at a later date.

Housewife Narayana Vanisri, 38, said she hopes to find a secondary school that will help her seven-year-old daughter Thaswika pursue her interest in dance and art. School, she said, is not just about grades, but also personal growth.








New system requires emphasis on mindset change

I am encouraged by the fact that we are trying to reduce the emphasis on academic grades.

I understand that the Ministry of Education is encouraging students to monitor their own progress, using the new Primary School Leaving Examination scoring system, instead of competing against their peers from the same cohort ("New PSLE scoring system to have 8 grade bands"; Thursday).

This shift of focus would be beneficial in helping students focus more on learning from their mistakes and improving themselves.

For the new system to work, there needs to be a mindset change among not just parents but also society itself.

Parents need to show their children that grades are not all that matters.

Students, too, need to know that grades so early in life do not determine their future.

Relatives have a part to play by not asking students about their performance in examinations - they should focus on asking students what they do in school.

School grades should not be a conversation starter for students and adults alike - they should not be the first thing that parents think of when talking to other parents about their children.

It is not a harmless comment when someone asks if a student scored full marks for a test - it's stressful for the student and gives the impression that grades are important and getting good grades is all that matters.

The perception that grades are what defines a person's success needs to change.

The new PSLE system is a step in the right direction but it would require much more time to change the people's mindset.

Tan Shyn Yi (Miss)
ST Forum, 16 Jul 2016



















Concerns over affiliated school priority
Some parents fear pupils from schools tied to secondary schools will lose edge in posting
By Sandra Davie, Senior Education Correspondent and Yuen Sin, The Straits Times, 18 Jul 2016

The debate on the priority given to pupils from primary schools affiliated to secondary schools has erupted again with the announcement on the changes to the Primary School Leaving Examination (PSLE) scoring system.

Last Wednesday, the Ministry of Education (MOE) revealed the details of the new scoring system, which will come into effect in 2021, and how it will be used for posting to secondary schools.

It said the advantage given to affiliated primary school pupils will remain. But it also said it is reviewing the details and will engage the schools before releasing more information. This has left many parents worried if the current generous advantage given to affiliated pupils will be diluted.

Currently, the entry scores for affiliated and non-affiliated pupils at some schools can vary by as many as 40 points. For example, for entry into CHIJ Secondary (Toa Payoh), affiliated pupils need only a T-score of 200 to make it to the Express stream. Non-affiliated pupils had to score 247 and above to secure a place in Express stream last year.

The score is the sum of the marks for all four subjects which has been adjusted depending on how the cohort performs.

With the overhaul in the scoring system, T-scores have made way for scoring bands known as Achievement Levels, ranging from AL1 to AL8. The PSLE score will be the sum of ALs for English, maths, science and mother tongue. The best score will be 4, and the lowest 32.

Under this new scoring system, some parents are questioning if this wide discount given to affiliated pupils will still be allowed.

Currently, pupils applying for a place in an affiliated secondary school are required to meet the cut-off set by the school and list the school as their first choice.

Parents with children in affiliated primary schools hope that the advantage will remain. There are 27 secondary schools that are affiliated to primary schools with links to religious and clan associations.

Said parent Sara Anne Lim, 30, a mother of two whose elder daughter is in Primary 1 in a mission school: "I was happy to read that priority will continue to be given, but I also read about MOE reviewing the details and that has me worried.

"Catholic parents like me want our children to remain in the same school. So, surely the cut-off should be kept to the minimum. As long as pupils make it to the Express stream, they should be given a place in the affiliated secondary school."

The minimum score for entry into the Express stream under the new scoring system is 22.

Some parents, such as Mr Clement Tan, 40, have an opposing view.

Writing to The Straits Times, he said that as many of the mission schools are popular, they should not be allowed to give too much of an advantage to affiliated pupils.

He questioned if giving affiliated pupils a 30- or 40-point advantage under the current system was "too much". "One place given to an affiliated pupil is one place fewer for a non-affiliated pupil," said Mr Tan.

He suggested MOE should look into introducing a bonus point system under the new grading method, similar to the O-level system.

"Say, if you give one bonus point to affiliated pupils, that would be a fairer system and still leave places for others with no school links."

Some schools have recognised that giving affiliated pupils too much of an advantage may have unintended consequences.

Before 2012, no minimum cut-off score was imposed on pupils from Kuo Chuan Presbyterian Primary School who wish to join the Express stream in the affiliated secondary school. Some pupils posted to the stream had T-scores as low as 187, the school revealed on its website.

This led to some pupils struggling academically at the O levels. A minimum T-score of 200 was implemented in 2012 for affiliated pupils.

Mr Gerard Ee, chairman of the St Joseph's Institution board of governors, believes that the affiliation system should be standardised.

"If it is a bonus point system, there should not be some schools giving out more or fewer points."

But he also said schools should be given autonomy when it comes to decisions like the quota set on the number of affiliated pupils joining the school, or for making exceptions for the sake of inclusivity.

"If a mission school wants to accept some pupils with learning needs who did not perform as well, it should be encouraged. It shouldn't be inflexible to the extent that the school is penalised for doing good."

National University of Singapore sociologist Paulin Straughan said that having such a "through-train" system of affiliation takes the stress out of having an overemphasis on academic achievement at the primary school level.

"If there is any kind of top-down directive, it should be about matching minimum competency levels in terms of academics. But the school should be left to decide what the demand and supply factors should be. A principal may think that it is still important to have diversity in the school, for example," she said.







Cut-off points set lower for affiliates now
By Yuen Sin, The Straits Times, 18 Jul 2016

Under the current system, the minimum entry score for pupils who want to enter a secondary school that is affiliated with their primary school is set lower than for pupils from non-affiliated schools. 

How much lower depends on the school.

In 2013, the cut-off point for pupils from Nanyang Primary entering Nanyang Girls’ High the next year was 251, compared with 261 for pupils from other primary schools.

In the same year, the cut-off point for those from Fairfield Methodist School (Primary) joining the Express stream for the secondary section was 200, compared with 241 for other non-affiliated pupils.

At Kuo Chuan Presbyterian Secondary, the cut-off score for affiliated pupils was 200, and 229 for those who were not affiliated.

For St Hilda’s Secondary, it was 189, compared with 231 for non-affiliates.

For dual-track schools, such as St Joseph’s Institution, which offer both the Integrated Programme and the O-level programme, pupils will enjoy affiliation advantages only for the latter.

It took a T-score of at least 238 for affiliates to enter the school in 2013, compared with 245 for non-affiliates.







PSLE changes: Is grading system for pupils exempted from mother tongue unfair?
A pupil exempted from MT will be assigned a grade based on how peers of comparable calibre do
By Yuen Sin, The Straits Times, 25 Jul 2016

Can I get my child exempted from mother tongue for the Primary School Leaving Examination (PSLE)? This question has been popping up in education forums after the recent announcement of changes to the PSLE scoring system, starting from 2021.

But experts say the Education Ministry keeps a tight rein on who can be granted the exception.

Still, there is some worry if more will be tempted to apply, in the hope of relieving their children of what could be their weakest subject, which could drag their PSLE score down.

Currently, under the aggregate score system, a pupil's stronger subjects can make up for their weaker ones, and pull up their overall result. But this will be replaced by scoring bands called Achievement Levels, ranging from AL1 to AL8.

The PSLE score will be the sum of ALs for English, maths, science and mother tongue, with 4 the best score and 32 the lowest.


The Ministry of Education (MOE) has acknowledged that a pupil's stronger subjects will have less of an impact in bringing up his or her final score under the new system. And this has raised the stakes for parents who believe their children will struggle with mother tongue.

Under the current system, pupils exempted from mother tongue will take three subjects at PSLE. But their result is still adjusted into a four-subject score. This is done by referring to how their peers with similar scores in English, maths and science performed.

In response to queries from The Straits Times, MOE said the same approach will continue under the new scoring system. A pupil exempted from mother tongue will be assigned a grade for the subject based on how peers of comparable calibre perform in it. The PSLE score will be the sum of ALs for his three subjects plus the assigned mother-tongue score.

Some parents have asked if this is fair, as the exempted children would probably be assigned a better mother-tongue grade than they may have earned on their own.

MOE made it clear that exemption is granted on a case-by-case basis. The key criterion is that the children have "certified special needs that adversely affect their ability to cope with learning". This includes issues such as dyslexia, autism spectrum disorder and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD).

Those who have joined the education system mid-stream "without prior learning of one of the official mother-tongue languages or mother tongue languages-in-lieu" may also be considered for exemption.

Psychologists said cases of parents who try to abuse the system are rare, and it is not easy for pupils to be granted exemption even when they have been diagnosed with learning needs.

Between 2011 and last year, the proportion of pupils exempted from studying mother tongue has remained stable, at 3.5 per cent of each PSLE cohort, MOE said.

About 1 per cent of every cohort also take foreign languages such as French or German in lieu of an official mother tongue. Eligibility for this depends on various factors, including the pupil's parentage and nationality.

Mrs Lee Ming Ying, an educational psychologist and therapist at Cheers Learning Services, said she has seen more pupils with learning difficulties being encouraged by the authorities to take mother tongue at foundation level, which has a less demanding curriculum, rather than being exempted.

"Parents will usually hope to get exemption because doing the subject at foundation level may mean a higher likelihood of (their children) being sorted into the Normal (Academic) stream rather than Express.

"But in the past one or two years, I've heard of parents who have had their applications for exemption rejected even after the second try," said Mrs Lee, who sees about two to three pupils for psychological assessments every month.

Ms Polene Lam, principal of Gifted Academy, a psychological and learning centre, said: "If a pupil has no genuine learning difficulties, we will tell the parents that there are no grounds for exemption."

Mrs Denise Ponnampalam-Vijayan, 44, a counsellor, said being exempted from mother tongue had helped her son improve his overall PSLE score as he could devote more time to other subjects. Her son, now 15, was diagnosed with dyslexia, ADHD and severe receptive language disorder in primary school.

The counsellor insisted on having her other three children, who all take Chinese as her husband is Malayalee and she is of mixed parentage, continue with the subject despite their appeals to her to apply for exemption as they find it tough.

"I don't want any psychological labels being given to them unnecessarily, and learning another language may still be useful for them."

However, she questioned whether it is fair for children who have been away from Singapore to be exempted from mother tongue. "The child who comes back from overseas has this benefit...(his) score may be higher than another child with no learning challenge but struggling in the mother tongue."

Safety officer Brian Soon, 36, sees it differently. He has applied twice without success to exempt his Primary 3 daughter from Chinese after they moved back to Singapore last year. He said he was not given a clear reason why she was not exempted.

He said: "She was born in New Zealand and was never exposed to the Singapore system, and even her Chinese teacher gave us feedback that she is unable to understand basic Mandarin. You can't expect her to catch up with the local students so fast."




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Changes To PSLE Scoring And Secondary One Posting

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