Monday, 26 December 2011

Integrated Programme and O levels

O levels still the best way for most: MOE

WE WOULD like to correct the perception that the introduction of the Integrated Programme (IP) has reduced opportunities for those not selected for the programme after the PSLE.

Popular schools and junior colleges have always seen more applicants than places, resulting in higher cut-off points. For example, before the IP started in 2004, the cut-off point for Raffles Institution (RI) was around 260, similar to what it is currently.

We have expanded the enrolment of the JCs offering IP. The number of students entering these JCs from secondary schools not offering IP has increased from some 2,100 previously to over 2,300 today.

These students make up about 50 per cent of the cohort in the JCs offering IP, comparable to the proportion before IP started.

The commentary ('The runaway IP train'; Dec 14), noted that only some 500 places were set aside for O-level students entering Hwa Chong Institution (HCI) and RI at JC1. We would like to point out that prior to IP, only 400 of HCI and RI's students (at JC1) hailed from schools not offering the IP today.

There is now greater diversity in the JCs offering IP, as they are accepting O-level students from more secondary schools. Their students used to come from some 50 schools but now almost 70 schools are represented. This is partly because students from other IP schools no longer compete for admission at JC1.

Ultimately, we strive to maximise each child's potential, regardless of which school he or she attends.

The IP should not be seen as the only pathway to success. For the majority of our students, the O-level pathway will continue to be the most suitable preparation for post-secondary education.

Dr Cheong Wei Yang
Director, Planning Division
Ministry of Education
ST Forum, 23 Dec 2011

Some students fail to thrive on Integrated Programme scheme
Some transfer to polys or other JCs, others do poorly in A levels
By Sandra Davie, The Straits Times, 22 Dec 2011

As about 3,000 students on Wednesday celebrated winning a coveted place on the Integrated Programme (IP), others already on the scheme are about to make a quiet exit to the polytechnics and lesser-ranked junior colleges.

Around 5 per cent of IP students exit before graduation, said the Education Ministry. Some transfer to polytechnics or junior colleges not offering the scheme. Of those who complete it, about 5 per cent fail to get into the local universities, the ministry added. Altogether, between 200 and 250 youngsters a year fail to thrive on the programme.

Students on the IP skip the O levels and shoot straight for the A levels or International Baccalaureate. They are expected to learn in an independent way, without being stifled by having to prepare for two major exams in six years.

But this is not necessarily the most desirable route for everyone, said the ministry. Nor is it the only path to success. 'Ultimately, the IP should only be taken up by those who would benefit from the self-directed learning environment it aims to promote,' said a spokesman.

Surprisingly, those who fail to thrive on the IP are not just less academic youngsters who were taken on because of their sporting or co-curricular achievements. Several entered IP schools with Primary School Leaving Examination (PSLE) scores well above 250, and a handful were from the Gifted Education Programme.

The Straits Times interviewed 40 students who had either left brand-name schools offering the programme - such as Raffles and Hwa Chong Institution - or stayed on but fared poorly.

Some of those who left opted to go to the polytechnics, using their school examination or O-level results. Others transferred to lesser-ranked junior colleges.

Many of those who did badly were unable to get into the local universities, heading instead to private schools such as the Singapore Institute of Management (SIM) or overseas to take up degree studies.

Recognising that not all students thrive on the scheme, two IP schools - Dunman High and Hwa Chong - also run O-level classes to prepare students for the examination. They said those lagging behind are identified at the end of Secondary 2 and advised to go into the O-level class. But some students also make the switch to the O-level track in Sec 4 or even JC1.

A few who do well enough in the O levels are admitted back into the JC level in the same school. If not, they are advised to leave for the polytechnics or other JCs.

Raffles Institution said it was looking into starting an O-level class. Principal Lim Lai Cheng said that if this happens, it will be 'to open up options' for those wanting to go to polytechnics or abroad.

The IP started in 2004 at eight schools. It was aimed at the top 10 per cent of students, who were clearly bound for university. The idea was to provide a seamless secondary and junior college education, giving them the space to develop intellectual curiosity and other talents.

The scheme became so popular that pupils and parents clamoured to get on board. More schools responded by offering the IP. In two years' time, 18 of them will be included in the programme, although the latest to join will also be offering the O-level track.

Parents are anxious that there will be even fewer places in top junior colleges for students who are not on the IP but hope to get in after the O levels. Some have turned to tuition centres that promise to help students excel in the PSLE.

Parents who have attended open houses at IP schools say they paint a rosy picture by publicising the stellar results of their IP students. There is no mention of their O-level class, or of those who fail.

Madam Clarissa Lim, who is considering the IP track for her son, said: 'It is only after talking to some parents of the older kids did I realise that a fair number of IP kids actually fall through the cracks.' The 38-year-old added: 'The schools should be more open so that parents will have to think hard about whether the IP suits their children.'

IP students who failed to thrive are divided about the merits of the scheme. One 22-year-old from Raffles Institution, who now studies at SIM, said: 'I didn't do so well in the A levels, but I still won't dismiss the IP as I felt that I gained in other ways. In my degree course at SIM, I am ahead of my classmates when it comes to research or when it comes to analysis.'

The student, who asked not to be named, added: 'In a sense it prepared me for the university well. Ironically it didn't prepare me well for the A levels.'

Others felt the IP had affected their academic progress. 'As far as I am concerned, I wasted one whole year,' said 18-year-old S. Lim, now in Ngee Ann Polytechnic. She had applied to the polytechnic after JC1. On her decision, she said: 'I am really one of those people who need a major exam to hunker down to study.'

The ministry said that for most students, O levels will continue to be the most suitable preparation for post-secondary education. It said this is why all the seven new IP schools will offer this route alongside the elite programme, to allow students to transfer across tracks.

18 schools with the programme by 2013

LAUNCHED in 2004, the Integrated Programme allows the top 10 per cent of primary school leavers to skip the O levels. This means that curriculum time is freed up for research attachments and field trips.

By 2013, there will be 18 Integrated Programme schools, up from the current 11. The 11 are Anglo-Chinese School (Independent), Dunman High School, Hwa Chong Institution, Nanyang Girls' High School, National Junior College, NUS High School of Mathematics and Science, Raffles Girls' School, Raffles Institution, River Valley High School, Temasek Junior College and Victoria Junior College.

Next year, Victoria School and Cedar Girls' Secondary School will also offer the programme.

From 2013, Methodist Girls' School, St Joseph's Institution, Catholic High School, CHIJ St Nicholas Girls' School and Singapore Chinese Girls' School will follow suit.

The runaway IP train
It is time to pull back on Integrated Programme and restore O levels for majority of students
By Sandra Davie, The Straits Times, 14 Dec 2011

NINE-YEAR-OLD Ian Lim spends three evenings a week with a private tutor on mathematics, English and Chinese. Next year, when he enters Primary 4, he will spend four evenings a week, including his Saturdays, on tuition.

His manager father and housewife mum admit that their son is stressed out from all the studying. They know the $1,100 spent on providing tuition for him is a lot of money.

Not that Ian is at risk of failing. He is already top of his class. His parents just want him to score good enough grades at the Primary School Leaving Examination (PSLE) to get into an Integrated Programme (IP), preferably at Raffles Institution, where the cut-off point for admission is above 260.

If he does not get into an IP school, where he is assured of a place in a junior college, they fear he would have scant chance of getting into a good junior college for his A levels.

The Lims are typical of an increasing number of parents piling the pressure on their young children early, in the hopes of getting them into the elite IP programme.

Their concern is that their children cannot get a place in a premier secondary school or junior college because many top institutions now reserve the bulk of their places for students in the IP.

The IP started in 2004 at eight schools, including the Raffles and Hwa Chong family of schools. It was targeted at the top 10 per cent of the PSLE cohort, who were clearly university-bound.

The idea was to allow these students to skip the O levels and go straight to the A levels or International Baccalaureate (IB). This way, their learning would not be stifled by having to prepare for two major examinations in six years. Instead, the seamless secondary and junior college education would develop their intellectual curiosity and other talents.

The IP - called the 'through-train' programme for skipping the O levels - became so popular that pupils and parents clamoured to get on board. More schools responded by offering the IP.

By 2013, 18 - or just about all the premier secondary schools and junior colleges - will be offering the programme.

This has created a fear among parents that there will be even fewer places in top junior colleges for those not in the IP, who hope to get in after the O levels.

The Ministry of Education (MOE) has assured parents repeatedly that the IP junior colleges are offering just as many places as before to those coming in via the O-level route. But in the absence of hard numbers, parents have resorted to doing their own checks, and cite figures to explain why they worry.

Hwa Chong Institution and Raffles Institution, for example, each give out only 250 places a year to those from the non-IP track. The remainder of the 1,200 places at each of these two colleges go to the IP students from their own institutions.

The through-train that started out as a niche programme for a small elite group risks becoming a runaway train. Some fixes are needed to reduce undue pressure on students racing to be admitted to the IP at Secondary 1.

Right now, students can be admitted into the IP at Secondary 1, Secondary 3 and JC1 after the O levels. MOE can ensure that there are multiple entry points into IP schools, and that a good number of places are given out at each level.

Another simple fix is for schools and MOE to release admission figures.

Schools should make public their admission figures to the IP, giving the number of students who enter at Secondary 1, Secondary 3 and at JC1 after the O levels. This gives parents the assurance that their students can get another chance if they fail to do so at Secondary 1.

Schools should also publish data comparing the performance of their IP students to those who join them after the O levels. The two top junior colleges, Raffles Institution and Hwa Chong Institution, say the performance of students who joined them at JC1 is on a par with those who were on their IP track earlier.

On a more macro level, MOE should consider whether it is good for the education system as a whole if so many top secondary schools should convert to the IP. Some parents and alumni of IP schools have already questioned this.

One of them is an old girl of the popular Singapore Chinese Girls' School (SCGS). She remembers that the school principal then, Ms Rosalind Heng, steadfastly stood by the tried and tested O-level route. When other top schools were debating whether to offer the IP through-train, Ms Heng said that SCGS prepared its students well for the O levels, and it was going to continue that tradition.

But SCGS is among the latest list of schools to announce that it will offer the IP. Laments the SCGS alumna, a mother of two who went on to the elite Raffles JC: 'What is wrong with the O levels? Is there no value in it any more? It prepared me well for the A levels.'

Another issue to consider is whether more schools which offer the IP can do so in parallel with the O levels. After all, some students even at top schools benefit from the more structured O-level track. And there is a small number who fail to get an A-level certificate or IB diploma after six years in the IP.

Without O levels, their highest formal qualification is only their PSLE certificate. There may thus be benefits for schools to retain the O levels and allow students to switch tracks from the IP to the O levels.

Students who entered the IP schools with their O levels and aced the A levels do not regret having sat for the O levels. They say the examination was good practice for the A levels.

The Integrated Programme began as a niche programme for very bright children expected to make it to university, who thus do not have to sit for the O-level sorting examination. But with so many schools jumping on board, is it becoming a default programme, resulting in parents pushing their average kids to get in?

Seven years on, it is time to review the IP experiment and consider the effects it is having on students and parents' behaviour. It might be time to put the brakes on the IP and return it to its original purpose - a programme for a very small minority - and restore the place of the O levels for the rest.

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