Sunday 19 August 2012

Gifted scheme is not about hothousing

By Janice Heng, The Straits Times, 18 Aug 2012

COME Aug 24, all Primary 3 pupils islandwide will sit the first of two tests to enter the Gifted Education Programme (GEP).

The tests aim to sieve out pupils based on their proficiency in English and Mathematics. About 4,000 will go on to the second round, which also tests abstract reasoning, such as pattern spotting. And about 500 will make it into the programme.

Both tests are based on what all pupils have already been taught, says the Education Ministry - which means no preparation is needed.

But that has never stopped some parents from trying to coach their nine-year-olds for these tests. This practice was brought back into the public eye by the recent case of a fraudulent tutor who charged thousands of dollars for such services.

The tutor's lies about his credentials are one issue; there may be genuinely qualified tutors who run similar courses. In a Straits Times report in June, industry players estimated that a dozen centres offer preparation for the GEP.

But the eagerness to get one's children into the GEP in the first place may also be founded on misunderstandings. For a start, some parents seem to mistake the programme as a guarantee of academic success. It is true that most GEP pupils do well in the national Primary School Leaving Examination (PSLE). More than 90 per cent of gifted students score among the top 10 per cent of candidates.

But parents who treat the GEP as a ticket to good grades may be disappointed. It has never been about hothousing top scorers.

In April, Senior Parliamentary Secretary for Education Sim Ann noted that GEP pupils' good PSLE performance reflects the fact that they are drawn from the top 1 per cent to 2 per cent of their cohort.

"However, the GEP itself is not a programme that is intended to prepare children for exceptional performance at the PSLE," she said. "Its goals are to develop intellectual depth, higher-level thinking, and so to nurture productive creativity, among others."

If anything, the programme's "enriched curriculum" means that much less time is spent on covering PSLE-related material.

As a former GEP student, what I recall are lessons on such glorious irrelevancies as Greek myths and the Mayan number system. Instead of drills on past exam papers, we wrote poems and skits.

Parents who want their children to receive rigorous PSLE preparation are arguably defeating their own purpose by forcing them into the GEP.

Granted, the programme does boast smaller classes and, hence, more individual attention. But this too is geared not towards the production of stellar results, but each child's intellectual - not necessarily academic - development.

For instance, a mathematically inclined child may enjoy exploring formal logic, even if the topic never arises in exams. Another might flourish if encouraged in their poetry-writing attempts, even if it has no impact on test scores.

Some parents may thus try to get their children into the GEP because they misunderstand the programme's purpose and content.

Other parents, however, seem not to care about its purpose at all. For them, the programme is a ticket of a different sort - and in this, they are not solely to blame.

The Government and some secondary schools have helped distort the GEP's purpose by according privileges to its pupils.

In a letter to The Straits Times Forum in June, Mr Khong Kiong Seng argued that parents want their kids to be in the GEP because they enjoy an advantage in applying to top secondary schools.

Under the Direct School Admission scheme, certain schools can admit pupils before the PSLE, based on criteria other than their results. Mr Khong noted that GEP applicants are often grouped separately from others and exempted from tests which others must sit.

It is also easier for them to receive the Edusave Entrance Scholarships for Independent Schools (EESIS). These are given to the top one-third of PSLE scorers who go on to independent secondary schools - and also to Singaporean GEP pupils who meet the Primary 6 GEP promotion criteria and join an independent school's integrated programme. They might thus qualify despite not being in the top one-third of PSLE scorers.

On his blog earlier this month, Workers' Party Non-Constituency MP Yee Jenn Jong identified these incentives as one reason parents clamour to get their children into the programme.

If nothing more was at stake than the GEP's reputation, all this would be little cause for alarm.

But the problem is that parents' perceptions and resulting actions have very real consequences, not least for their children.

A child hothoused into the GEP might not enjoy its more esoteric topics, or might struggle to understand higher-level ones. Worse yet, he might have trouble keeping up with the swift coverage of the national curriculum.

And if GEP preparatory classes succeed (which is a big "if"), they risk turning the programme into the preserve of the socioeconomic elite, since richer parents are more likely to afford this edge.

Whether the GEP's existence is justified is a separate, long-running debate. Some have argued, for instance, that more resources should be spent on lower-achieving students, rather than on those who are already likely to do well.

But as long as the GEP remains, we would do well to recall its intended purpose.

Schools and the Government could help by stripping away extraneous advantages enjoyed by GEP pupils, so as not to distort the incentives parents face. Parents should take a clear-eyed look at whether the GEP will truly benefit their child.

They may have their children's best interests at heart. But perhaps such interests should be defined not just in terms of their future secondary school, but in how much they will enjoy primary school life in the first place.

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