Friday 30 November 2012

Time to redefine academic success

By Sandra Davie, The Straits Times, 29 Nov 2012

"THE PSLE is not the be-all and end-all."

"Every school is a good school."

"There are many paths to success, to rise up to the top."

Parents have had these messages drummed into them over the past few weeks.

To drive home the point that academic success is not everything, the Education Ministry announced - two days before the release of the Primary School Leaving Examination results recently - that it was not going to name the top performers.

But come crunch time, when parents choose secondary schools for their 12-year-olds this week, all these messages seem to have been thrown out of the window.

To date, I have had 17 e-mail messages and calls from parents asking me to help them gauge their children's chances of getting into a secondary school of their choice. Of the 17, only two asked me about a non-Integrated Programme school - Anderson Secondary and Ngee Ann Secondary, both good schools in their own right.

So the hankering after IP schools has still not abated, despite the Government's urgings.

The Government needs to examine why parents are not buying the argument that there are many paths to success and every school is a good school.

I took the opportunity to ask the parents eyeing IP schools, such as Raffles Institution and Raffles Girls' Secondary, why they were not convinced.

One of them had done an analysis of the Overseas Merit Scholarships given out by the Public Service Commission. Not surprisingly, the overwhelming majority of those receiving the scholarships came from the IP schools.

His son wants to study medicine, so again, the resourceful parent went to talk to a relative of his, an RI alumnus, who is studying medicine at the National University of Singapore.

The second-year student confirmed that quite a few of his classmates in medical school were former schoolmates.

I referred to students from the lesser-known junior colleges and even the polytechnics making it to medicine, but the parent was quick to point out that it was so rare for polytechnic graduates to qualify for medicine. No wonder, when they did, they made the headlines in the newspapers.

He was right. This year, the media reported on Koh Shi Min from Singapore Polytechnic winning a place in the NUS medical faculty.

Despite more top performing O-level students like Ms Koh choosing to go to a polytechnic instead of a junior college, the daughter of a taxi driver and sales promoter was only the third polytechnic student to win a place in the NUS medical school.

So despite me suggesting that there are a couple of other good - albeit "non-branded" - schools where his son would do just as well, all he was interested in was what proportion of PSLE students this year scored 260 and above, the cut-off score for RI last year.

Another parent, Mr Alan Lim, a polytechnic graduate who attained a first-class honours degree through the private school route, quoted back to me figures from an article I had written earlier in the year, on the employment prospects of Singaporeans who had graduated from the Singapore Institute of Management, the biggest and best-known private school here.

The survey showed that while its graduates land jobs easily with their foreign university degrees, with most receiving two or more offers, they are typically paid several hundred dollars a month less than their peers from the publicly funded universities.

The report also highlighted that only a small percentage were employed by the Government. And though they were selected for similar positions as graduates from the local universities, at some government agencies they started off on lower pay scales and salaries.

Mr Lim, who works for a multinational corporation, says he knows of two honours graduates from SIM who were passionate about teaching and had served as relief teachers but, despite good recommendations from school heads, did not even land an interview.

One of them was advised to try for an allied educator's position, which does not require degree qualifications.

"So don't tell me that the school you come from doesn't matter, it does, and most of all, it matters to the Government."

He had a point.

Granted, I have written many articles about students rising to the top despite faltering early on in life.

One of the most inspirational was David Hoe, who went from Normal (Technical) Stream to Express, then to junior college and finally the National University of Singapore.

Till today, I send the articles I wrote on him to parents who become anxiety-ridden when their children are streamed into the Normal (Technical) stream.

But despite having spoken to and written about people like David Hoe, I have to admit that they are too few and far between.

And as SIM's graduate employment survey shows, academic pedigree matters in Singapore.

All this begs a question: what can be done to change that?

The Government has to take stock and see how it can help parents see that indeed there are many paths to success.

At the school level, several changes have been made to encourage a diversity of talents - in the intellectual fields, the arts and sports, and community endeavour.

Admission criteria have been tweaked to allow schools, post-secondary institutions and universities to admit students based on other abilities and interests besides their grades.

The ministry should look into widening such schemes and making further changes that will enable all kids to taste success in a variety of ways and fields. The ongoing PSLE and secondary school admission review provides a good opportunity to open new doors and widen access for youngsters from varied backgrounds.

The ministry, and the Government as a whole, needs to go further, to look at access to higher education and career opportunities.

It must study the wide gap in university access that still exists between those who take the junior college and polytechnic routes.

Currently about 75 per cent of junior college students make it to the local universities, compared to 17 per cent of polytechnic graduates.

The expansion of university places will enable more polytechnic graduates to study for a degree locally, but the Government should aim at closing the gap further. Also, how can more of them be admitted into the competitive faculties, such as law and medicine?

Private school graduates who have the right qualifications and skills should be given a fair shot at civil service jobs - and those who make the cut should be paid the same starting salaries as those coming out of the local universities.

See if they prove their worth on the job. Employers who recruit regularly from SIM say the school's graduates are hard workers, hungry for success and willing to take on additional responsibilities. They also tend to stay on with the company.

And as I have mentioned before, how about giving top government scholarships, including the President's Scholarship, to those who show promise in other fields, be it the arts, sports, fashion or even culinary science?

The Government keeps urging parents not to hold on to narrow definitions of success but to broaden, even redefine it. It must walk the talk.

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