Monday, 14 January 2013

Different strokes for different students

Students pursuing post-secondary education have a wide range of choices
By Jane Ng, The Straits Times, 13 Jan 2013

Vesshnu Sutharsan scored eight distinctions in the O levels, giving him a perfect six points for his six best subjects.

Take away four bonus points for his co-curricular activity, the National Police Cadet Corps, and his distinction in Higher Tamil, and his score for applying to a junior college is just two points.

Vesshnu, one of two top students at Kuo Chuan Presbyterian Secondary when the O-level results were released last Thursday, has his heart set on doing the A levels at Raffles Institution.

Despite his sterling grades though, getting into RI is not a sure thing. The school's cut-off last year was three points, this year's cut-off is not known yet, and there is no telling how many will apply to go there.

All but the very best O-level students will find it difficult to get into Singapore's top junior colleges: RI, Hwa Chong Institution, Victoria JC, Temasek JC and National JC.

The reason: All have integrated programmes (IP), which means that most of their JC-level places are already taken up by students who have been there since Secondary 1 or 3.

All will accept new students at JC level as well, but it promises to be highly competitive for hopefuls like Vesshnu.

According to the Education Ministry, at least 20 per cent of JC1 places in each IP school will be reserved for students applying through the joint admission exercise after the O-levels.

RI has about 300 places out of 1,250 at JC1 each year, and Hwa Chong, 250 out of 1,200. No details are available for the other schools.

The number of places may well be lower, because the schools can also enrol students through the Direct School Admission (DSA) scheme, accepting them based on their talents rather than O-level results. The schools declined to reveal how many places go to DSA students, saying it varies from year to year.

The cut-off for entry to the JCs is determined by each year's O-level results and the number of places available. For RI and Hwa Chong, last year's cut-off was three points for both science and arts, after deducting bonus points.

In all, there are now seven schools running the integrated programme at junior college level which take in students after the O-levels.

Most O-level school-leavers who want to do the A levels will stand a better chance of getting into one of the 12 remaining "traditional" JCs which offer only the two-year A-level course.

These include established schools like Anglo-Chinese JC, Anderson JC and Catholic JC, as well as newer ones like Pioneer, Meridian and Innova JCs.

Many usually take in 750 to 900 students, though JCs like Yishun and Innova - with the lowest cut-offs of 20 points - have previously taken in fewer than 700.

There is also the Millennia Institute, which offers a three-year A-level course. It takes in about 550 to 600 students each year and its cut-off is 20 points.

Given the changes to the junior college scene since the introduction of through-train programmes at JCs, secondary schools and specialised schools, there are now 24 schools offering the A levels or an equivalent programme.

In the next few years, two more will run a junior college programme: the Singapore Sports School will offer the International Baccalaureate diploma course next year and a new JC will open in 2017 for students from three schools offering the IP jointly - CHIJ St Nicholas Girls', Catholic High and Singapore Chinese Girls' School.

Barring other changes, there could be 26 schools with junior college programmes by 2017.

Popularity of polytechnics

The irony is that while the number of schools with JC programmes has grown, the proportion of students choosing to go to JC has declined.

More are opting for polytechnics instead, including many who qualify for JC. For those who do well, a polytechnic education is a route to university too.

According to Education Ministry statistics, the percentage of the Primary 1 cohort admitted into junior colleges dipped slightly from 28.2 per cent in 2006 to 27 per cent in 2011, while the proportion admitted into polytechnics rose from 40 per cent in 2006 to 44.4 per cent in 2011.

Students keen on the polytechnic route say they know where their interests lie and prefer a more hands-on learning style.

Windsor Thniah, 18, from Bedok Green Secondary, came up tops among his schoolmates from the Normal (Academic) stream when the O-level results were announced last week.

His score of 10 points means he qualifies for several JCs, but he wants to go to Nanyang Polytechnic for its digital precision engineering course.

"I'm a hands-on person and I'm interested in the course. The career prospects are good," said Windsor.

Secondary school teachers say they advise students to consider their grades and interests when deciding between JC and polytechnic.

Teacher Donny Lee, 34, from Northbrooks Secondary, said he reminds students to ask themselves if they can cope with the rigour of the A levels.

"Many students do aspire to go to university and most who do would choose a JC over a polytechnic," said the head of Normal (Technical) and discipline.

Despite the popularity of polytechnics and IP schools, the Education Ministry says the 12 JCs offering only the A levels continue to draw students.

Their total enrolment has remained stable at around 20,000 for the last five years and they prepare students well for the A levels, the ministry said.

The message to O-level students is that while it may be hard to get into the top IP schools at JC level, there is no shortage of places if they want to do the A levels.

Schools like Pioneer JC say they have not been affected by the IP JCs. Principal Tan-Kek Lee Yong said her school's marketing efforts and academic programmes have helped it attract 850 students with seven to 16 points each year.

Some educationists believe that having a range of schools is good for students with different learning styles.

Mrs Belinda Charles, who helmed St Andrew's Secondary for nine years and St Andrew's JC for 12 years, said a JC education will always be relevant.

"There are some academic needs that cannot be met at polytechnics, and some courses in universities will always prefer students from JC," said Mrs Charles, now dean of the Academy of Principals.

So even though lower-end JCs may attract fewer students, she does not think they are at risk of closing down.

"Since they have a smaller enrolment, it is a good chance for them to work with smaller groups of students more effectively, especially with today's more demanding curriculum," she said.

But at least one former JC principal questioned whether a student who scrapes into JC - say, with 20 points - will be able to secure a place in university.

Mr Tan Teck Hock, who was principal of Serangoon JC from 2007 to 2010, said students join a JC with a hope.

"Whether they are a three-pointer or a 20-pointer, they have the same aspiration - to get into a university," said Mr Tan, now principal of the Physical Education and Sports Teacher Academy. "But students who come in with, say, 20 points, realistically, their chances of making it to a local university are lower."

The Education Ministry says about 75 per cent of all A-level candidates obtain university places here. Individual JCs declined to reveal how many of their students obtained places in local universities.

Parents point out that while a high proportion of students at the best JCs would likely qualify for university, the proportion must be considerably lower than 75 per cent at other JCs. The questions are, how low, at which JCs and what happens to these students?

Ms Hairin Rahman made it to Catholic JC after the O-levels but things did not proceed as she hoped. She said she did badly at the A levels and did not qualify for a local university.

"I entered JC thinking that I would naturally end up in a local university but I could only qualify for a private school," said Ms Hairin, now 25.

So she went from JC to Republic Polytechnic, where she spent three years doing a biomedical science course, and did well enough to get into the National University of Singapore. She is now a third-year sociology student.

Parents with children in neighbourhood schools, like housewife Cynthia Tan, 45, have watched the changing post-secondary school scene and grapple with what it means for their children.

The mother of two boys and a girl aged eight to 15 said that these days, merely getting into a JC is no guarantee of getting into a university or a preferred degree course.

She noted that aside from the keen competition for available places in the top JCs and IP schools, JCs further down the line have raised their cut-offs for entry too.

"Schools like Nanyang JC have a cut-off of nine points, ACJC, six points. If my son gets into the bottom-tier JC, what are his chances of making it to a good course in a university here?" she asked.

She does not think her eldest child is doing well enough to get into a top JC. She and her dentist husband are considering sending him overseas.

For now, Vesshnu Sutharsan is holding on to his hope that his O-level results will land him a place in RI.

If it happens, it will be a dream come true for the older of two sons of a planner and secretary.

Aware that the competition will be stiff, he is checking out the open houses at other top JCs as well.

If that RI spot stays beyond reach, he will fall back on what he knows about himself. "I got 227 for my PSLE and did not expect to do so well for my O-levels."

He will go where he lands, and keep working towards his next goal of becoming a doctor.

How the junior college scene has changed


The following junior colleges offer two-year programmes leading to the A levels. Their cut-off for entry last year ranged from 6 to 20 points. This can change each year.

- Anglo-Chinese JC
- St Andrew's JC
- Nanyang JC
- Meridian JC
- Anderson JC
- Catholic JC
- Serangoon JC
- Tampines JC
- Jurong JC
- Pioneer JC
- Innova JC
- Yishun JC


The centralised institute offers a three-year course leading to the A levels (Cut-off for entry: 20 points).

- Millennia Institute


These junior colleges used to run two-year programmes leading to the A levels but have expanded or merged with secondary schools to take in students from Secondary 1 or 3. (Cut-off for entry into JC level last year ranged from 3 to 7 points).

- Raffles Institution (It merged with Raffles JC and takes in girls from Raffles Girls' Secondary.)
- Hwa Chong Institution (The previous Hwa Chong JC merged with The Chinese High School and was renamed Hwa Chong Institution.)
- National JC
- Victoria JC
- Temasek JC


Secondary schools which previously stopped at the O levels but now have through-train programmes leading to the International Baccalaureate or the A levels.

- Anglo-Chinese School (Independent)
- St Joseph's Institution
- Dunman High, River Valley High and NUS High School of Mathematics and Science have JC-level programmes but do not accept new students at the JC level. The School of the Arts takes in JC1 students via direct school admission only.


- The Singapore Sports School will offer the IB diploma course from next year.
- A two-year JC will open in 2017 to take in students from CHIJ St Nicholas Girls' School, Catholic High and Singapore Chinese Girls' School.

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